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Watch Iraq’s secretive counterterrorism unit track down and extract an ISIS fighter

Seven years ago this month the Islamic State declared its caliphate, killing thousands in its years-long reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. The group may have lost its territory, but its fighters still plague Iraq. Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen and Videographer Adrian Hartrick provide an exclusive look at the Iraqi counter-terror teams fighting ISIS, and the civilians caught in between.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Seven years ago this month, the Islamic State declared its caliphate, and its reign of terror in Iraq and Syria would claim thousands of lives over the ensuing half-decade.

    The group may have lost its territory in recent years, but its fighters still plague Iraq and its people.

    Now an exclusive look at the Iraqi counterterrorism teams who are fighting ISIS, and the civilians caught in between.

    Special correspondent Leila Molana-Allen and videographer Adrian Hartrick report.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    How to track down and extract ISIS insurgents hiding in plain sight. These commandos are training in a simulated village built to look like the areas where many of the Islamic State's fleeing fighters still take refuge years after the ISIS caliphate was destroyed.

    Iraq's counterterrorism service, originally founded and trained by U.S. Special Forces after the 2003 invasion, is considered the country's most skilled security force, their activities a closely guarded secret. We have been given access to their training and operations, but they're not allowed to speak on camera.

    Later that night, they're doing it for real. The officers are being briefed on tonight's target, with an American military adviser on hand from the U.S.-led coalition forces.

  • Man (through translator):

    This is the place. This is the main road, which has an entrance to the property. The entrance to the house is this way.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    It's nearly 2:00 a.m., and we're with a convoy of elite commandos driving to a small farming village on the outskirts of Fallujah.

    They have got intelligence that there's a former ISIS commander nicknamed Abu Bakr living there with his family, who they know is responsible for previous attacks. They're hoping to surprise him in the middle of the night, grab him, and get out as quickly as possible.

    We pass the last army checkpoint, and the unit is on its own, with no backup, driving in the dark in silence to avoid detection. It's a prime spot for an ambush. And the target could escape if he's warned they're coming.

    They breach the house. The women are tied up, the children taken to a separate room. The men are blindfolded and pulled into another room for questioning. They initially mistake one of the men for the target. It's not him, but his cousin. As they start questioning him, he faints.

    We are not allowed to film or watch the interrogation. Abu Bakr is not at the house, but the questioning yielded another location nearby. With no further information, they decide to take the chance that they can get there before the target is alerted, filing through the long wheat in single file to avoid possible booby traps and surround the house.

    Shouts of anger, as another family is woken in the middle of the night. This time, they have got him. Abu Bakr, a slight, 20-something man carrying the weight of dozens of deaths, if the evidence is correct, is arrested, blindfolded, and loaded up to be taken back for questioning.

    The family are told to stay inside on their knees. They won't see him again for a long time. We did not witness extreme physical violence or verbal abuse. We did witness harassing questioning, stress positions, and dehumanizing treatment.

    Extended and severe use of methods like these can be considered torture under international law. Their work is to protect Iraqis. But with raids like this happening across the country almost nightly, it's easy to see how some residents feel more threatened than protected. The commanders argue their methods are essential to stop the terrorists regrouping.

    While ISIS' remaining supporters here are mostly on the run or in hiding, the threat they pose is far from over. A double suicide bombing at this busy market in Central Baghdad in January killed dozens of people, injuring over a hundred more. It was a cruel reminder that ISIS is still capable of ripping lives apart, lives like 21-year-old Malak's.

    She lost her husband, Ali, that day. They'd been married for little more than a year. Now Malak has been left to care for their baby daughter, Mawj, who was just a few months old when she lost her doting father. Relatives say she was the light of his young life.

    Malak can't speak to us herself because she's still in mourning, much longer than the traditional 40 days. Her mother, Wathiqa, says her daughter hasn't been the same since she lost her childhood sweetheart.

  • Khamisa Sabah, Iraq (through translator):

    Her mental state has deteriorated. Her love, her husband, the father of her child, is gone. She only cries out for him.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Wathiqa's husband was also killed by insurgents, kidnapped and tortured more than a decade ago. With Malak's husband now gone too, she's barely managing to support her daughter and granddaughter on her meager widow's pension in their tiny two-room flat.

    She's terrified of what will happen to them when she's gone.

  • Woman (through translator):

    We're eating dirt. It's absolute humiliation for my daughter and I. My daughter's life has been doomed.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Two decades of war have dealt Wathiqa and her daughters one agony after another. They say they fear another attack every day.

  • Woman (through translator):

    There's no safety here. Sometimes, I envy the dead. At least they're at rest.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    In the past few months, there have been dozens more attacks like these claimed by ISIS sympathizers across the country. As the Islamic State's territorial might collapsed, its ideology didn't disappear. It just went underground.

    The wide, lawless plains of Kirkuk province harbor many of the most dangerous militants still loyal to ISIS. Here, there are no houses to raid and neighbors to question. The only option is to track the targets and hunt them down. We head into West Kirkuk with Iraq's federal police on one of the operations they conduct almost daily at the moment. Six officers from this unit alone have been killed in the past two months.

    This territory is vast, it's mostly unpopulated, and it connects several areas still struggling with extremism.

  • Traek, Iraqi Federal Police Officer (through translator):

    Yes, we have found their outposts and their belongings. They don't really stay put in one place. They move from one place to another. So, we have to raid these valleys to search for them.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The officers set off along the border of the river, hunting for any trace of humans living here. It's a painstaking search, and they're horribly exposed, with little cover.

    One hears something coming from the bushes. Holding their breath as he investigates, the team silently waits for sounds of fire or of flight. It's a false alarm. The search continues. They have intelligence that there may be militants hiding in this area, and the geography provides great natural cover as the bulrushes grow very high in the marshland, meaning that they can hide inside.

    But, when officers enter, they don't know what they're going to find. One way around that is trying to burn down as much as possible to flatten the land and give them a better view. They have found a notebook in one of the abandoned lairs, a hit list for the insurgents to target. They won't let us film it, because it contains the names and locations of police officers, soldiers, and local politicians, carefully written out in pencil.

    The area is teeming with danger, and there's a constant threat of hidden bombs. Following each other's footsteps as they cross the charred smoking landscape could be lifesaving. These men are well-armed and have years of professional experience fighting militants. But many civilians here have just as much experience in their daily lives.

    For years, the villagers of Majed refused to join ISIS, and they have paid the price. They have become such a target that federal police built a base inside the tiny hamlet.

    This village has been terrorized by ISIS for years, and they still live in fear. This trench has been built outside their houses to protect them, because just beyond that…

    (GUNFIRE)

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    As we're filming, an officer sees a group of militants approaching in the field and opens fire, as we take cover behind the bank.

    The families' houses are just behind us, and this happens to them almost every day.

    Khamisa says it's like living on a battlefield.

  • Khamisa Sabah (through translator):

    Mortars rain down from right there. They also attack from over there. What more can I say? We're just men, women, and children.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Last year, one of her sons was killed and another badly wounded when militants stormed their compound, shooting a policeman and another neighbor dead, and setting their home ablaze.

  • Khamisa Sabah (through translator):

    I didn't know what to do with myself. I fell down and couldn't get up. Everyone was screaming, and I was calling for my children with no idea what had happened to them. It was red flames raining down on us.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    She's overwhelmed as she tells us what happened, and nearly collapses.

  • Khamisa Sabah (through translator):

    I'm exhausted. My heart is tired. I have so much fear.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    A dilapidated AK-47 stands next to her bed. Her sons hope it will help them protect her the next time. But Ismail can't even hold a gun anymore. He was shot twice in the attack, his arm destroyed, the bullets shattering the bone. He doesn't sleep now, watching the cameras he's installed around the family home from dusk until dawn.

  • Ismail Sabah, (through translator):

    I fear they will come back again to slaughter us. I stay on guard on my camera looking in that direction all night.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    The family lost another son four years ago, when ISIS planted explosives on the road as he and others tried to flee an attack. Nine people were killed, and five badly injured.

    To those who say ISIS is long gone, its fragmented leftovers a weak mob on the run, Khamisa asks them to look at the destruction wrought on her family's quiet, peaceful life.

  • Khamisa Sabah (through translator):

    We're the ones who have to actually live through this. They're not finished. They're not gone. The children are exhausted, and they're constantly afraid. And I'm afraid, too.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Not knowing how long we have before they come back, it's time for us to leave, quickly but carefully, looking out for IEDs that may have been laid on the road to target us on our way out.

    But Khamisa and her family have no place else to go. All they can do is prepare for another long night of watching and waiting in fear.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Leila Molana-Allen in Kirkuk, Iraq.

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