About the speaker
Michael Pregent is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer with more than 28 years of experience working security, terrorism, counter-insurgency, and policy issues in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. He served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, served as a liaison officer in Egypt during the 2000 Intifada, as a counter-insurgency intelligence officer at CENTCOM in 2001, and as a company commander in Afghanistan in 2002.
Pregent spent considerable time working malign Iranian influence in Iraq as an advisor to Iraq’s Security and Intelligence apparatus, including an embedded advisory role with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Office of the Commander-in-Chief. He also served as an embedded advisor with the Peshmerga in Mosul 2005-06. As a civilian working for DIA, he served as a political and military advisor to USF-I focusing on reconciliation, the insurgency, and Iranian influence in Iraq from 2007-2011. He was a violent extremism and foreign fighter analyst at CENTCOM from 2011-2013.
Mr. Pregent holds a Masters in Strategic Public Relations from The George Washington University and is a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Defense Language Institute in Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian Dialect. He is an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute. He is a senior Middle East analyst, a former adjunct lecturer for the College of International Security Affairs, and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.
He frequently appears as an expert analyst on Shia militias, Iran, Iraq, and ISIS with appearances on BBC World News, Al-Jazeera International, CNN, CNN International, and Fox News.
This event was mentioned in the Washington Free Beacon and republished in Business Insider: “This is the main obstacle Iraq has to overcome before it can recapture ISIS’s largest city,” Douglas Burton, April 7, 2016.
Robert R. Reilly:
Now, it is a great pleasure to welcome today our speaker, Michael Pregent, who is a former Army Intelligence Officer with more than 28 years of experience, working security, terrorism, counterinsurgency, and policy issues in the Middle East, North Africa, and southwest Asia.
He served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He served as a liaison officer in Egypt during the 2000 Intifada and as a counterinsurgency intelligence officer with CENTCOM in 2001, a company commander in Afghanistan in 2002. He spent considerable time working maligned Iranian influence in Iraq as an advisor to Iraq’s security intelligence apparatus, including as an embedded advisor in the Commander-in-Chief office in Prime Minister al-Maliki’s office.
He also served as an embedded advisor with the Peshmerga in Mosul 2005-2006. Remember Mosul? He has worked as a civilian for DIA and done many other things regarding Iranian influence in Iraq. He served as a Violent Extremism and Foreign Fighter Analyst at CENTOM from 2011 to 2013. Please join me in welcoming Michael Pregent as he addresses this enigmatic title, “How Iran Fuels ISIS.”
Thanks for being here tonight. Can everyone hear me okay? I kind of accidentally fell into this… this arena of being a… an accidental expert on maligned Iranian influence in Iraq. And having the luxury of sitting in a room when really bad decisions were being made and not being able to put my hand up because I did not have the rank or I did not have the right or the portfolio to be able to say something until now, until the last couple of years.
So I learned Arabic at the age of 18. I found myself in Desert Storm in a position where we always believed your leaders and always believed they had the right goal, the right command and staff and just listening to some of you before… you know we started this event I know most of you are former military… based on what I heard. And as a Junior Enlisted Soldier you always trust your leadership. Then when you become an NCO you start to question your leadership. And when you become an officer you realize that if you do not toe the line, you are not going to go very far. So you start questioning your leadership again. So I have had the luxury of never ever being afraid of being fired from a job.
I have always been at the company or battalion level as a military guy and as an intelligence advisor or subject matter expert for the Defense Intelligence Agency on the Iraqi security forces. I always found myself in the room listening to generals and really smart people talk about things. The one thing we were very concerned about in 2007 was the growing influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Does everybody here know who the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is? I wish Congress could do the same thing here too. I wish they would be able to nod their head in unison as well, as well as the [unintelligible].
I had the opportunity, and the luxury, and the honor to be asked if I would start an organization. The organization we started in August was Veterans Against the Iran Deal and I was the Executive Director, and we were able to reach back and get experts going back 36 years. We knew the Iranian regime very well. We were able to tell congressmen and women and senators how bad this Iran deal was because it simply was going to give the Revolutionary Guard more power. We did not focus on the nuclear part of the Iran Deal. We focused on the non-nuclear concessions and how basically coming to a deal where you actually reward the Revolutionary Guard and its Quds Force as well as the Basij will actually have consequences, will actually keep the moderating event from happening in Iran that this administration was hoping to secure with this deal.
It actually emboldened them. It has empowered them. We have seen actions by Iran since implementation date of the Iran Deal that show that Iran thinks it can do whatever it wants over the next nine months and get away with it without concern, knowing with this White House and its guarantor in Putin will come to its defense with legalese, with technicalities. Missile launches are not technically a violation of the Iran deal even though they are clearly violations of the UN Security Council resolutions, which make it the backbone of the Iran Deal, so we look at those things.
So, getting back to how Iran fuels ISIS. I am going to take you back to 2008. I hope you are okay with that because this started before President Obama took office. He talked about it during the debates with Hillary Clinton – that he would reach out to Iran. He would sit down with this regime and talk. Well, Khomeini was listening. The Supreme Leader was listening and Jay Sullivan, a friend of mine who writes for The Wall Street Journal, wrote a piece about secret communications between President Obama and the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader asked him for a gesture. Show me something. Show me you are serious about working with us. Well, I did not know it at the time, but I was actually sitting in a room where those overtures were being carried out.
I was part of an organization called the Force Strategic Engagement Cell and our job was to meet with reconcilables and irreconcilables. Correction: to meet with bad guys and determine whether or not they were reconcilable or irreconcilable. If they were irreconcilable, we give them to the door-kickers. I heard a couple door-kickers out there drinking wine a little while ago. And we give it to the door kickers and they go on the targeting list but those who were reconcilable, they became the leaders of the Sons of Iraq, they became the leaders of the Awakening [Council], they became the Shia nationalists that broke away from the Shia militia groups and gave Iraq space to operate during the surge. I was in Iraq from 2005 to 2010 for only six months of each year and I saw security degradation and I saw the increase in security when the surge actually started taking hold.
And in 2008 – there is a photo of President Obama flying with General Petraeus in a Blackhawk [helicopter], overlooking the battlefield and General Petraeus is telling him about the successes of the surge and President Obama says, ‘That is great. We are still out of here.’
That conversation was not limited to the confines of that Blackhawk. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard was listening. The Supreme Leader of Iran was listening. And we started seeing an increase in Iranian influence with the government of Iraq. They had already done their intimidation campaign of exterminating Iraqi pilots regardless of religion, so they would go after Christians, they would go after Shia, and Sunni pilots because Iran’s goal in Iraq was to ensure that Iraq would never be a threat to Iran again. So we had already seen that pilot concern, but during the surge we were having this success and McCain had already pretty much… He was going to lose the election and this was part of the election when President-elect Obama was already… He was already forecasted to win the election when he was saying these things. And he was [unintelligible].
But when he actually secured the status of incoming President in November of 2008, we saw things change and we started seeing an emboldened Iran, pressuring- I would not even say pressuring, working with a likeminded Maliki government in Baghdad to dismantle what we set in place: a government that brought in Kurds, that brought in Sunnis, that brought in Christians and were working together but they were working together because we made sure that they did. We were the third party guarantor in Iraq. No reconciliation.
Anybody here familiar with the term DDR?
Demobilize, disarm, and reconcile, reintegrate. That does not happen unless there is a third-party guarantor to ensure that is happening. We were the third-party guarantor at that time. We are ensuring that Sunnis were not being targeted by their government. We are ensuring that Kurd and Sunni affected commanders are not being replaced and removed on bogus intelligence- terrorism charges and accountability, law, and justice charges, meaning that if your third cousin was a Ba’athist, you cannot have a job either because of that. That linkage… That is how bad it was.
So we started seeing a concerted effort by the Maliki government emboldened by a ‘we are out of here… because we are done. We are moving out’-Iran choice. In 2008, we started seeing the release of individuals that never should have been released. These were the Shia militia leaders and Qassem Soleimani and the Quds Force ordered to kidnap five Americans, the Karbala five.
I do not know if you are familiar with the Karbala Five, but in 2007, five American advisors were killed by an IRGC-driven operation. The design was to kidnap Americans and trade them for four IRGC operatives that were captured in Irbil. It was a trade. It was an operation that went wrong. One of the NCOs that died in the operation died because he dove on a grenade. He received the Silver Star for that action. The other four were abducted. They were put in the back of a truck and they took the wrong route. We were closing in on them and before we were able to get to them, they executed the four Americans in the back of the car.
So these were four Americans, the first time that this had happened, zip-tied in the back of a car, executed… you know with AK-47s. And we found a computer linking it directly to Qasem Soleimani, Qais Gazali, Laif Gazali, and Lebanese advisor to Assad Asal ul-Haq ‘Doc Duke’ and we… When I say ‘we,’ I mean JSOC went after these guys and caught them, and it was an immediate issue with Tehran.
You cannot capture these guys. These are our guys: Qays Gazali, Leith Gazali, and Doc Duke. And we held them. The Prime Minister, Maliki, was getting so much pressure by Iran to release these three individuals that had killed Americans to the point where General Petraeus actually had to show Prime Minister Maliki the computer that actually had the intelligence on it, linking it directly to Qasem Soleimani and his Quds Force to the point where Maliki said, ‘Okay. I get it,’ and we kept them in prison.
And it was something finally that showed Iraq that despite your affiliations with Tehran, despite your affiliations and status with an Iraqi Shia militia, you would actually be held accountable for what you did, so rule of law looked like it was taking shape. And the outgoing Bush Administration said that if Qays Gazali, Leith Gazali, and Doc Duke were ever released, it would be such a mark on the whole war effort that some said they would resign their positions, if they ever were released.
In 2009, Leith Gazali was released, in 2010, Qays Gazali was released, and in 2012, Doc Duke was released, and these were not quiet releases. These were parades in Baghdad Shia areas, where the Sunni population and the Kurdish population and the Shia nationalists looked at this and said, ‘It is going to start to unravel’, in 2008, 2009, and 2010 when these things were happening.
Think about the message that sends to Americans. A lot of Americans do not know about the Karbala Five. But those who do, know about it. The families of those five Americans know about it, and three Shia militia commanders that currently lead Iraqi forces today were released because it was an overture towards Tehran that this president was willing to work with them. I have no problem saying that. I did not know it at the time. I did not know this was linked to securing the Iran Deal. I just thought we were making a really bad mistake.
We were the ones actually interviewing these guys in prison. One of our generals said, this guy is so charismatic he can make anybody believe that they should just follow his will, and he was one of the guys who we released. And when he said that in a room, I said, yes, he sure can win people over, can’t he? And he did not get that I was talking about – and I am not going to mention his name – but he knows that he made a mistake because Qays Gazali promised him if he got released, that he would not go back to Tehran, that he would be available to us, that he would work on reconciliation, he would stop the Shia militias, he would disarm, disband, and reintegrate Shia militias into the security forces and to the civilian workforce.
Within 24 hours he was in Iran.
One of the other individuals was actually being – you have seen Bridge of Spies, anybody in here? There was a Bridge of Spies moment when someone was released. And as our guys released him, he had a cellphone that he promised he would keep and be in touch, he turned around and looked at them. He threw the cellphone in the river and walked across the river into the arms of the Iranians.