Billy Waugh: Decorated Special Forces Veteran Who Tracked Carlos the Jackal For the CIA

From a Washington Post obit by Brian Murphy headlined “Billy Waugh, veteran who tracked Carlos the Jackal for CIA, dies at 93”:

William “Billy” Waugh, a decorated Special Forces veteran and CIA operative whose more than five decades of missions included a firefight in Vietnam that left him near death, hunting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and tracking the terrorist mastermind “Carlos the Jackal,” died.

The death was confirmed iby the U.S. military’s 1st Special Forces Command.

Mr. Waugh’s mix of combat valor and covert credentials made him a hallowed figure among military groups and the intelligence community, honored for generation-spanning service from the Korean War in the 1950s to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Even his boyhood was part of the lore: how he tried to hitchhike from Texas to Los Angeles during World War II on rumors that California would allow 16-year-olds to enlist. He was just 15 and made it as far as New Mexico before being picked up by police and sent back home, according to his telling.

“It began there,” he said of his desires to join the military.

Mr. Waugh’s accounts — many confirmable and others not — served as a firsthand guide through some of the successes and failures overseen by Pentagon commanders and CIA intelligence chiefs.

In the early 1960s in Vietnam, he helped train local counterinsurgency units in South Vietnam and Laos that proved loyal but insufficient against the North Vietnamese. Later, he was among the first group to execute a “Halo” parachute drop: exiting the aircraft at high altitudes and deploying the chute at the last moment to limit the chances for detection.

In 1965, U.S. forces and local militia were dispatched to attack North Vietnamese troops in the stronghold, Bong Son. Mr. Waugh’s team expected a few hundred North Vietnamese fighters. Instead, there were more than 4,000, Mr. Waugh recounted.

Nearly out of ammunition, Mr. Waugh was hit in the knee by machine-gun fire, and then in the foot and ankle. A bullet, tearing through the bamboo cover, gouged a two-inch gash in his forehead.

“It immediately started to bleed like an open faucet,” Mr. Waugh wrote in a 2004 memoir, “Hunting the Jackal,” co-authored with Tim Keown. “It sounds like the punchline to a bad joke, but you know it’s a bad day when the best thing about it is getting shot in the head.”

North Vietnamese soldiers assumed Mr. Waugh was dead. They took his equipment, watch and uniform, leaving him naked. That’s how he was found by his unit. He was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, among his many decorations. His commander, Capt. Paris Davis, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in that fight.

“I’m a pioneer of the modern warfare era,” Mr. Waugh said in a 2005 interview with the Associated Press. “If I’d been living in olden days, I would have been at the Alamo or across the Rockies.”

After leaving the military in 1972 as a sergeant major, Mr. Waugh landed a U.S. Postal Service job in Texas. It wasn’t for him. By 1977, Mr. Waugh said he was part of a group recruited by a former CIA officer, Edwin Wilson, to train Libyan commandos. (Wilson later served more than two decades in prison for selling explosives to Libya before a federal judge overturned his conviction.)

Mr. Waugh’s next job was in Sudan. In the early 1990s, U.S. intelligence services stepped up surveillance of Osama bin Laden, who had shifted to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, after years in Afghanistan in the U.S.-backed fight against the occupying Soviet military.

Mr. Waugh’s said his team was asked to monitor bin Laden’s activities, but nothing more. Mr. Waugh often jogged the bin Laden compound. “It’s a good cover,” he said in a 2022 interview, “because Americans do stupid things and jogging is stupid to them.”

Mr. Waugh said he was so close to bin Laden at times that “I could have killed him with a rock.”

On another surveillance mission in Khartoum, the target was Venezuela-born terrorist leader Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known as “Carlos the Jackal,” who was blamed for series of assassinations, bombings and attacks including a raid on OPEC headquarters in 1975.

Mr. Waugh said CIA station chief Cofer Black again forbid the team from doing anything but reconnaissance. “Killing him is easy,” said Mr. Waugh. “But what do you have once you kill somebody? You’ve got a dead body to take out, too.” (In 1994, the “Jackal” was captured and sent to France for trial.)

After 9/11, Mr. Waugh was in Afghanistan alongside U.S. forces, led by Gary Schroen, working with Afghan allies in the Northern Alliance. Mr. Waugh later was part of the hunt for bin Laden in the caves and hideouts in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora region.

A 2019 book by Annie Jacobsen, “Surprise, Kill, Vanish,” recounted many of Mr. Waugh’s missions as part of larger narrative on CIA operations. But historian and author Kai Bird said the emphasis on action and exploits can overshadow the detail-oriented analysis that is the backbone of intelligence work.

In a book review in The Washington Post, Bird noted a comment from former CIA director Richard Helms that described the art of intelligence as doing a lot of listening. “Men like Waugh are not listeners,” Bird wrote.

Yet Mr. Waugh’s full history may never be publicly shared. “We will never know all the stories of Billy Waugh,” Florida State Sen. Jay Collins (R), a retired Green Beret and Afghanistan War veteran, told Stars and Stripes, “frankly the majority of them are still classified.”

‘Keep on going’
\William Dawson Waugh was born Dec. 1, 1929, in Bastrop, Tex., and enlisted in the Army in 1948 after graduating from high school. His mother, he said, finally forgave him for his earlier hitchhiking escapade. “She was an explorer-type lady herself,” he said.
Mr. Waugh served in Korea and entered Special Forces training in 1954.

Waugh retired from active duty in 1972 and returned to Texas. He found a job at the Postal Service, but left after several years. “After nearly 20 years in [Special Forces], much of it in combat, sorting mail doesn’t scratch the same itch,” he wrote. “Not even close.”

Among Mr. Waugh’s many mementos was a photo of him, sometime around his 72nd birthday, with gray hair peeking out from a traditional Afghan cap. He’s holding a weapon as if ready to fire.

“If the mind is good and the body is able,” he once said, “you keep on going if you enjoy it.”

Brian Murphy joined The Washington Post after more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the Associated Press in Europe and the Middle East. Murphy has reported from more than 50 countries and has written four books.

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