Foul Play

Green Berets ‘Murdered by an Ally,’ Families Charge

The Jordanian government calls the incident that cost the lives of three U.S. troops a ‘tragic misunderstanding.’ The fathers of the fallen soldiers use a different term: murder.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

The fathers of three fallen Green Berets believe their sons were murdered last year by a Jordanian soldier, and they’ve seen the surveillance video they believe proves it.

“They were ambushed…with accurate and lethal precision,” said Chuck Lewellen, father of Sergeant First Class Matthew Lewellen. “No warning, simply murdered.”

Speaking Tuesday at the National Press Club and flanked by three lawmakers, the fathers called for an apology from the Jordanian government, and the stopping all U.S. aid to the country until that happens.

The Jordanian government calls the Nov. 4, 2016 incident that cost the lives of three U.S. troops a “tragic misunderstanding” that started when one of the Jordanian gate guards heard a loud noise and believed the gate to be under attack.

The fathers say the video proves that’s a lie. An FBI probe into the incident is ongoing, but the military’s own investigation concluded there was no evidence of such loud noise prior to the guard opening fire. The military report could find no evidence to provide a motive for an attack.

The deadly incident at a remote King Faisal Airbase highlights the added risk of the “light footprint” approach of fighting the so-called Islamic State, or any other militant group. When working “by, with, and through” local forces, as the Army Green Berets’ own doctrine states, U.S. troops must often rely on the local forces they are training to keep them safe, exposing them to the dangers of insider attacks or ineptitude.

An apology by the Jordanians would be seen as an admission that the “King’s Guard” had erred, as the attacker came from the ranks of the elite Hashemite force that guards Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Worse, it could be seen that the guard had somehow been turned by the Islamic State, which Jordanian officials deny.

The Jordanian guard has been identified as Corporal Al Tawayha in the U.S. military’s internal investigation, released by U.S. Special Operations Command Tuesday, but referred to as M’aarek Abu Tayeh by Jordanian officials.

He was initially in a coma following the attack, having been wounded by one of the Green Berets.

But he eventually emerged from the coma and was interviewed at length by the FBI, James Moriarty, the father of slain Staff Sergeant James “Jimmy” Moriarty, told The Daily Beast Wednesday.

The FBI told all the families that “the guy acknowledged that he acted inappropriately, that he used excessive force and that he was away from his assigned guard position,” the elder Moriarty said. “He claims he heard a loud noise and that set him off…. He claims he feels badly for the families and expressed contrition, but I think that’s bullshit.”

The FBI told the families that the shooter had been previously convicted of sexual assault on a female with a knife. They said he had an anger management problem.

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On Tuesday, the fathers described a blow-by-blow of what they saw the shooter do in the soundless video, what they further learned from the military’s investigation, and what they discovered from talking to the American survivor who they refer to as “Mike” as he’s still an active-duty Green Beret.

On Nov. 4, 2016, five U.S. soldiers returned from training on a nearby weapons range in four vehicles to the base. They passed through an outer gate and pulled up to an inner gate to be identified. On either side of that inner, sliding gate were guard buildings.

The Jordanian guard manning that inner gate identified the vehicle convoy as friendly, and slid back the gate to indicate that the convoy could pass. That was normal procedure, the U.S. investigating officer Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Marcus Hicks writes.

“There’s a guard shack they must go by. The guard shack is a concrete hut with a sliding window they must pass,” and covered with camouflage netting, making seeing those inside difficult, said Chuck Lewellen, whose son Matthew was in that vehicle.

A surveillance camera on one of the guard buildings trained onto the gate shows what happens next.

“As they pulled even with the sliding window, they were ambushed from mere feet away by a Jordanian officer who was inside the guard shack with an M16,” Lewellen said.

“There was no warning for my son, or Staff Sergeant [Kevin] McEnroe,” Lewellen said.

“Bullet holes appear in view of the camera, shattered glass flies,” said James Moriarty, picking up the story, describing the instant Abu Tayeh opened fire from inside the guard shack on the unsuspecting Green Berets.

“Jimmy” Moriarty and another special forces soldier were driving the third and fourth vehicles in the American convoy waiting to enter the gate. When they heard the gunfire, they scrambled out of their trucks and took cover behind jersey barriers that lined the entrance.

They “exited their vehicles just in time to avoid being killed in cold blood, then spent the remaining six and a half minutes of my son’s life communicating with Abu Tayeh both in English, and cursing, and in Arabic,” the elder Moriarty said.

“My son and the survivor held their hands up, and communicated that they were not a threat,” Moriarty added. “They tried to signal… five Jordanian soldiers who were no more than 200 yards down the road. My son is seen in the video, signaling like that,” Moriarty continued, demonstrating with his two hands a “Come here, come here” gesture.

The Green Berets also try to get Abu Tayeh to stop shooting.

“Jimmy calls out in Arabic, ‘we are Americans, we are your friends,’” his father said.

When “Mike” put his hands up and popped up from behind the jersey barrier, signaling Abu Tayeh to halt, “you can see in the video bullets hitting the top of the barrier,” aimed at the American, Moriarty added. “To see a round hit that would have center-punched him if not for the barrier is mind-boggling.”

But Abu Tayeh managed to flank them.

“’Mike is caught by surprise and Jimmy stands up in full view of the shooter and he engages him,” exposing himself to open fire on the Jordanian. “My son takes a couple of assault rifle rounds in the chest,” his father said, his voice thickening with emotion as he tries to get through the story.

“Mike, using that opportunity is seen circling around the jersey barrier, and finally, he empties his gun in the side of the Jordanian soldier, where he’s able to put rounds that aren’t protected by the body armor,” the father added.

“That’s how I watched my son die,” he finished.

The military investigation concluded that “the actions of SSG Moriarty and (redacted) demonstrated valorous conduct and extraordinary heroism in fighting and remaining with teammates while engaging a force that was better equipped and armed.”

But the military investigation makes no conclusions about what caused the shooting, and the FBI investigation is ongoing. FBI spokesperson Kelsey Pietranton declined to comment, nor would she even confirm that the investigation was not yet complete.

The military report does say that the guard who opened fire failed to come out of the guard shack to confirm the soldiers’ identity, as he’s supposed to, but said that sloppiness was customary—that the Jordanians usually recognized the Americans and waved them in, as the guard outside the shack who opened the gate for the trucks to pass had done.

In recommendations on how to avoid such incidents in future, the military report says the Jordanian guards should sling their weapons on their shoulders rather than having them ready to fire when they see coalition vehicles approach. The report also said the gate guards “often displayed negligence for basic weapons handling and safety which could be improved,” an undiplomatic review of their partners that U.S. military officials are likely not comfortable having public.

The Jordanian version of events is described by Jordan's Ambassador to Washington Dina Kawar in a letter to Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe, which he provided to the media. It includes no such graphic details, but instead builds a case of mistaken identity and a tragically over-defensive response by a loyal Jordanian soldier at a time of high terrorist threats. “The embassy now says it was not a mistake but the shooter was following the rules of engagement,” said Rep. Poe. He said the Jordanian government “needs to come clean” on the shooter’s motives.

“The incident was the result of implementation of military rules of engagement following hearing gunshot (sic) near the main entrance to the base and the subsequent belief of an ongoing attack,” Kawar wrote in the March 6th letter. “M’aarek Abu Tayeh was tasked with swift response and accordingly fired towards the sours of the sound in tandem with the passing of the vehicles of the U.S. side coming from the shooting field, who, in turned, fired directly at…Abu Tayeh believing he was targeting them.”

Kawar said the joint U.S.-Jordanian investigation which included the FBI, CIA, Jordanian military, security and judicial services confirmed there was no connection to terrorism.

“The findings…confirm absence of premeditated intentions…to target the friendly U.S. side,” she adds, though that conclusion appears to be solely based on Abu Tayeh’s 14 years of military service including a decade on bases used by American forces and the absence of radical material or communications with terrorist groups on his cellphone and laptop.

The fathers insist this wasn’t a man acting in error. They say the video shows there was no “loud noise” that caused Abu Tayeh to react—in that no one on camera reacts visibly until Abu Tayeh himself opens fire.

That’s backed up by the U.S. military investigation, which says the video shows another Jordanian guard—the one holding the gate open for the vehicles—not flinching or reacting in any way until those bullets hit the American truck’s windshield.

“There is no evidence of shots fired or loud noises prior to the alleged shooter engaging (redacted) vehicle,” the report reads. The investigation concludes he acted alone, but isn’t able to answer why.

“The government of Jordan lied to the world, immediately claiming that our sons failed to stop at the gate,” Moriarty said, describing how the story of what happened that day evolved. “When the FBI confirmed that the video showed that as a lie, the Jordanians then claimed there had been an ‘accidental discharge’ by one of the Americans. That was also proven to be a lie. Now the Jordanians claim there was a loud noise. Again, the video refutes that,” he said.

A Jordanian embassy spokesperson said they could not comment on the fathers’ allegations until the FBI investigation was complete.

The fathers say that Defense Secretary Mattis saw the video last week. His spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. The three fathers want the video to be declassified, so that Americans can view it, and judge for themselves. The Jordanian ambassador wrote that was something the U.S. investigative agencies must do.

“We discussed his service ending badly, maybe in a gunfight,” said McEnroe, father of Staff Sergeant Kevin McEnroe, to The Daily Beast. “I never thought he would be murdered by an ally.”

12:27 pm 3/8/17: Updated with new interview with father James Moriarty, who disclosed to The Daily Beast Wednesday that the FBI had interviewed shooter Abu Tayeh, who is no longer in a coma.