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‘He was trying to kill us’: New video contradicts Jordanian accounts of how 3 U.S. soldiers were killed

Edited footage from a shootout in November explains what took place the day three U.S. soldiers were killed at a Jordanian airbase. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
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It is still unclear what sparked the shootout that led to the deaths of three American soldiers at King Faisal Air Base in Jordan in November. What is clear, according to a recently released video of the incident, is that after the initial burst of gunfire, the remaining Americans were outgunned and stalked by a person set on killing them.

The Nov. 4 attack, carried out by Jordanian Air Force 1st Sgt. Maarik al-Tawayha, began as a group of Green Berets was returning from an exercise. The Army soldiers, highly trained in preparing local ground forces for combat, had been detailed to the Central Intelligence Agency and were teaching opposition forces from neighboring Syria how to use small arms and other light weapons.

As one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the Middle East, the Jordanians and their military installations are no strangers to U.S. forces coming and going from their gates.

Yet in the hours and initial weeks after the attack, Jordanian officials painted a murky picture of what had happened. Immediately following the shootout, they indicated that the Americans had run the gate, failing to stop as instructed. When U.S. officials questioned that account, Jordanian authorities suggested there had been an accidental discharge in one of the Americans’ vehicles that led to the shootout.

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Investigators were never able to determine a motive for the killings, and Tawayha insisted throughout his trial that he thought his base was under attack. Last week, he was sentenced by a Jordanian court to life in prison for the murders of Staff Sgt. Matthew C. Lewellen, 27, of Kirksville, Mo.; Staff Sgt. Kevin J. McEnroe, 30, of Tucson; and Staff Sgt. James F. Moriarty, 27, of Kerrville, Tex.

The sole survivor of the gunfight, a Green Beret who requested that his name be withheld because of his past involvement with covert operations, described the sequence of events that occurred during the attack in an email, pointing out that what the video shows disproves any notion of misconduct by the Americans. The Green Beret first spoke with the New York Times.

Investigators: Killing of 3 U.S. soldiers in Jordan appears to have been deliberate

The video begins innocuously enough. It is just after noon on Nov. 4 when the four-vehicle convoy enters the vehicle checkpoint. The Jordanian soldier casually pulls a set of spike strips away and opens the manually operated gate, letting the unmarked green vehicle through. The Americans are in Toyota Land Cruisers and wearing clothes typical of military trainers on a civilian range — khakis and short-sleeve shirts.

At around the video’s one-minute mark, the shooting begins; it is 12:05 p.m., according to the video. Bullets, likely fired from the M-16 Tawayha is carrying, punch through the glass of the second vehicle. Inside are Lewellen and McEnroe. Lewellen is gravely wounded and McEnroe is killed. “The other guard did not react to whatever shot or sound he claims he heard,” the Green Beret said. “So that’s the first hole in his story.”

The gate guard, startled, runs for cover, seemingly gripping a weapon on his belt. On the left side of the screen, another Jordanian pokes his head out of a guard shack before dipping back inside. The unnamed Green Beret opens the driver’s side of the third vehicle and, using the frame of the door, squares off toward Tawayha and fires three rounds from his Glock 19, a 9mm pistol popular with U.S. Special Operations forces, but he is outmatched by the Jordanian’s rifle.

As he fires, Moriarty moves from the fourth vehicle to a blue-and-white cement jersey barrier on the right side of the screen. As rounds impact both vehicles, the soldiers take cover. The entire time, the remaining Green Berets are yelling that they are friends in both English and Arabic.

“[Tawayha] wants us to put our hands up. We want him to drop his weapon and put his hands up also. We are still under the impression that this is a huge mistake or misunderstanding,” the Green Beret said. “We refuse to give up our cover, but we place our pistols on the ground and put our hands up, hoping to de-escalate the situation. Moriarty repeats in Arabic how we are friends (Americans).”    

At around three minutes into the video as the Green Beret moves to put his hands up, Tawayha fires a round that hits a barrier inches from his head, sending up a cloud of debris. It is then that the two survivors decided that they were going to have to fight their way out of the checkpoint.

“Definitely could have taken my head off,” the Green Beret said of the shot. “It did not seem like a warning shot. He did this multiple times. We decided to pick up our pistols and reengage. We determined he was trying to kill us, whether this was a misunderstanding or not, and we needed to stop him instead of figuring it out.”

Unlike police departments, the U.S. military teaches those who carry sidearms that these are always secondary to their primary firearm, usually a rifle or carbine. Most military firing ranges include pistol training, where the targets are 25 yards and closer.

When the shooting began that day, Tawayha was firing from roughly 25 yards, the Green Beret said. Though he and Moriarty were trained to engage targets at that range and shoot from barricades like the ones they were pinned down behind, “Tawayha was just very effective with his rifle and that dominated the entire encounter,” the Green Beret said.

At the 3:30 mark in the video, Moriarty starts waving to a truck off-screen. The Green Beret said it was a group of Jordanians who had been at the training range with them that morning and that they had stopped a hundred or so yards away.

“They didn’t move for whatever reason — they had no clue what was going on, more than likely,” the Green Beret said. “It was probably tough for them to figure out at the time that one of their own guys was doing this. They were gesturing for us to move to them.”

“There was no safe way for us to get to them from the barricades.”

[Jordan says guard who killed three U.S. soldiers did not follow rules of engagement]

“We decide to move. We are in a bad spot there and need a better position,” the Green Beret said. “[Moriarty] is pointing to the place that we are going to move to. We did not expect him to continue to pursue us. … We constantly attempt to de-escalate the situation. We move away from him. He has the opportunity to move back to his guard shack, and instead he pursues us. He is definitely not under attack.”

Almost as soon as the Americans are behind a new set of barriers, Tawayha appears on the right side of the screen, his weapon is at the ready, and he wipes his brow as he moves to take up a firing position on the bed of the third vehicle.

“We still are showing him our hands,” the Green Beret said. “He continues to [advance].”

As he closes distance with them, the Jordanian is still yelling at the Americans to come out.

“[Tawayha] still wants us to stand up and reveal our entire bodies and completely surrender.  He doesn’t give us any confidence in doing that, though, because he continues to shoot very accurately at us.”

In the remaining seconds, Tawayha finally comes upon the two Green Berets’ flank, leaving them nearly exposed. The final burst from the Jordanian’s rifle causes the two to duck down, allowing Tawayah to rush their position. Both Americans return fire. Moriarty, more exposed and seemingly drawing Tawayah’s fire, is hit and collapses. The last Green Beret dips to the other side of the barrier and fires into Tawayha while he’s still shooting at Moriarty, wounding him. It is 12:10 p.m. The Green Beret disarms Tawayha and moves toward the Jordanian soldiers pictured off-screen, as other troops come from the direction that Tawayha had come from.