Six years after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, American soldiers are once again being held accountable for alleged war crimes in court. The "kill team" is accused of killing civilians for pure fun and of degrading their victims by taking trophy photos.
It was shortly before three o'clock in the afternoon in Cape Coral, Florida, when Christopher Winfield received a message from his son in Afghanistan. At first, it didn't even occur to him that 3 p.m. was an odd time to be getting a call from Afghanistan. He went into his office, sat himself down in front of his old Gateway computer and signed in to his Facebook account. The time in Afghanistan was shortly before midnight.
Winfield's son had told him that he should contact him discreetly via the social networking site, and not on the telephone, because no one in his camp would then be able to overhear their conversation.
Winfield wondered if he should be worried. Adam, at age 21 Christopher Winfield's oldest son, was the driver of a four-axel Stryker tank at the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ramrod, one of the most isolated and dangerous American military bases in Afghanistan. Adam's father was happy to hear from his son and to know he was alive. For the past three weeks, Winfield later said, he hadn't heard anything.
Outside, the afternoon sun was shining. It was Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010, Valentine's Day. That morning, the Winfields had marked the day with a low-key celebration. Christopher Winfield had bought his wife a silver ring from Tiffany's. At 3:18 p.m., when he began to read the Facebook chat messages, he answered immediately.
Adam: "Threats are coming my way."
Christopher: "What threats?"
Adam: "There are people in my platoon that can get away with 'murder.' They planned and went through with it. ... Pretty much the whole platoon knows about it. It's OK with all of them pretty much, except me. I want to do something about it, the only problem is I don't feel safe here telling anyone."
For several minutes, his father didn't answer.
Adam: "Did you not understand what I just told you what people did in my platoon?"
When, 10 months later, Adam Winfield found himself in front of a military court for a hearing, these sentences were a key part of the case. These could have been the key pieces of evidence in a drama that apparently turned young soldiers into monsters. In any case, this conversation with his father seems to suggest that Adam was pulled into a vortex against his will -- one that eventually led to alleged war crimes.
Adam will shortly stand before the court as one of 12 young men that the war in Afghanistan apparently transformed them into a gang of murderers. They called themselves a "kill team." The case has made headlines in the United States and around the world, because the men are accused of having killed Afghan civilians just for the hell of it -- for fun. It is an unbelievable crime, and a scandal that ranks with Abu Ghraib.
A Casual Disdain for the Lives of Afghans
The perpetrators at Abu Ghraib also captured their deeds in pictures. The kill team photographed their victims as if the soldiers were really on a kind of trophy hunt in Afghanistan -- as if their gruesome souvenirs were supposed to prove later what kind of hotshots they had been in the country.
These pictures may even be slightly more disgusting than the ones from Abu Ghraib. Those photos demonstrated a casual disdain for the dignity of the captive Iraqis. The FOB Ramrod kill team's photos, on the other hand, show a casual disdain for the lives of ordinary Afghans.
Every sentence that Adam Winfield wrote to his father on that Valentine's Day will be scrutinized and interpreted by the court. Geoff Morrell, the Defense Department's spokesman, said the role of Adam Winfield in the affair will also have to be considered, because this Facebook conversation throws a new light on the case. "That's disheartening to hear if that is indeed the case," says Morell. "If someone is trying to reach out, trying to notify us, trying to head off a potential problem, that's something we need to pay attention to and heed that warning."
For Adam Winfield, the young soldier, the war in Afghanistan was initially a good war, one that he never doubted. The necessity of the Afghanistan war is something the Republicans and Democrats have agreed upon for years, just as America and its European allies have done.
Adam Winfield arrived in Afghanistan in July 2009, when US President Barack Obama was entertaining the idea of a massive troop surge. For Obama, too, the war in Afghanistan was "the necessary war," unlike the war in Iraq that his predecessor George W. Bush had launched, against the protests of half the world.
'There Are No Good Men Left Here'
Christopher Winfield stared again at the chat window. He could hardly comprehend what his son had written there. It took a while for him to receive Adam's messages, because his son's Internet connection in Afghanistan was poor. Again and again, the message appeared that his son was offline. The father asked about the young victim.
Christopher: "They just walked up and killed him?"
Adam: "Yes. They made it look like the guy threw a grenade at them and mowed him down."
Christopher: "You are not in a position to say anything to anybody. You don't know who to trust."
Adam: "I have to make up my mind. Should I do the right thing and put myself in danger, or should I just shut up and deal with it? The army really let me down out here. When I thought I would come here to do any good, maybe make some change in this country, I find out it is all a lie. There are no good men left here."
Christopher: "Tell them that you'll keep quiet. You must make these assholes think everything is ok. Just make them believe it is water past the bridge."
Christopher had never known his son to talk things up or invent stories. Adam had always been a quiet, tight-lipped boy, and so when he turned to his father with such words, it was clearly serious. His father knew this was no game.
Christopher Winfield promised his son he would organize help, discreetly and in confidence. He would try to get the authorities involved. "Watch your back. Don't trust anyone," he told his son. Then Adam was offline again.
His father decided to make some phone calls. He called the Army inspector general's office first, and then the Army's investigative agency and then Florida Senator Bill Nelson. He spoke to every answering machine he got. Finally, he dialed the number of Fort Lewis, the home base of his son's brigade -- and someone picked up.
For 12 minutes, he spoke to the duty sergeant, James Beck. Christopher Winfield told Beck that an innocent civilian in Afghanistan had been killed and that other murders might also have been committed. He also said that someone needed to stop the killing. The sergeant took his number down, but said there was nothing he could do. It was 4:18 p.m. when Adam's father hung up.
He waited as hours passed. Days. Weeks. He heard nothing from Sergeant Beck.
The crime Adam Winfield told his father about was one month old at that point. Investigators would later discover that the kill team had struck on Jan. 15, 2010 for the first time.
The First MurderAdam's unit was on patrol in a Stryker armored fighting vehicle in the area west of Kandahar. Soldiers dub the vehicle the "Kevlar coffin," because even though it is armored, it isn't really suitable for Afghanistan. It is far too slow for the bad roads and too noisy to remain unnoticed.
The group included Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, 25 years old at the time, chief and leader of the kill team, Corporal Jeremy Morlock, 22 years old and Gibbs's right hand man, as well as Private First Class Andrew Holmes, at 19 the youngest in the team. They were sitting in Stryker vehicles, and Adam Winfield was in one of them.
Winfield was a Stryker driver, proud to have the job because of the responsibility. He was in charge of the vehicle, steering the heavy, light-wheeled tank along roads full of mines. The life of his comrades was in his hands.
Ahead of Adam, the small village of La Mohammed Kalay was visible among hills and poppy fields. About 2,000 Afghans live there. The region around La Mohammed Kalay is regarded as a Taliban stronghold. Adam's platoon had been given the mission to guarantee security for a meeting between US officers and the village elders.
Gibbs and the others jumped out of the Strykers and surrounded the village. Winfield remained in his seat -- he had to guard the vehicle.
As the men from Gibbs's unit approached the village, they had apparently already decided to kill someone that day. This is what members of the kill team later said to military investigators.
According to investigation records, Gibbs had already given a grenade to his subordinate Morlock that he was to throw during the operation. It was all supposed to look as if Afghans had attacked the platoon and as if the US soldiers had justification to fire back. Gibbs and his people wanted to prepare the stage for a "legitimate kill."
Did Winfield know about this? He must have had some idea, as he sat there in the Stryker. One of his buddies had earlier talked openly about their intentions. Later, Winfield would recall that "Morlock and Gibbs planned the whole thing for a week." He would state in front of the military investigators: "SSG Gibbs told his people that they would get away with it. Then Morlock took PFC Holmes under his wing, got going, and they carried out their plan." Holmes denies that he knew of the plans.
At 9:30 that morning, Gul Mudin, a young farmer's son, appeared. Morlock and five others were providing security for other US troops. Morlock saw Mudin and waved at him to come closer. It was a moment like a thousand others in Afghanistan. Morlock would later testify that the boy probably "just wanted to talk." But Morlock had something different in mind.
Trophy Pictures with a Dead Man
The young Afghan was only about five meters (16 feet) away from the soldiers. Morlock ordered him to lift his jacket so everyone could see that he was not a suicide bomber and was not wearing an explosive vest. At that moment, Morlock allegedly primed the grenade and made the spoon disappear in his pocket. "Grenade," he called out, "shoot him!" It was supposed to look as if the unit was under attack.
Then he allegedly asked Holmes to get ready to fire. That's when Morlock threw the grenade. It exploded close to the boy. Eight shots were fired. When the shooting was over, the Afghan lay dead on the ground.
The Americans ran towards him and cut his clothes open. Morlock stood over the dead body and lifted the boy's head up while his picture was taken. He then ordered Holmes to get his picture taken as well. A little later, according to the investigation records, Gibbs apparently showed the others a little finger. Then he ordered a retreat.
There was a strange atmosphere when the troops got into the Stryker again. The soldiers were in high spirits. Almost as if they were drunk, they told each other their versions of the incident, and gave each other high-fives, just like after a successful football match.
Slowly the picture became clearer. Adam Winfield began to gradually understand what must have happened in the poppy field just outside of La Mohammed Kalay. It was now clear that the unthinkable had really occurred. And then the others showed him their photographs, trophy pictures taken with the dead man. In the middle of this unbearable boasting, Winfield realized that he himself was partly to blame. He was now aware of the unit's deadly secret -- and he sensed that the secret could prove to be fatal for him as well.
He felt miserable and scared afterwards. His bad conscience bothered him for three days. Then he sent an e-mail to his father. "Terrible things are happening here," he wrote. "But I cannot talk about it."
But he would later have to talk about what he knew. In the meantime, the entire kill team has been arrested. A total of 12 soldiers have been charged in relation to this offense and several other incidents, five of them with premeditated murder. Other charges include desecration of corpses, wrongfully possessing visual images of human casualties, drug abuse and assaulting other soldiers.
The military tribunal against SPC Morlock began last week. A key witness, he had agreed to testify against his comrades to obtain a more lenient sentence as part of a plea bargain. On March 23, he received a 24-year prison sentence. It is unclear when the trial against Winfield will begin.
A Story of Good GIs Who Turned into Monsters
The trial is attracting considerable attention in the United States. According to the latest polls, almost two-thirds of Americans do not see the purpose of the war in Afghanistan anymore. Many people see the story of the good GIs who turned into monsters in Afghanistan as another reason why American soldiers should come home as quickly as possible.
And it is a trial that has caused particular anxiety at the Pentagon. The military is mainly worried about the photographic proof of the cruelties of the war in Afghanistan. As well as the pictures depicting the crimes of the kill team, there are also entire collections of photographs showing other victims that were in the possession of some of the defendants. Responding to an inquiry from SPIEGEL as to why the Pentagon was trying so hard to keep the pictures secret, an Army spokeswoman said: "Some of these photographs are of a difficult nature. They should not be published."
Pentagon officers fear that the images of these atrocities could result in another global wave of outrage similar to that prompted by the publication of the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. They fear that the relationship between the American soldiers and the Afghan civilian population, which is already tense, could get worse. They also fear revenge attacks against US soldiers stationed in Afghanistan or terror attacks against American facilities.
SPIEGEL and SPIEGEL TV spent five months researching the story of the kill team. The reporters traveled across the United States from Wasilla, Alaska, to Cape Coral, Florida, and also visited Afghanistan. They were given permission to look at investigation records. They talked to relatives and friends of the defendants, and were able to read their letters and e-mails. And they have the pictures and videos that the perpetrators often took themselves.
SPIEGEL decided to only publish a tiny number of the images, three out of approximately 4,000 photographs and videos, namely only those that are absolutely essential for the story that is being told here. It is the story of a war that started with the best intentions -- to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaida, for which a United Nations mandate exists -- but which long ago turned into a different conflict. It is a war where both sides are no longer certain what they are really fighting for. That's why the Islamists of the Taliban can justify raising money by selling drugs, or why the Americans' hatred for those who kill their comrades can be directed against entirely innocent people. It is this war, which has lost sight of its original objectives, that SPIEGEL wishes to document.
'The Reincarnation of Evil'When Adam Winfield came to Afghanistan, a dream had come true for him. He felt like he was on a great mission. He was a specialist in the 5th Stryker Brigade, which had the motto "Seek and Destroy." His dad had already served with the Marines and his uncle had been in the Navy. Both felt, however, that military service was not really right for Adam.
"He was shy, intellectual and soft," says his mother, Emma Winfield. She recalled that as a boy he would look through books, and check "in three and four encyclopedias at the same time" if he found a word he did not know. As a boy he sang in the church choir. Later he went to Bolivia with a church youth group, and when he saw the poverty there, he said: "Dad, I will never again complain about anything ever again."
His mom said: "He could only imagine two things in life -- to be a missionary or a soldier." When he chose the military, he was only 17 years old, too young to enroll of his own accord. But he pressured his parents until they agreed. "He wanted to prove himself that he could be a man," his father now says.
In Afghanistan, his unit suffered great losses. Since July 2009, when Winfield joined, his brigade had lost 36 soldiers, 33 during combat or due to landmines. In military jargon, such incidents are referred to using the term "sigact" -- "significant activity of a hostile nature." The death rate among Strykers was so high that the Pentagon was concerned.
Adam heard conversations about comrades who had been torn to pieces. He had heard that sometimes only single pieces of the body could be found -- hands, arms, heads, fingers -- barely enough to identify the dead, not enough for a dignified funeral.
"I think every boy thinks when he goes to war that he can handle things," says Dana Holmes, the mother of Adam's colleague Andrew Holmes. "But when you start seeing your friends die, it can't help but affect you."
All of a sudden, Afghanistan was far more dangerous than Adam Winfield had imagined it would be.
Ramrod is located in the cultural center of the country. It is here in Kandahar where the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad is kept, at one of the most sacred locations in the country. It is also a stronghold of the Taliban.
'They Are Fighting against Ghosts'
Adam Winfield rarely saw the enemy. He and his comrades only saw the Talibans' helpers through their night-vision devices when the enemy was burying landmines -- they hid during the day. For days, the Americans did nothing but carry out senseless patrols. The soldiers became frustrated and bored.
The enemy, says Adam's father, is invisible until somebody gets blown up. "They are fighting against ghosts."
Then the Americans changed their strategy. Instead of just chasing after and killing the enemy, their new aim was to win over the trust of the local population. General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan at the time, issued a new war doctrine dubbed COIN (for counterinsurgency). Under COIN, the troops' primary aim became to protect the civilian population, deliver aid packages, talk with locals and live with them in the villages. The COIN approach worked in Iraq, but could it be transferred to Afghanistan -- a country without the kind of civil society structures in place in Iraq, a backward land full of poor peasants and countless tribal leaders?
For the soldiers of the 5th Stryker Brigade, the new COIN strategy was a non-starter, says Audrey Morlock, Jeremy's mother. The Army didn't provide her son with training for this strategy, she says. "For three years, my boy was only trained (to do) one thing -- kill, kill, kill." The Winfields also have the impression that the requirements for the soldiers which came with the new COIN strategy overburdened them. "How were they supposed to protect the population?" asks his mother Emma.
In Afghanistan, her son lacked the kind of camaraderie he had hoped to experience in the Army. He didn't make a single friend or meet any like-minded people -- nobody, it seemed, shared his passion for books. Adam is a voracious reader, devouring anything he can get his hands on. He even read a book about tanks, the classic "Jane's Tank Recognition Guide." But who would have cared about a thing like that at Ramrod?
Suddenly everything started to appear hostile, dirty and pitiful to Adam. He felt lonely among 3,500 comrades. Everything sickened him, including his neighbors and the snoring. The place smelled of excrement and urine, he told his parents. The quarters were far less comfortable than he had hoped for. Then the new staff sergeant arrived: Calvin Gibbs.
Gibbs was sent to Ramrod in November 2009 after his predecessor lost both legs in a landmine explosion. An athletic giant of a man from Billings, Montana, Gibbs has short blond hair, blue eyes, towers over people at 6 foot 4 inches (1.95 meters) and weighs 220 pounds (100 kilos), exactly twice as much as Winfield. A "physically intimidating type" says Winfield's father. Winfield himself calls Gibbs a "Rambo," somebody who kills without fear.
From the very first day that Gibbs set foot in the camp, Winfield's mood and that of the entire unit changed fundamentally. Suddenly, a different, harsher tone permeated Ramrod. Gibbs had experience in combat. In 2004, he completed a mission in Iraq and, afterwards, another in Afghanistan.
During this, his second mission in the Hindu Kush, Gibbs was transferred from Kandahar to Ramrod. From the get-go, he instituted a reign of terror. When he spoke, a flood of obscenities poured out. And he could be merciless to his subordinates. In Gibbs' mind, war is war. He did not make any subtle distinctions between a "good" war and a "bad" one. Nor did he want to have to take any responsibility for looking after the Afghan people. "He despises all Afghans," Morlock would later state during the investigation.
A 'Fight for Survival'
Initially Gibbs managed to bring a greater sense of calm to the team, even decreasing the number of injuries. Right from the start, though, it was clear he didn't like Winfield. One day, after Winfield forgot to lock up the Stryker, Gibbs forced him to do push-ups as a punishment. He loved to humiliate Winfield in front of the other soldiers. Winfield's lawyer Eric Montalvo claims that Gibbs forced his client into a "fight for survival."
Gibbs comes from a humble working-class family. His father worked as the janitor at a Mormon church. For Gibbs, school was a punishment, something for nerds. He was expelled from junior high school in Billings at 15. As soon as he was able to, he enlisted in the military. He would have liked to join the Marines, but, as a junior high drop-out, he wasn't educated enough. That only made him despise those little nerds and all their books even more -- guys like Winfield.
Gibbs made it clear that he considered Winfield a wimp. He gave him the nickname "Winnie the Jew," a reference to the children's book character Winnie the Pooh. (Winfield is Christian, but his mother comes from a Jewish family.)
Specialist Winfield was a failure in Gibbs' eyes. Not only because of his love of books, but because he felt Winfield had what is called "buck fever" in military jargon. He suffered from the fear that many young soldiers have when they are in a situation where they have to kill for the first time. "He had anxiety attacks because he didn't know whether he would be able to kill even if the enemy would attack him," his father explains. "He didn't know how he would react."
Buck fever is generally a taboo issue for the infantry. It is seldom openly discussed, because those who can't kill are considered to be just half-soldiers. But Gibbs didn't shy away from the subject: He accused his subordinates of cowardice and enjoyed humiliating them. Gibbs explained to Private Ashton Moore that he was looking for the kind of soldier "who could kill anybody without the slightest bit of regret." Because Gibbs didn't trust Winfield to be able to do that, he always made the specialist stay behind in the Stryker.
Killing didn't seem to trouble Gibbs at all. "He liked to kill," Winfield would later say of his superior. The investigation files state that a soldier once asked Gibbs why he cut off fingers of enemies who had been killed, and the staff sergeant responded: "Because it is fun to scare people with them." One could, for example, put a finger in an aid package for the Afghans, he said.
Gibbs also took pleasure in slaying animals. "Once we got the clearance to kill dogs, whether they were a threat to us or not," Gibbs would take any opportunity to kill them, Morlock revealed to investigators. Trooper Alexander Christy said that Gibbs' predilection even endangered the unit's security. "Once, Gibbs shot two dogs, and the villagers complained," Christy said. "They explained that from then on they would not help us." To demonstrate their displeasure, they had burned an aid package, he said. "Gibbs felt pure hatred for the Afghans, and constantly called them savages," Morlock said.
Nothing scared Gibbs. His soldiers all believed he was a sadist, "the reincarnation of evil," as Winfield said later. Gibbs had six tattoos on his left calf. He explained that each tattoo stood for a person he had killed: three blue ones for three dead Afghans, and three red ones for three Iraqis.
Gibbs was able to impress the younger members of his unit with his tough appearance and exaggerated stories. Soon he would become the leader of a unit that called itself the "kill team."
A Good Boy Turns into a CriminalIf what the members of the kill team would later recount is true, then they literally scripted their perverted plans, which involved killing innocent civilians for no reason. They even constructed elaborate scenarios so that they could later claim they had acted in self-defense. Gibbs was the most enthusiastic participant in developing such scenarios -- and in executing them.
He left behind no evidence when killing. Whereas the others carelessly allowed themselves to be photographed, Gibbs deliberately avoided being in any compromising shots. The staff sergeant did, however, trade pornography with Afghan soldiers, getting Russian Kalashnikovs in return. His locker contained a veritable arsenal of enemy weapons that he apparently used to plant on his victims, in an attempt to present his murders as acts of self-defense.
One week after Adam Winfield told his father in a Facebook chat what was going on, the kill team went into action again, only this time he didn't accompany them. Gibbs felt he couldn't use Winfield as a foot soldier anymore and demoted him to the position of driver.
Gibbs, Morlock and Michael Wagnon -- a 30 year old from Pallyup, Washington, who was the eldest member of the team -- were the alleged perpetrators this time. The victim of the killing on Feb. 22, 2010 was an Afghan man named Marach Agha.
According to the investigation file, Gibbs had an old Kalashnikov with him, and the men worked according to the tried and tested principle that, if they left behind a Russian weapon, it would be proof of the troops' innocence.
Agha was sitting next to a wall. The Americans looked around to see whether they were alone. Gibbs fired off a few shots with the Kalaschnikov in the area, and then he took an M4 assault rifle and shot the Afghan. Once Agha was dead, Gibbs dropped the Kalashnikov at his feet.
'I'll Be With You To Do this Stuff'
Winfield, who had also learned about this murder, began telling people he was thinking of committing suicide. He suffered from feelings of guilt, which alternated with bouts of aggression. Sometimes he said he wanted to be blown up by a landmine. At other times, he implied he would prefer to shoot Gibbs. By this point, Winfield had become a threat -- not only to himself, but also to the entire kill team. Winfield's mood swings did not escape Gibbs' notice.
Winfield didn't know what to do. On the one hand, he opposed the crimes. But on the other, he wanted to at least maintain the impression that he was part of the team. "Winnie was having some issues," Morlock recalled. "He'd keep changing his views. He'd feel like, 'Yeah. That's cool. That's Gibbs' thing. Let him fucking kill guys or whatever.' Or, 'Hey, yeah. I'm on board and Gibbs, I'll be with you to do this stuff.'"
From roughly that point on, Winfield had the feeling that Gibbs was observing him with suspicion. He later stated that the others already considered him a traitor by that time: "Everyone thought that I had talked." Gibbs allegedly threatened him with a piece of pipe, and Winfield is positive that his superior meant it. According to a statement made by Morlock, another soldier in the unit warned Winfield, "Dude, Gibbs had talked about planning on taking you out, man." Winfield answered: "I fucking knew it. I knew that motherfucker was going to get me if it came down to it."
He then tried to appease Gibbs. He allegedly told his colleagues, "Let Gibbs know that I would never even think of ratting on him because I know Gibbs would fucking kill me."
According to other soldiers in the unit, it was clear to Gibbs that he could only eliminate the security risk that Winfield represented if Winfield murdered someone himself. Soldier Adam Kelly would later say that Winfield had "to take part in an orchestrated killing."
It was around this time that Morlock, Gibbs' closest confidant and right-hand man, began to worry about Winfield. Morlock had been in Afghanistan since July 2009. Sean McCoy, his hockey coach, describes him as having a violent, impulsive temperament -- he had beaten up his teammates in the locker room. Another coach described him as "a little crazy."
Morlock reported later to the investigators what Gibbs thought about Winfield. In conversations with him, Gibbs allegedly said: "Hey, you. I feel like Winnie is going to fucking rat us out." He threatened: "I'll take him out, dude. We'll go to the gym and drop a fucking weight on his chest or some shit like that."
And then came the day when Adam Winfield finally crossed the line -- the day when the good boy who wanted to fight in a just war turned into a criminal. Two-and-a-half months had passed since he confided to his father on Facebook.
As the kill team left for another routine patrol on May 2, 2010, Winfield initially wasn't even part of the unit. But then the responsible officer ordered that Winfield should go along to strengthen the team.
Morlock and Gibbs also went along, according to investigators. Once again, Gibbs had a hand grenade with him. The plan was that Morlock would later leave it next to the victim in order to divert suspicion from the group.
A Murderer or Victim of War?That morning, Mullah Allah Dad was drinking green tea at his home in a hamlet near the village of Kalagi. His wife Mora was with him in the room when one of his seven children came in to report that American soldiers had appeared there. Allah Dad was the village imam. As such, he was someone that the American forces in reality needed as an ally in the war against the Taliban. He left his house to talk to the Americans, but they immediately took him away.
Winfield later recalled how they drove through the village. They saw the man standing in front of his house looking around. He "kind of looked like he was a little off," Winfield recalled, but added that the man looked harmless and friendly: "He didn't seem to have any sort of animosity towards us."
Nevertheless, Gibbs gave the order to seize the man. "Just put him down in that ditch right there. Put him on his knees," he said. Winfield didn't have the feeling that the man was a member of the Taliban. The mullah appeared to him to be "friendly and unarmed."
Then Gibbs called out, "Grenade."
Winfield will remember that moment for the rest of his life. Later he would make the statement that Gibbs threw the grenade, and afterwards placed a second, Russian pineapple grenade next to the body of the mullah. Morlock ordered him to shoot. He followed the order, Winfield said. "Morlock told me to shoot so I started shooting. That was that."
After killing the mullah, Gibbs, Morlock and Winfield leaned over the body. In the report of the military investigator, Corporal Emmitt Quintal had the duty of taking Mullah Allah Dad's fingerprints. Quintal stated that he saw how Gibbs "used medical scissors to cut off what he thought was the left pinky finger off the individual." Afterwards he witnessed Gibbs "remove a tooth from the individual with his hands while wearing surgical gloves." Gibbs gave the tooth to Winfield, for him to keep as a war trophy. Winfield later told Army investigators, "Sergeant Gibbs pulled out one of his teeth, told me to keep it as a trophy. I didn't take it. I threw it back on the ground. I just like kind of said, 'I'll just let that dry'."
In order to cover up the act, the members of the patrol claimed that Allah Dad wanted to attack them with a hand grenade, which they claimed exploded during the incident. When an Army investigation team came to the village three days later, an American soldier explained to the villagers: "This guy was shot because he took an aggressive action against coalition forces. ... We didn't just fucking come over here and just shoot him randomly. And we don't do that. ... Not only is it important that you understand that, but that you tell everybody. ... Because this is the type of stuff the Taliban likes to use against us and fucking try to recruit people to fight against us."
A 'Made Man'
After the murder, Winfield had no more problems with Gibbs. "He just told me that I was a 'made man' afterwards," Winfield told the investigators. "I interpreted that (to mean) he trusted me and that afterwards I really didn't think I had anything to worry about anymore." After the May 2 murder, Winfield was also given a new nickname, "Bear Jew" -- the name of a character in Quentin Tarantino's film "Inglourious Basterds" who enjoyed killing Nazis. Adam Winfield was finally rid of his tormentor, Gibbs.
Is Winfield a murderer or a victim of war? Or was he just too weak or cowardly to assert himself against the system of unconditional loyalty to his buddies? Is it true, as his father says, that Adam had no opportunity to complain? "If he had complained, it would have all ended up with Gibbs, and Gibbs would have seen to it that he was killed," Christopher Winfield says.
One day after the third murder, another member of Winfield's unit, Justin Stoner, returned from one week's leave. When he entered his room, he noticed that his comrades had been smoking hashish in his absence.
Because he didn't want to be held responsible for the drug use, he reported the incident to the company leader, who made a record of the complaint. It wasn't long before Gibbs heard about it and called his people together. Gibbs' men apparently decided to seek revenge for the act of betrayal. "Their best response was to get together and beat me up," Stoner testified later.
It was early in the afternoon of May 5 when they came into Stoner's room. There were seven soldiers, among them Gibbs, Morlock, Quintal and David Bram. Winfield was not there, however. Gibbs had asked Winfield if he wanted to come with them, saying he had discovered who had reported the hash use. But Winfield refused to take part. He would later say that Morlock came to his room after the incident and told him what had happened.
The 'Kill Team' Unravels
After entering Stoner's room, Gibbs began very politely, saying he was really sorry that things had happened the way they had. Gibbs said that he just wanted to make sure that Stoner "shut the fuck up from here on out." They all started hitting and kicking Stoner. Then somebody took hold of his ankles and threw him to the ground. Once down, they kicked him until he was covered in bruises. They made sure to spare his head, however, so that his superiors would not notice that he had been beaten.
Later, Gibbs returned and took mummified fingers out of his pocket. Morlock told Stoner, "Hey, dude, you know, if you don't keep your mouth shut from now on, it's pretty apparent that, you know, Gibbs here can kill people -- has killed people and is pretty willing to do it if he has to."
But after the beating, Stoner went to Gibbs's superior to complain. He logged the complaint and then asked him to go back to his room. Stoner replied that he couldn't go back now, saying: "I don't want to die like those innocent Afghans."
That sentence would mark the beginning of the end for the kill team. On May 7, Stoner was taken from Ramrod to Kandahar, where he was questioned for three days. He told investigators: "The reason that I fear for my life is that my unit is notorious for going on patrol, finding an innocent person and killing them without reason." That same day, Gibbs told his team that he had already survived countless investigations and that nothing would happen, provided everybody kept their mouths shut.
On May 11, Morlock admitted to the three murders after hours of questioning. He then decided to testify against Gibbs to obtain a milder sentence.
Gibbs was arrested the same day. The military ordered more investigations. More than two dozen soldiers were questioned, and all laptops, cameras and other media belonging to the suspects were confiscated.
4,000 Photos Documenting Atrocities and War Horrors
The digital data revealed more about what Gibbs and his friends had done. Investigators found some 4,000 photos that documented their atrocities and the horrors of war.
It is still unclear just how many people the kill team are responsible for killing. In the trials against Morlock and the others, only the three murders that Morlock and Winfield have confessed to will initially play a role. The 76 charges indirectly reveal the significance of the trophy photographs in the trial. The images show how skulls and human limbs were collected, and dead bodies put on degrading display. In the 5th Stryker Brigade, such photos were traded like baseball cards.
It is not clear when the trial of Sergeant Gibbs will begin. He completely refuses to talk to investigators and has not said anything in response to any of the charges. The families of the victims have so far received no compensation.
General McChrystal and his successor David Petraeus hoped to turn a corner in the Afghanistan war by implementing their counterinsurgency strategy. The COIN guidelines were to be the heart of this strategy, and each new success would indicate that the Afghans were beginning to trust their American allies.
Sergeant Gibbs and his men on the kill team helped see to it that this trust would never be possible. And in order to stop the damage they did from getting any bigger, the Pentagon did everything it could to keep the kill team's pictures under lock and key. "The US Army has spent more time keeping those photos secret than investigating the crimes," claims Daniel Conway, Andrew Holmes's attorney.
Adam Winfield was questioned on May 12, 2010 in Kandahar. He confessed to having taken part in the third murder. "I don't know if it was my bullets that killed him or the grenade that killed him but I was still a part of it," he said. "It was pretty much the worst thing I've ever done in my life ... like to the man, his family."
In mid-June, the telephone rang at Emma and Christopher Winfield's house in Cape Coral. A Major Cornado was calling from Fort Lewis, the home base of Adam's brigade. Adam was back home, he said. For a moment Emma breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that everything would be all right. But then Major Cornado went on: "Your son has been charged. With deliberate homicide."
Speaking of his superior Gibbs, Adam Winfield told the investigators, "When he first showed up, we didn't get along. I think that it was because he thought I was meek and too tame for his little kill team."
Investigator: "Did you say 'kill team'?"
Winfield: "Yes, that is what he called it. Kill team."
On Tuesday, Dec. 14 2010, Winfield appeared before the military tribunal at the Lewis-McChord base near Seattle. The head of the tribunal called his name. The young soldier was wearing an olive-green uniform, and his name could be read on the left side of his chest.
He stood there stiffly, shoulders hunched. With his mussed black hair, he still looked almost like a boy. His entire body was trembling, and his legs could barely support him. But nonetheless he still followed orders and wanted to do everything right.
The head of the tribunal informed him that he would shortly be standing trial: "You will be charged with having deliberately committed a murder." Then he asked Winfield whether he understood.
And Adam Winfield drew upon his last ounce of strength, the last bit of his pride, to say two words, the only thing he would say to the tribunal that day. "Yes, Sir."
Translated from the German by SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff, with assistance provided by Astrid Langer.
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