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From war on terrorism to information warfare

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Dorothy Sherwood
  • 16th Air Force (Air Forces Cyber)
The war on terrorism expanded to Iraq in 2003, starting Operation Iraqi Freedom that lasted until 2011.

During this time, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Najwan Alobaidi from the recently redesignated 33rd Cyberspace Operations Squadron was a civilian interpreter assisting the U.S. Army in Baghdad, Iraq, the epicenter of OIF.

“I worked with two units from the Louisiana and Tennessee Army National Guard back in Baghdad,” said Alobaidi. “We were brothers united by facing the same danger. He had to get my back and I had his.”

Alobaidi, a native of Iraq, was embedded with the U.S. Army for four years. He accompanied soldiers on missions trying to find “high value targets” and sometimes working with other military units from Estonia and the United Kingdom.

“We were patrolling on foot passing a husband and wife saying, ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum,’ and the husband said, ‘you hear that guy, he sounded like us,’” said Alobaidi. “You couldn’t tell the difference between us. I wore their battle rattle, I carried an M4 (carbine), wore a helmet and their uniform. I was in a combat zone the whole time.”

One day, his platoon was ambushed and an explosion caused the bulletproof glass in their vehicle to shatter with pieces of the shattered glass injuring his fellow soldiers in the front seat.

"I got emotional, those were my brothers,” he said. “My platoon sergeant said, ‘I’ve never seen an Iraqi cry for an American.’ I have kept in contact with them since then.”

With his Army brothers, he experienced block-by-block combat operations, being shot at every day and surviving the warzone together.

“We had just started a mission on Friday, I remember in the afternoon an IED (improvised explosive device) went off in a vehicle just ten steps away from me,” said Alobaidi. “My Army captain thought I was bleeding from my head and took my helmet off, but it was my ears. Since then, I’ve had tinnitus.”

In 2008, he started working with the U.S. State Department as an Iraqi translator, but after the withdrawal of American troops at the end of 2011 his job changed and so did the atmosphere at his new workplace.

“I was no longer a translator,” he said. “They took my gun away, I was put into supplies and called ‘the American boy.’”

For almost eight years, Alobaidi was an Iraqi translator battling the war on terrorism. In December 2012, he made the decision to move his family from Baghdad, Iraq, to Florida and enlist into their Army National Guard as a light wheeled mechanic.

“At the time, the Army National Guard let you join at 34 years old,” said Alobaidi. “My Army brothers supported my decision when I told them and thought it would help me better adapt into the American way of life.”

After a couple of years in the Florida and Texas ANG, he had a new goal of transferring to active duty as an Airman at 40 years old. He passed the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party initial fitness test and started his Air Force special warfare TACP training in 2014.

“I wasn’t the oldest,” said Alobaidi. “There was another guy, who was 44 years old and he was beating everyone.”

Due to a reoccurring injury, Alobaidi was retrained into the Client Systems career field and put in charge of computer hardware and software functions. Luckily, he had already been taking college classes towards his Bachelor’s in Computer Science. His familiarization and vigorous studying earned him honor graduate at the Client Systems Technician technical training school at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.

“After tech school, my first assignment was the 33rd (at the time, Network Warfare Squadron),” he said.

With this assignment, he became a part of the Information Warfare forces under 16th Air Force. 16th Air Force made history in 2019, becoming the first IW Numbered Air Force. This convergence of IW forces synchronized cyberspace operations, Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance, electromagnetic spectrum operations, information operations, public affairs and weather.

“My job is supplying the equipment and connectivity for the cyberspace operators and support personnel,” he said. “Without us no one would be able to get on the network.”

Alobaidi is the Client System Supervisor of six Airmen in his shop, who ensure 16th Air Force personnel protect, defend and leverage information advantages in the operational environment enabling the Air Force’s ability to generate rapid airpower.

His leadership skills of problem-solving and decisiveness keeps the 16th Air Force mission going, and he was recognized for these skills one day at the Air Force’s largest testing center at JBSA-Lackland. Alobaidi was only there to take a test, but ended up updating all the computers when he noticed they needed a system update. His quick action kept the testing center operating and earned him the JBSA First Sergeant Diamond Sharp Award.

“My background as a middle eastern and being in the Army makes my mentality a go getter,” he said. “I’ll fix a problem on the spot.”

A mentality in line with the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr.’s Accelerate Change or Lose strategic approach and accompanying Action Orders to empower Airmen, and also one of the 16th Air Force’s principles.

“You need to improvise at that moment, sometimes there is no time to wait,” said Alobaidi. “Imagine you’re in the field, you need to implement the solution or you probably get killed.”

Something Alobaidi dealt with firsthand back in Iraq. Now, he uses his past experiences to assist with IW.

“The world is changing since COVID, everything is more virtual; virtual meetings, classrooms and jobs,” he said.

Every day 16th Air Force IW forces like Alobaidi are operating and defending the Air Force Information Networks.

“Cyber is the future, and cybersecurity is needed to prevent the bad guys from getting access to our digital world, even medical information,” he said.

He is hoping his future continues with cyber, but as a U.S. Army warrant officer Cyber Warfare Technician, the next chapter of his journey. A journey from an Iraqi interpreter, a soldier, to being a part of the IW force – Alobaidi is a multi-capable Airman.