Training missions at the military base in Jordan had become so routine that the American Special Forces soldiers there wore baseball caps instead of helmets. Most of them had been in a war zone, and Jordan felt far from one.
But as their convoy crept toward an entry gate on a sweltering Friday in November, gunshots erupted from a guard post, inciting a shootout that killed three Americans, drove a wedge between crucial allies and ended with a 39-year-old Jordanian soldier sentenced to life in prison for murder.
“We kept yelling in English and Arabic, saying we were friends. And he kept shooting,” said the lone American soldier to survive the attack, speaking publicly for the first time about that day. “Eventually, we realized it wasn’t an accident.”
The episode has sent a chill through the normally warm relations between the United States and Jordan, one of its closest Arab allies, and spurred protests in Jordan by members of the gunman’s influential tribe, who believe he is being punished to placate a powerful ally.
It has also baffled investigators, who have been unable to determine a motive.
Jordanian officials at first portrayed the episode as an accident and blamed the Americans, saying that they had broken the protocol for approaching the base, and later saying that they had accidentally fired a weapon, leading the Jordanian guard to believe he was under attack.
But surveillance video released by the Jordanian military on Monday and an interview with the 30-year-old American staff sergeant who survived the shootout shows a far more troubling scene: a five-minute clash during which the Americans fired back, crouched behind barriers and waved their hands desperately to stop the shooting, before the Jordanian charged with an assault rifle to try to finish them off.
The gunman, First Sgt. Ma’arik al-Tawayha, a member of the Jordanian Air Force, was wounded in the fight and sentenced last week by a Jordanian military court to life in prison for the killings 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 soldier who survived reviewed the video with a reporter from The New York Times on Monday evening, helping to piece together what took place that day.
“We were just terrified and confused,” he said. “We didn’t know what was happening, or why, or how many guys were going to come after us.”
The video first shows a stark desert road leading to a gate to the King Faisal Air Base in the southern Jordanian town of Al Jafr, where the American soldiers were training Syrian rebels as part of a covert program run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Four trucks are returning from morning mortar training and slowly approach the gate as a Jordanian soldier removes two roadblocks.
Standing just off camera was Sergeant Tawayha, a familiar presence at the base, who had probably seen Special Forces pass through the gate twice a day, according to the staff sergeant.
Once the first two trucks are off camera, puffs of smoke rise, indicating gunshots. For reasons still in dispute, Sergeant Tawayha suddenly began to fire, peppering the second truck with at least 30 shots at close range, killing Sergeant Lewellen and Sergeant McEnroe.
“Glass was flying, I saw the guys slumped over,” the staff sergeant said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. Training had taught the team to accelerate through ambushes to escape the kill zone. “I waited a few seconds, hoping the guys in front could push through, but nothing happened.”
In the video, the Jordanian soldier who removed the roadblocks runs for cover, and the staff sergeant fires three shots toward the gate with a 9-mm pistol before he and the soldier in the truck behind him, Sergeant Moriarty, seek cover.
A number of trucks pass, apparently unaware of the ambush. The video shows a pickup drive by carrying two camels that crane their necks at the crack of gunfire.
The video has no sound, but the staff sergeant said the gunfire that followed was punctuated with screaming from both sides, with the gunman telling them to put their hands up, and the Americans yelling back that they are friends. To try to appease the gunman, they pop their heads up, raising their arms without their guns to indicate a cease-fire, then duck quickly as explosions of dust show bullets hitting the barricade inches from their heads.
“I put my gun down, raised my hands a little and he took a shot at me,” the staff sergeant said. “That is when we decided this probably was not an accident.”
The soldiers were trapped. Their sole radio was in the rear truck, so they could not call for backup, the staff sergeant said. They kept yelling in Arabic and English that they were friends and offered to go away if the guard stopped shooting, but clouds of dust continued to explode as shots hit the barricades.
Pinned down, the staff sergeant and Sergeant Moriarty hurriedly discussed their options. “We were trying to wave and we’re getting shot at,” the staff sergeant said. “I gave up with trying to figure stuff out and told him we should just try to kill this guy.”
Both had two full magazines left — a total of 60 rounds — but they needed a better defensive position. After nearly four minutes, they sprinted behind their trucks to other concrete barriers farther from the gate.
“We thought it would buy us some time,” the staff sergeant said. “Maybe help would come.”
The video shows Sergeant Tawayha run toward the trucks with his rifle leveled. He hides behind the first truck, firing at the Americans, then walks to the second, slowly trying to flank them.
Finally, Sergeant Tawayha rushes the Americans with a burst of fire. Both Americans fire their pistols at point blank range, but Sergeant Tawayha shoots Sergeant Moriarty, who slumps to his knees, then collapses.
The staff sergeant dodges around a barrier and shoots Sergeant Tawayha, who falls to the ground behind the barricade.
The staff sergeant said he grabbed the bleeding Jordanian’s rifle and threw it away before backing off into the desert with his arms raised.
In the confusion, as Jordanian and American forces edged in to determine what had happened, the staff sergeant’s partner bled to death behind the barrier where he was shot. As the staff sergeant described the gunfight, a stammer in his voice revealed his deep sense of regret that he had been unable to help.
“I didn’t go back to Jimmy,” he said. “I didn’t know the attack was over. I didn’t think I could help him while still in a firefight.”
The video was not shown at Mr. Tawayha’s trial, where he testified that he had thought he was acting within the rules of engagement. But after his conviction spurred protests by his tribe, the Jordanian military and the F.B.I. released the video in hopes it would defuse the unrest, said James R. Moriarty, a Houston lawyer and the father of the slain Sergeant Moriarty.
The release has done little to calm Sergeant Tawayha’s tribe, the Howeitat, which is known in Jordan for its role in the Arab uprising that paved the way for the foundation of the modern kingdom. Many still believe that Sergeant Tawayha was doing his duty and is being punished to please the United States.
“It is not right, but our government is looking for cash and they’ll do anything to get it,” his brother, Abdul-Rahman Abu Tayeh, said in an interview.
Sergeant Tawayha was in the military for more than a decade and often worked with Americans, his brother said, so what he did made no sense.
“We lived for years and years with the Americans, so why would we want a problem with them now?” said Lafi Abu Tayeh, another relative of Sergeant Tawayha’s who helps coordinate the protests. “But since the ruling, they are not welcome here.”
The staff sergeant, who attended parts of the gunman’s trial, said he, too, was perplexed by the man’s motives. The gunman remained consistent in his insistence that he had thought the base was under attack, the staff sergeant said.
“But there is no rational person who chases two attackers from the safety of the guard shack without backup,” he said. “It just still doesn’t make sense.”