Without the Iraq war, Islamic State wouldn’t exist today, former US special forces chief Mike Flynn openly admits. In an interview, he explains IS’ rise to become a professional force and how the Americans allowed its future leader to slip out of their hands.
Michael Flynn, 56, served in the United States Army for more than 30 years, most recently as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he was the nation’s highest-ranking military intelligence officer. Previously, he served as assistant director of national intelligence inside the Obama administration. From 2004 to 2007, he was stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where, as commander of the US special forces, he hunted top al-Qaida terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the predecessors to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who today heads the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. After Flynn’s team located Zarqawi’s whereabouts, the US killed the terrorist in an air strike in June 2006.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In recent weeks, Islamic State not only conducted the attacks in Paris, but also in Lebanon and against a Russian airplane over the Sinai Peninsula. What has caused the organization to shift its tactics and to now operate internationally?
Flynn: There were all kinds of strategic and tactical warnings and lots of reporting. And even the guys in the Islamic State said that they were going to attack overseas. I just don’t think people took them seriously. When I first heard about the recent attacks in Paris, I was like, “Oh, my God, these guys are at it again, and we’re not paying attention.” The change that I think we need to be more aware of is that, in Europe, there is a leadership structure. And there’s likely a leader or a leadership structure in each country in Europe. The same is probably similar for the United States, but just not obvious yet.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mean something like an emir or regional leadership?
Flynn: Exactly. In Osama bin Laden’s writings, he elaborated about being disperse, becoming more diffuse and operating in small elements, because it’s harder to detect and it’s easier to act. In Paris, there were eight guys. In Mali, there were 10. Next time, maybe one or two guys will be enough.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can an attack of that scope even take place without being coordinated and authorized by the IS leadership in Syria?
Flynn: Absolutely. There’s not some line-and-block chart and a guy at the top like we have in our own systems. That’s the mirror imaging that we have to, in many ways, eliminate from our thinking. I can imagine a 30-year-old guy with some training and some discussion who receives the task from the top: “Go forth and do good on behalf of our ideology.” And then he picks the targets by himself, organizes his attackers and executes his mission.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Islamic State’s leader is the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What kind of leader is he?
Flynn: It’s really important to differentiate between the way Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri represent themselves when they come out in public and how al-Baghdadi represented himself when he declared the caliphate. Bin Laden and Zawahiri sit in their videos, legs crossed, flag behind them, and they’ve got an AK-47 in their laps. They are presenting themselves as warriors. Baghdadi brought himself to a mosque in Mosul and spoke from the balcony, like the pope, dressed in appropriate black garb. He stood there as a holy cleric and proclaimed the Islamic caliphate. That was a very, very symbolic act. It elevated the fight from this sort of military, tactical and localized conflict to that of a religious and global war.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What would change if al-Baghdadi were killed?
Flynn: We used to say, “We’ll just keep killing the leaders, and the next guy up is not going to be as good.” That didn’t work out that way because al-Baghdadi is better than Zarqawi, and Zarqawi was actually better than bin Laden.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wouldn’t change much?
Flynn: Not at all. He could be dead today, you haven’t seen him lately. I would have much preferred to have captured bin Laden and Zarqawi because as soon as you kill them, you are actually doing them and their movement a favor by making them martyrs. Zarqawi was a vicious animal. I would have preferred to see him live in a cell for the rest of his life. Their logic is still hard to understand for us in the West.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What differentiates al-Baghdadi from Zarqawi, who led al-Qaida in Iraq between 2003 and 2006?
Flynn: Zarqawi tried to bring in foreign fighters, but not in the way that al-Baghdadi has been able to do. At the peak of Zarqawi’s days, they may have been bringing in 150 a month from a dozen countries. Al-Baghdadi is bringing in 1,500 fighters a month, from more than 100 nations. He’s using the modern weapons of the information age in fundamentally different ways to strengthen the attraction of their ideology. The other thing is how they target. Zarqawi was absolutely brutal — he randomly killed guys lining up for jobs in downtown Baghdad. Al-Baghdadi is much smarter and more precise in his target selection, but still very vicious.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who is running the military wing of the Islamic State?
Flynn: I think that al-Baghdadi or the current leader of the Islamic State is very hands-on when it comes to parts of the military, but it’s a very flat, networked organization. Inside Syria and Iraq in the Levant area, my belief is that he has a couple of subordinates who are responsible for military operations, logistical, financial, etc.; they represent a combination of Egyptians, Saudis, Chechens or a Dagestanis, Americans and Europeans. We know from debriefings that they have actually broken Raqqa down into international zones because of language barriers. They have put interpreters in place in those international zones in order to communicate and get their messages around. For example, the Australians alone have about 200 people. There’s even an Australian sector in Raqqa, and they’re tied into the other English speakers because not everybody shows up speaking Arabic. This requires a military-like structure with military-like leadership.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How does IS treat people who volunteer?
Flynn: They document everything. These guys are terrific about it. In their recruiting and in interviews, they ask “What’s your background? Are you good with media? With weapons?” It’s this kind of well-structured capability they have that then evolves into a very, very unconventional force.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How should the West fight this enemy?
Flynn: The sad fact is that we have to put troops on the ground. We won’t succeed against this enemy with air strikes alone. But a military solution is not the end all, be all. The overall strategy must be to take away Islamic State’s territory, then bring security and stability to facilitate the return of the refugees. This won’t be possible quickly. First, we need to hunt down and eliminate the complete leadership of IS, break apart their networks, stop their financing operations and stay until a sense of normality has been established. It’s certainly not a question of months — it will take years. Just look back at the mission we created in the Balkans as a model. We started there in the early 1990s to create some stability and we are still there today.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the Balkans mission a model for the current war?
Flynn: We can learn some lessons from the Balkans. Strategically, I envision a breakup of the Middle East crisis area into sectors in the way we did back then, with certain nations taking responsibility for these sectors. In addition, we would need a coalition military command structure and, on a political level, the United Nations must be involved. The United States could take one sector, Russia as well and the Europeans another one. The Arabs must be involved in that sort of military operation, as well, and must be part of every sector. With this model, you would have opportunities — Russia, for example, must use its influence on Iran to have Tehran back out of Syria and other proxy efforts in the region.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: For that to happen, the West would have to cooperate fully with the Russians.
Flynn: We have to work constructively with Russia. Whether we like it or not, Russia made a decision to be there (in Syria) and to act militarily. They are there, and this has dramatically changed the dynamic. So you can’t say Russia is bad, they have to go home. It’s not going to happen. Get real. Look at what happened in the past few days: The president of France asked the US for help militarily (after the Paris attacks). That’s really weird to me, as an American. We should have been there first and offered support. Now he is flying to Moscow and asking Putin for help.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: A Western military intervention runs the risk of being seen as a new attempt to invade the region.
Flynn: That’s why we need the Arabs as partners, they must be the face of the mission — but, today, they are neither capable of conducting nor leading this type of operation, only the United States can do this. And we don’t want to invade or even own Syria. Our message must be that we want to help and that we will leave once the problems have been solved. The Arab nations must be on our side. And if we catch them financing, if they funnel money to IS, that’s when sanctions and other actions have to kick in.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In February 2004, you already had Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in your hands — he was imprisoned in in a military camp, but got cleared later as harmless by a US military commission. How could that fatal mistake happen?
Flynn: We were too dumb. We didn’t understand who we had there at that moment. When 9/11 occurred, all the emotions took over, and our response was, “Where did those bastards come from? Let’s go kill them. Let’s go get them.” Instead of asking why they attacked us, we asked where they came from. Then we strategically marched in the wrong direction.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The US invaded Iraq even though Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11.
Flynn: First we went to Afghanistan, where al-Qaida was based. Then we went into Iraq. Instead of asking ourselves why the phenomenon of terror occurred, we were looking for locations. This is a major lesson we must learn in order not to make the same mistakes again.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Islamic State wouldn’t be where it is now without the fall of Baghdad. Do you regret …
Flynn: … yes, absolutely …
SPIEGEL ONLINE: … the Iraq war?
Flynn: It was huge error. As brutal as Saddam Hussein was, it was a mistake to just eliminate him. The same is true for Moammar Gadhafi and for Libya, which is now a failed state. The historic lesson is that it was a strategic failure to go into Iraq. History will not be and should not be kind with that decision.