How Iran Fuels ISIS
(Michael Pregent, March 16, 2016)
Transcript available below
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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 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 [lost]. He was going to lose the election, and this was part of the election when President-elect Obama was already [going to win]. 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, Leith Gazali, and Lebanese advisor to Assad, Asal ul-Haq ‘Doc Duke.’ 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.
And you know, when you see those things – and everybody when they go to the Middle East, they want to be Lawrence of Arabia. They want to be the American who, ‘If I could just get in the room with the guy for two hours, I could change his mind.’ And you would be surprised how many people actually believe that.
I guess a lot of people call me paranoid or a person who has a hard time trusting people, but I think it serves me well. I go into a room already believing somebody is going to lie to me so that I can at least have that. Somebody needs to be in that room thinking somebody is going to lie to you because I have had the opportunity to brief General Petraeus on some of these things, and you read the bio.
I was allowed into Prime Minister Maliki’s Office of the Commander in Chief because they said, thank God we have got this – excuse my language – dumbass Texan who cannot speak Arabic to be part of this group, not knowing that I understood every word they said. But I did the assalamu alaikum, kayf halk, which is a way of saying how is it going? And Petraeus said stay in there. If they think you are a patsy, be a patsy. Just tell us what they are doing.
And they were targeting every potential Sunni charismatic leader and every Sunni male that wanted to play a productive role in Iraq, and they would simply label them with the charge of terrorism. So you look at these actions and the title of this, how Iran fuels ISIS. What I mean by that, I wrote a piece at the Hudson Institute about how to curb Iranian influence and defeat ISIS, and how not to.
Part of that was you have a disenfranchised Sunni population in Iraq that believes that the government does not trust them and believes they are simply collaborators and tacit supporters of Al Qaeda, and that was even before ISIS. So in 2008 you have to remember there were 90,000 Sunnis in the security apparatus on American payrolls. They had taken the U.S. casualty rate down to such a low percentage that we were able to go into towns that we were never able to go into before without body armor, without helmets, without worrying about being shot at because we had peace in these areas.
There were 56 attacks daily in Baghdad in 2006. After the surge, there were ten attacks nationwide a week. They were not even effective. So we had the metrics. We had everything working. We had leverage with the Kurds, leverage with the Sunnis, leverage with Iraqi nationalists made up of all sects, and then we had leverage because we had 160,000 [unintelligible] Prime Minister Maliki to make sure that he upheld the rule of law. [unintelligible] when that happened.
And I had a chance to brief General Petraeus one time about Maliki skirting these things, and he said, well, that is not true, I had dinner with him last night. And I said, well, sir, this is what he said after the dinner. And I provided him with something that he said after the dinner. And he kind of – you know, I could see it. He said in that briefing, hey, listen, if you give me a brief and I say got it, got it, got it, good, that is not a good brief. I want you to push back. And he pointed to me [and said], “Not too much.”
And this was before I got a chance to draw up the all-the-way-sir, which is a thing you say in the 82nd Airborne Division that says we jump out of airplanes with you, or H-minus, meaning hey, I used to be in the same thing you were in. I did not get a chance to say that, so he gave me a couple of shotgun blasts in the chest during that brief, but it actually set me up to be part of the malign Iranian influence team, starting to look at these things.
And what you saw in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 was the complete dismantling of a 90,000-strong Sunni security force that was responsible for decimating Al Qaeda. It was responsible for securing Al Anbar, which was the worst province in Iraq at the time. It secured Nineveh, Diyala, Salah Al-Din, and western Baghdad. You had peace, and you had Sunnis running for political office. And Maliki actually convinced them that they could be part of his coalition. He would give them positions if they formed part of his bloc in 2010.
By 2013, every effective Kurdish commander, with the exception of two staff officers, every effective Sunni intelligence officer and commander not married into the Maliki family or affiliated with a Maliki tribe was purged from the Iraqi security forces, so you had 30,000 Sunnis and Kurds purged from the two divisions that fell to ISIS in Mosul and Tal Afar in 2013. So when people say that the Iraqi Army disintegrated, that was not the Iraqi Army that we trained, that was the Iraqi Army [that] Maliki had replaced with loyalists and Shia party officials.
I know that is a fact because the guy in charge of Mosul was a guy who was part of the Wolf Brigade in 2005, an infamous Shia militia-run organization that was infamous for torturing and killing Sunnis and political opponents directly tied to Iran. And we basically met with him and ensured that he would never get a position again. In 2013, he was responsible for Mosul’s security, and that is what we are dealing with.
So how does Iran fuel ISIS? Well, the Sunnis and the Kurds do not trust the government because they believe it is an Iranian puppet. So ISIS moved into Mosul in 2014, and no force to retake Mosul has been built yet. I have talked to Col. Steve Warren. I have called him out on a couple of things. I understand his position that as spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, I understand his role is to put out positive, good messages.
Well, the truth is you cannot take Mosul back with Shia militias. And when I just visited Kurdistan in November with a former Peshmerga general, he said you cannot take it back with peshmerga, either. We need to bring back the 30,000 Sunnis that used to be in the Iraqi security forces, and we need to reactivate a portion of former Sons of Iraq, to bring those people back. I call the Shia militias former sons of Iran. I wrote an op-ed on that.
But Prime Minister Abadi does not have the power to do that.
I do not know if you remember when Secretary Ash Carter was presenting the special operations package of Apache aircraft to the government, he said no. And two prominent Shia militias, both backed by Iran, Asal ul-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, said that if any additional American forces came in, they would simply tell their Shia militia [fighters] that were being trained by the U.S., being provided close air support by the U.S., to attack U.S. personnel, and so prime minister Abadi said no to this thing.
We secretly got it in there by pushing it up to Kurdistan because the Kurds are always happy to take these things. And I interviewed Sunni military generals in refugee camps in Iraq, former Sons of Iraq and former military commanders that used to be in the Iraqi Special Operations forces. Anyway, so I interviewed them, and they basically said listen, our government does not trust us. We are not allowed back in the military. I had to leave Mosul because ISIS will attack me if I am a former Iraqi security force member.
And when I asked to speak to refugees, I said I want to speak to people that blame the U.S. for this, and I got some people in the room. I did this in Turkey, as well. I visited a refugee camp in turkey with Syrian refugees. I said, “How many of you blame the U.S. for this?” And they all raised their hands. I said, “How many of you think the U.S. should do more?” And they all raised their hands. I said, “What is your biggest concern?” And you will hear from the administration that the greatest recruiting tool for ISIS is Gitmo. Gitmo is the greatest recruiting tool for ISIS.
The greatest recruiting tool for ISIS is the U.S. tilt towards Iran because what that has done is it has fractured Iraq. It has left the northern part of Iraq to the mercy of ISIS, and the Kurds to the mercy of U.S. support. It has fractured Syria. It has left 20 million Sunnis in the northern Middle East, if you combine Syria and Iraq prior to the exit of the refugees, it has left them without a government they trust, and it has left that without a guarantor in the West, because when they look to the West, they do not understand why we are not doing more.
And if you look at what has happened in Iraq, there is no doubt Baghdad is beholden to Iran. And if you go to Syria, there is no doubt Damascus is beholden to Iran and now Moscow. And all of this was just to secure this agreement with Iran that was supposed to moderate this regime. And I get it. I get the contrarian thinking when you get into the White House, but simply doing the opposite of what George Bush would do is not a strategy. It is just not working.
And you know, you can get smart people in the room saying, so who thinks like us in the Middle East? And some smart guy, and we have all met him – they have never been to the military, they have Ph.D.’s, not to disrespect anybody here with a Ph.D., but they come up with these things like, well, Iran feels the same way we do about Sunni extremists. They feel the same way about Israel.
So it is a way, you know, the president simply asked his roundtable, how do we keep the U.S. from continually involving itself in these wars? And you find somebody else to do it, and there are two courses of action that have both fueled terrorist groups, Sunni insurgent groups, and it has been this tilt towards Iran where Iran has influence, and this tilt towards the Muslim Brotherhood where Iran does not have influence.
And you have seen this time and time again with Egypt and how the Muslim Brotherhood tried to hijack the peaceful initial protest in Syria prior to Jabhat al Nusra coming in, prior to the Islamic State of Iraq becoming the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or Daesh, or ISIL, whatever you want to call it, and these other groups. And you see it because of U.S. disengagement.
And our adversaries are strong, patient chess players. Now, when they see a weak adversary, they fill the void, and this tilt has allowed Iran to further entrench. I just met two weeks ago with the Vice President of Iraq, Ayad Allawi. He won the election in 2010. You would not know it because Prime Minister Maliki took it from him by using the accountability and justice law and the terrorism law to punish and intimidate would-be supporters of Ayad Allawi. He, [Maliki], used the al-Qaeda threat to stay in power. He declared martial law. He had his units intimidate and punish Sunni opposition leaders. He started replacing people. He used money in the tribal support councils in Iraq funded by Iran to buy the election in 2010.
And in 2014, he tried to do it again. I do not know if you remember that. When ISIS came in, Maliki had just recently won an election. People were pressuring him to step down because we thought Abadi would be able to do something, and Abadi, of course, the weaker you are in a country, and the less connected you are to these militias, the more influenced by them you are because you do not have the ability to push back because the rule of law does not exist. You have to have these affiliations to make things happen.
So Maliki of 2005 was a compromise candidate that was easily influenced by Shia militias. Abadi is much like Malik in 2005. He still has not grown into the role. And we conflate an English accent with a pragmatic individual who is going to somehow follow our strategic line of thinking in the region. And I for one do not equate the British accent with intelligence, unless you are intelligent, of course.
You know, the thing about Ayad Allawi – I spent a lot of time in London, as well. He, speaking of regional allies in the Middle East and North Africa, and they are all asking the same question, what the hell is the U.S. doing tilting towards Iran? Why are they growing [closer to Iran]?
You saw President Obama’s article in The Atlantic. He basically said our senior regional allies are free riders. They are not doing a lot. And he actually defended Iran, and if you look at just these events, so 2008 [there was the] helicopter ride with General Petraeus, 2009, the release of the Shia militia members that never should have been released, that have the blood of Americans on their hands, all these signs for this administration.
In 2010, Ayad Allawi won the election, so his guys went to General Odierno and said, hey, how can you not just put us in power? You have got 160,000 guys here, and he told us in a group that we advised on the election what Malaki could do. And nobody thought Malaki was going to be able to hold on to that election in 2010, nobody did. I was charged with being the Red Team guy, and I found the way for him to stay in power, and it is exactly what he did. I did not know he was going to do that, but I said, well, what would a man who wants to hold on to power do to circumvent the law?
And he did exactly that.
And General Odierno in this process said listen, I have been told by the administration to take my hands off. And we watched security degradation. We watched the Shi’ification of the Iraqi security forces. We watched competent U.S.-trained commanders and military disintegrate.
One of my good friends and mentors, P.J. Dermer, was crucial to starting up the Sons of Iraq and the Awakening. And he tells a story [about] when he went to Jordan where he met with some Sunni tribal leaders, that he got to do very dangerous things, stand up to Al Qaeda, to provide intelligence. The last time he met with them, one of the guys pulled out a bunch of U.S. military coins out of his pockets, the ones we give our guys when we serve with them, and threw them at his face, and said these are all broken promises. You said you were not going to leave us, you said you were going to make sure that we were part of the security apparatus, and you promised us Maliki would not target us.
What we did in abandoning the Sunnis in Iraq in 2009, ’10, ’11, and ’12 was we left them open to attacks by the government, open to reprisal attacks by Al Qaeda, open to attack by ISIS, Shia militias, and Shia militias again.
You know, I understand the role of a strategic communicator. That is my degree. I am a strategic communications guy. And you know, Commander [John] Kirby retired and now he is at the State Department as a strategic communications guy. He said something the other day that anybody who has ever worked Shia militias, anybody who has ever held a security clearance, anybody who knows who Qasem Soleimani is, anybody who knows what Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is, or Kataib Hezbollah, or any of these other groups like Kata’ib al-Imam Ali are, he said, hey, the notion that these Shia militias are all affiliated with Iran it just ridiculous, that is not the case. The Hashd ash-Shabi, the PMUs, the People’s Volunteer Units, are not affiliated with Iran.
Okay, I am standing here as a former intelligence officer who worked this thing since 2007, but I have been working the Middle East since 1986. This is what you do to assuage Americans. You call something [by a different, more marketable name], something that will sell to the Americans. The ‘people’s mobilization units’ sounds democratic, sounds like a bunch of volunteers, right? So you call it the Hashd ash-Shabi, the people’s formation, and you ignore who is in charge.
So the man in charge of it is Hadi al Amiri, a commander of the Badr Corps, which is Iran’s longest standing proxy in Iraq that had a legitimate role in the Saddam years, probably to overthrow Saddam’s government, but they literally rode in with us when we invaded Iraq in 2003, and they were the ones with the British accents. You know, they were the ones that knew how to talk to Americans. And I met with all of them, and they were better than Jeish al Mahdi. They were better than these other groups because they wore suits, and they were civil, and they drank wine, and they went to school int the states, except for Hadi al Amiri.
Hadi al Amiri has always been an Iranian agent. And I do not know that he is in Iraqi nationalist. He does not say he is. He says his allegiance is to Qasem Soleimani and [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei. When you look at the Badr Corps uniform, there are three pictures on it. It is Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force, Khamenei, and Khomeini, so there are three leaders, all of them Iranian. There is no Sistani on it. There is no Iraqi flag. There is no prime minister Abadi. There are no nationalists. So when you hear these comments that Shia militias are not affiliated with Iran, yet they are led by an Iranian proxy, [do not believe them].
And the deputy commander is even worse. The deputy commander’s name is Muhandis, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. He is a designated terrorist responsible for having a hand in the bombing of one of our U.S. embassies in Africa. His organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, is a designated terrorist group. They are the ones who lobbed IEDs over walls and killed Americans and launch rockets. And they are responsible for leveling 80 percent of Ramadi. And this guy is a deputy commander of these Shia volunteers that are ‘not affiliated’ with Iran. And he is one of Soleimani’s closest confidants, Soleimani’s go-to guy.
Muhandis, al Amiri, these guys are set to do very well in upcoming elections in 2018. They are set to win positions in the Iraqi government based on the public relations photos they have taken in Tikrit and these other places. None of this happens in a vacuum, Sunni militias as well in Iraq are watching this. They are saying, are you kidding me These are the guys that are out here doing this?
When I visited Kurdistan in November, a senior Peshmerga commander on the front lines of ISIS said, we can defeat ISIS. We are not worried about ISIS. Our problem is the Shia militias. The Shia militias’ [fighters] number 100,000, and the problem is they carry Iraqi flags, so their question was will they encroach on Kurdish-held areas? If we shoot at them, we are traitors because we are shooting at forces carrying the Iraqi flag. What are we to do?
And that is falling on deaf ears when we talk about strategy in Iraq with this administration, what these militias are becoming, the political gains they are set to have in 2018, and how they continue to push the Sunni population, not into the arms of ISIS but into a tacit support role because they have no choice. They cannot drive down the street, and pick up a phone, and say, ‘Hey, there is an ISIS commander at this house, come get them,’ because there is nobody there to come get them. There is nobody there to go after them.
So Iran is fueling ISIS [because] they have a like-minded, acquiescent government in Baghdad that is willing to alienate their Sunni population. If you look at Mosul, Mosul now, we are going on two years of ISIS occupation, but no force is being built to retake it. I do not care that there are 7,000 Sunnis in a base south of Mosul, being trained to take Mosul. It is a city of one million. There are 4,500 ISIS fighters there.
And the force that can kill ISIS is already in Mosul. [It is] the 350,000 Sunni military-aged males that have not joined ISIS, do not like ISIS, but are waiting, they are hedging their bets. These are chess players. If we kill it, we do not get anything for it. We need something to kill it, and all we need is a promise that we are part of Iraq’s future. And they are not seeing it, [this promise of inclusion in Iraq’s future], the more it is beholden to Iran.
Stay in Iraq
I was asked by a congressman’s office today what would be a strategy in Iraq to basically not have to go back. I said, well, we have to hug Baghdad tighter than Iran is hugging Baghdad, and we need to stay. We need to have a construct. The Kurds want a base, the Sunnis want a base, and Baghdad wants a base. And we put three air bases in there, and you go with the South Korea/West Germany/Japan construct.
America is going to have to get away [from] this notion that it cannot stay. We can, and eventually it will become a [place] that Americans hopefully want to go to. People love to go to Japan. People love to go to Germany. People want to go to South Korea. You know, in 20 or 30 years, people might be reenlisting to go to these places. I turned down two Japanese assignments, but I would go to Iraq. If it was a reenlistment option, I would definitely go, but I want to be in the embassy because it is a pretty nice gig.
We will go to Syria really quick and then I will take questions.
So [for] Syria, the biggest problem there, how does Iran fuel ISIS in Syria?
Well, if you simply look at the headlines, Russia is leaving Syria. They are not leaving Syria, the real ground forces in Syria. They are simply sending some bombers back to Russia. Russia could simply remove all of its pilots and aircraft in two days. They could all go back to Russia. Conversely, they can put them all back in two days. They own three bases in [Syria] now.
Their goal was never to get involved in a quagmire. Their goal was never to fix Syria with some comprehensive plan like you see the U.S. do with Iraq and Syria. Their goal was to keep Assad in power by hitting rebel positions and Jabhat al Nusra, because Jabhat al Nusra was in there working with the rebels. ISIS positions were rarely hit. Any time the Russians actually hit a rebel position, ISIS was actually able to make gains, so Russia was never in Syria to defeat ISIS.
They are still there, and they need the threat of ISIS to stay. Iran needs the threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria to stay. There is no concerted effort to go into Iraq and Deir ez-Zor. We want to do it, but I just want to tell you as a guy who worked with the Peshmerga, I worked with the Kurds. There are seven different groups of Kurds. The Barzani, PDK, those are the Kurds we fought with. Those are the Kurds we worked with. Those are the Kurds that kept our groups alive in Mosul, but PUK, as well, Talabani’s guys.
The YPG is a temporary ally in the fight against ISIS and is a terrorist group. They are fighting ISIS, that is great. They are socialists, they are secular, and they want to fight ISIS, but they are still going up towards Ankara and other places. And we need temporary alliances. YPG [did a] great job in Syria. We cannot be okay with everything else that is going on.
So when politicians say we need to arm the Kurds and work with the Kurds, understand that absent tribal, political, or ethnic ties to an area, whatever force you are working with is not going to go 100 percent. The Kurds were not going to go to Al Anbar. The Kurds were not going to go to these other places.[When] we got orders in 2005 to deploy a company to Al Anbar, my Peshmerga commander and his Peshmerga buddies were saying – they were all great people kept us alive. They said there is no way we are going there. We have nothing to fight for. That is not Kurdistan. Why would we risk lives? So they actually got sent to Baghdad – just a quick little vignette – they got sent to Baghdad to be part of the surge and broker deals with Jeish al Mehdi.
They said if you do not mess with us, we will not mess with you, much like Iran did with Al Qaeda, if you do not mess with us, we will not mess with you. You can traverse our territories, you can do things, but do not attack any of our people or we will attack you. So these bargains are always taking place, and the U.S. needs to be aware of temporary allowances, but also the strategic goals of Russia [and] Iran in this area.
ISIS is a temporary thing that will be replaced with ISIS 2.0, ISIS 3.0, ISIS 4.0. It is just the way it is going to be from now on. You have these repressive governments that disenfranchise population centers. And they, [these population centers], get a champion, and sometimes these champions form in groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.
And these champions are wearing masks, smoke and mirrors, because soon the population that they are supposedly championing rebels against them, but they should get something for rebelling against them, meaning that they should win back the trust of their government. They should win back U.S. support. They should win back the international community’s support.
How would you feel about being a Sunni military-aged male in Syria and 400,000 deaths are not good enough for the international community to do something? And then Baghdad thinking, wow, if you are not going to do anything else in Syria when they killed 400,000 of their people and used chemical weapons, what do we have license to do? And right now, our adversaries, including ISIS and these other groups, believe they have nine months, ten months to do whatever they want because this administration [will not act].
I had a sobering conversation with a guy who I really respected, who I thought I would influence within the administration. And he told me, listen, Mike, they have a slow burn strategy, a slow fuse strategy. They are not going to do anything. He is going to get out of office and focus on these other things. And one of those things was the Iran deal. The Iran deal kept Assad in power.
You saw our position change. We thought we could go compartmentalize the nuclear deal with Iran. Iran made it about everything. They made it about not doing anything about Assad. They made it about [U.S. forces] getting out of Iraq. They made it about not building a Sunni force. They made it about taking sanctions off people who should not even have sanctions off.
But one of the most brilliant things Iran did, and this is a chess move – I do not know if you know who [Babak] Zanjani is. Zanjani is the Iranian Trump, for our purposes, a billionaire who was tasked by the Revolutionary Guard to bypass U.S. sanctions and sell Iranian oil. He did this, and they somehow in that last weekend in Vienna when we were trying to secure the Iran deal, and they kept bringing up these lists of people. And they kept saying, hey, can you just take these guys off sanctions?[We said] yeah, yeah, sure, we will get to it. And they put it over here. Annex 2 was never vetted by the Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Community never would have allowed Qasem Soleimani, Sepah Bank, Mahan Air, [and] these other groups to receive sanctions relief.
But on that list was Zanjani. Zanjani was recently sentenced to death by the Iranian regime. They asked for sanctions relief only so they could try him for breaking the law, that they insisted he break, to seize his assets. I mean that is bold, unfreeze his assets, sentence him to death, and then we get to seize his assets. And the best part of that message is, if anybody is learning about this, is to tell everybody on Annex 2, hey, guys, do you have any assets? We just unfroze them. You might be next. It might be time to come over to McLean, Virginia and make some friends.
So these things happen. I worked the Osama Bin Laden documents for CENTCOM, and we saw enough. And you just saw the recent release of some letters that were something. Bin Laden was chastising one of his lieutenants for threatening to attack Iran. He told him, listen, Iran is one of our main life support systems here. They allowed travel, they allow funds, they allow arms to come through Iran to get to us in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So we have seen Iran work with groups like Al Qaeda. We have seen the reports of Assad buying oil from ISIS. We have seen these things. We know Iran is not in Syria to defeat ISIS. They will hit ISIS in areas strategic to them along sectarian fault lines in Iraq where there is key infrastructure, where there are areas that are important to what Iran wants. And that is why I do not think you are going to see a force being built to retake Mosul. And you cannot level Mosul like you did Ramadi.
So I hope this kind of put all the dots together there on how this U.S. tilt towards Iran is actually helping ISIS recruit foreign fighters because they are able to tell Sunnis that the U.S. is tacitly supporting Iran, and therefore supporting Assad, because our position has changed. In 2012, we had a red line. In 2013, replacing Assad was part of our strategy. And now we literally have the same position that Iran and Russia have now on Assad being able to stay through elections, where the voters are deemed legitimate by Assad’s government.
It should not be happening. We were paying attention to it, and everybody else was paying attention to it. We were able to do something, and those of you in the military before – I always knew as a junior officer and a junior NCO that I had about two minutes to convince my boss I was right about something. I had to make sure everything I said was fact-based. And I was able to get arguments in front of people in two minutes. I had bullets that said, sir, this is what is going on, here is the evidence, here is what is going on.
I did a Capitol Hill push ahead of the Iran deal, and I had never been in a situation where I presented a decisionmaker with facts, and had them vote along political lines, and that was eye-opening for me. And I will name the names in the future.
But anyway, we are continuing the fight. I am now with the Hudson Institute. I write about ISIS. I write about Iran. Our group, Veterans Against the Iran Deal, is now going to be Veterans’ National Security Initiative, so we can talk about a lot of things. And our charter, the clear intent of the organization, is to ensure no commander-in-chief regardless of party ever politicizes intelligence or downplays threats to America and its allies. If that happens, we will say something, whether it be an ad, an op-ed, or a panel because we have the experts.
People in this organization are former DIA, CIA, NSA, and special operators and experts across the uniformed services. We even have foreign officers, as well, that know these enemies. And I love the charge. I am excited to be part of it. Thank you for your attention.
As an observer, you saw these events unfold on the ground. What was the first moment when it came into your mind that we were going to tilt toward Iran? When did you first realize that that might be an emerging strategic, tactical push?
Oh, when we released Leith Gazali, guys who have never been released.
What time frame was that?
2009 was Leith Gazali. 2010 was Qais Gazali. He is now the leader of AAH, Asal ul-Haq. He is leading Hashd ash-Shabi forces on the battlefield.
It is intriguing because June of ’09 is when Obama gave his A New Beginning speech at Al Azhar. And I think most people assumed he was speaking to the Sunni world. Maybe he was not just speaking to the Sunni world. He was saying our new beginning with the Shia world, too, because that is exactly the same time frame for these things.
Iran had already gotten the message. I think that was more of a message towards the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, but Iran was listening, as well. Iran has worked with Sunni groups, as well, with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well.
First of all, I would like to mention a story I saw in Rudaw that said a Kurdish member of parliament called for an impeachment proceeding against the defense minister, Khaled al-Obeidi. An audit shows at $103 billion dollars was missing from the defense budget. And he said, well, you know, money has been pilfered.
But the main question I have is how many troops will be required to retake Mosul, and to your knowledge, how many ISIS fighters are in the city, and how long at minimum will it take to recover Mosul?
Okay, so I was in Mosul in 2005, 2006, and you could argue that Mosul was never taken from the insurgency. We simply pacified the insurgency by allowing it space. And I have talked to other commanders in the area. You know, Petraeus was there in 2004, 2005, and every time we arrested somebody who was bad, they had a letter that said they were a friend of General Petraeus. They were temporary friends, you know.
When I think about the way we conduct war as we go in, and then a brand-new set of Americans go in, the relationships have to start all over. They do not carry on. That is why when the Marine Corps went into Al Anbar, they brought in the two company commanders that were going to be there over the next 14 months. They went in together.[They] said this is John, this is Mike, he will be here for seven months, and then Mike is going to take over. [It is] good to meet you. These are all the relationships you need to maintain. And then when they trade it off, they maintain these relationships. Anbar got passed by, and the Awakening began in Anbar.
To the question about Mosul, there are 4,500 reluctant ISIS fighters that do not want to be in Mosul [who are] in Mosul. ISIS actually bought into the fact that we were going to conduct an operation last Spring and moved out to high value targets to Syria where there was a more permissive environment. When Syria became a less permissive environment, they went back to Mosul, knowing that we were not going to do anything. When the Iraqi government said that there was going to be a Mosul offensive without saying it is going to be in May, prior to that you saw the dismantling of infrastructure and the movement of satellite equipment, and oil refinery equipment, and the movement of key leaders, as well.
I was on the front lines of ISIS in eastern Mosul in November, and they had a hundred guys in the place we were looking at, and they were not there in the daytime. They busted them in at night. They stayed overnight, picked them up in the morning, and moved them out. And they were not flying flags, and they really did not look like they wanted to be there. There was no population there anymore. They were pretty much just doing a routine kind of thing.
Salaries have dropped in Mosul. The salary for an ISIS fighter a year ago was $500 a month, a car, and a cell phone paid on time. Now it is $50 dollars a month, and they are three months behind. There are so many opportunities to exploit ISIS in Mosul. A majority of the fighters there are foreign fighters. The mayor of Mosul is a Frenchman who is very benevolent, apparently. He gets to be good cop. Bad cops can do other things.
There are 4,500 guys in Mosul who as soon as an operation begins will dwindle down to about 1,500 to 2,000 because there will be an exit, a purge, a blending into the population based on the seriousness of the effort. If it is a heavy-handed tactic by Shia militias and artillery, you are looking at something much different, you are looking at Sunnis willing to protect, willing to fight with, willing to take up arms to fight, not because they joined ISIS but because they are proud Mosulawis. They are proud of their city, that will do that.
The best way to take Mosul, and you can do it now with Shia militias and Peshmerga, is you secure the air base, Diamondback Marez Airfield, and you start conducting intelligence-based attacks from that base, enough to damage the brand. ISIS is all about brand. The only thing you really need to do in Mosul is to basically demonstrate a capability to attack ISIS from Mosul in a protected base they cannot get into. It hurts the brand.
And then what you do from there once you secure Diamondback Marez, you start a recruiting drive. You say anybody who is a former Iraqi military officer, NCO, come to Diamondback Marez, you are going to get [a job]. I talked to the State Department about this. If you deploy one division of American soldiers, it is a lot of money, and if you simply pay back the thirty thousand Sunnis and Kurds purged by Maliki back pay for six years and back promotion, it is literally – I think it was $36 million dollars to do that, and you could do it at $6 million dollars a year. And if you look at the amount of money [that] we are giving Afghanistan, $4 billion dollars a year, you could literally bring them back in with back pay and back promotion and give them careers because we go with these temporary contracts. No Sunni in Iraq wants a temporary contract. They want a military career.
Mosul, you go in, you start bringing these guys in. You make them sources. You drop leaflets, you know, do information operation. Say thanks for that capture of that high value target last night. Remember when Abu Sayyaf was captured by or killed by ISAF or American special operators in Syria, and his wives – he was killed, and she was captured. Within four hours we told the world that we had captured this guy. The Intelligence Community lost six months of collection capability because every ISIS [target] threw away a cell phone and relocated.
So this last guy that we got in Mosul, we do not know who he is. Nobody mentioned his name [or] his role in ISIS. We just said a senior ISIS commander was captured. And what that does, and this is what would help in Mosul, you say these things, you capture somebody, the network lights up. Who was captured? Who is missing? And then you collect, and then you are able to pinpoint grid coordinates where these guys are and conduct intelligence, you know, actionable intelligence raids. Do these things.
Ramadi was rushed. Ramadi never needed to be rushed. There was a ‘We will clear Ramadi by the end of the year,’ and so they leveled it. Ramadi is 80 percent destroyed. They destroyed a city of fifty thousand Sunni Iraqis to kill one thousand ISIS fighters. They did not kill the ISIS fighters. The ISIS fighters fled, and they leveled the city. We cannot level Mosul and call it success. The last time Americans did that, level a city, was Fallujah.
Part of that was Vietnam. We do not do that. That is not counterinsurgency operation. Counterinsurgency is winning the hearts and minds of the local population and having that population once the enemy is killed be able to go back to their home, their business, their store and reopen it that day, not to have to rebuild something that was destroyed.
So that is what I was saying. To Mosul, you just have to start it. Once you start it, you can be successful. You do not have to end it quickly. You simply start it, and you show that you are going to have a recruiting drive, you are going to be able to do actionable intelligence raids [on] the high value targets, and you are going to open the space for reconciliation with their government. That is what we did during the surge. That is what worked.
There has been a lot in the news about the politicization of intelligence on ISIS and on the fact that it was being rewritten more sensitive in a number of ways. Could you address that, but even more can you address what an incoming administration, that might not want to perpetuate that, what are they going to have to do organizationally to essentially reform or to recreate the Intelligence Community where it has been so damaged?
Thank you for asking that. I used to give a lecture at the National Defense University on analysis, paralysis by analysis. And basically, what you have now in the Intelligence Community [is experts who are not really experts]. And I have talked to experts, so [I ask them], who here is the ISIS expert, and somebody will raise their hand. And who here is the al-Qaeda expert? And I said, okay, tell me how to defeat them. [Their responses are], ‘You cannot. They are a formidable terrorist army that just cannot be defeated. They subscribe to the strictest form of Islam. They are Saddam’s former special operators and intelligence officers. They are the cream of the crop.’
And they are not. There are so many ways to exploit these guys. So one of the problems, the discrepancy between what CENTCOM was saying at the highest level, and what their analyst was saying, is there was a gap to be filled. I used to work at CENTCOM. I know the Iraq team, and they were [believers in the idea that ‘ISIS is a formidable terrorist army that cannot be stopped.’
There is an information operation strategy. Unfortunately, the administration conflates information operations with realities on the ground. You can tell ISIS it sucks, it is losing, it is not good, but you should not be telling your Intelligence Community that. You should be asking your Intelligence Community to tell me how to defeat them, and when somebody says you cannot, you should replace that guy on the spot.
Listen, I was never a general, never a colonel. I was a captain, and I was a sergeant, and I was always able to sit there. And I learned early on that if you have something to say, say it. You can say it one time, and then you will be told to shut up, and you shut up. Look for that guy in the room. Look for the guy who has a dissenting view.
One of the biggest problems in the Intelligence Community is we do consensus analysis. So people will say, you know, ISIS is dying, Al Qaeda is dying. And the leader needs to say, who disagrees with this? And that question is not being asked by enough leaders. And there needs to be a box. We used to call it the shadow box or the grey box. We would have a dissenting opinion in that box if somebody did not agree with it, and you need to be able to do that.
One of the problems with CENTCOM – I know General Reichmann, I know the people in charge of the J2 level, I also know General [Lloyd] Austin because we used to jump out of planes together, and you have a decisionmaker who wants to kick doors down and kill bad guys. You have an intelligence cell that says ISIS cannot be defeated, and you have a J2 that says, who is going to fill this intelligence gap?
We have this huge intelligence gap because we do not have enough collectors on the ground to find out enough about ISIS. We do not have enough assets on the ground to recruit sources. We are fighting this information operations campaign that hurts ISIS, and we say ISIS is not doing well. I think as much as people want to say that it was a nefarious, that the information was politicized to make it sound better, I really think they were trying to mend the gap in some cases.
Anywhere where it is intentional politicization of intelligence to serve purposes like Benghazi, or like the Iranian nuclear deal, and with Quds Force activities, you need to call it out. The next administration needs to just have a surge of former military into the Intelligence Community with experience.
I was talking to a guy, a producer at Fox News, who said what can we do differently? I said stop talking to generals. Stop asking generals what they think about stuff because remember generals are consumers of intelligence. Generals are not the ones that are out there, going and getting it. Talk to people that are going and getting it, so a decision maker needs to go into a room of intelligence analysts and look. So in this room right here if we were doing this, I would ask you what you thought about ISIS because you can pick on a guy that acts like he is frustrated (not that you are frustrated). And that is what I would say. I hope that answers it a little bit.
The defense minister of Israel was quoted in today’s Washington Times, saying that Iraq can never be put back together, that it is going to have to be split up into sects by region. Can you address that?
Vice President Biden’s position – this is the only time America was ever able to get all Iraqis to agree against his position, when he said that Iraq should be divided into three. I use the analogy of an iPad. [If] you drop an iPad on the floor, it does not work anymore. It is in three pieces.
The problem with Iraq is everybody wants the heart, everybody wants the kidneys, and everybody wants the brain, and you cannot divide any of those things (the kidneys, I guess).
I would like to ask a question about ISIS. You do not seem to have a tremendously high opinion of them, but are you concerned that given the weakness of the United States and our, by your thesis, which I find fascinating and persuasive, enabling ISIS through Iran, and the weakening positions of, let’s say, the Saudis and other countries that have ISIS present, especially Libya where they are present and active, are you concerned that you might actually see not ISIL or ISIS, but an Islamic State, a real Islamic state, emerge out of our weakness and the weakness of Sunni Islam?
The thing about ISIS is ISIS made one crucial mistake when they went into Iraq, and Osama Bin Laden was a very patient guy. If you look at the Osama bin Laden documents released, he warned against establishing an Islamic State until you were able to pay everybody a salary [and] feed everyone.
He said he would not see it in his lifetime.
Exactly. Then the one thing he left out was: and defend against U.S. airspace. ISIS has no capability to defend against our premier aircraft or the world’s aircrafts. The next ISIS will. The next ISIS will learn that it needs the ability to shoot down American aircraft, so it will probably be the seizure of a more capable military’s air defense assets. You saw the seizure of Syrian air defense assets, but they use it in a direct fire mode and use all the ammunition because they were not patient.
I am thinking of it as much politically as economically and militarily. And the political element, I think, is as important as any of the others.
The Islamic State works if it is something like Turkey, or something like what Morsi tried to do in Egypt if he had not been replaced. I mean you can see that the Saudi model is working. The Iranian model of the Islamic state is working. They both have Sharia law. They both behead [people].
But neither of them can claim a caliphate.
No, no, no.
And that is significant is it not?
But the caliphate demands that those other countries, those other governments, submit.
And indeed, under Islam they should
But the thing about ISIS [is] if you simply to look at Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, you have an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that has told ISIS, no, we are more capable than you, we are more disciplined than you, we have actually done more than you have, and you simply exploited ungoverned spaces and called it a caliphate.
If the caliphate was in Washington, D.C., it would be 395, and then it would go down to 95, and it would just simply be a little bit of the exits because that is what ISIS-controlled territory is. It is not a whole city, with the exception of Mosul. But if you look at these other areas, it is like that. It is simply just a stretch of highway where it connects. So the thing is I believe that ISIS-like entities will try to do this again. They will learn from ISIS. They may be the Sons of ISIS or an offshoot of ISIS.
If you ever go to ungoverned spaces, what you try to see now is ISIS is doing this shift. [ISIS is saying to its followers], ‘let us establish the caliphate in Libya because it is getting too hard to do it in Iraq, it is getting too hard to do it in Syria.’ They are already trying to go somewhere else to establish it to compensate for lost territory, which actually takes away from their argument that they are a caliphate.
IS there not a sufficient resonance between ISIS and, let us say, the folks in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis, that there could be a real problem with a collapse or a radical change in Saudi Arabia, which is entirely possible?
There is [a risk] and thank God for greed. Thank God for competition. Thank God for all of these things that pious men struggle with every day to control because that is dominant in ISIS. They have four intelligent services. Three of them are supposed to look at external threats. One is supposed to look at internal threats. All four are looking internally because the organization is so paranoid.
I met with 12 generals that used to be in the Ba’athist Saddam military in Amman, Jordan in November. They asked me why the hell are we meeting with you? I said I do not know, you guys wanted to meet me. But I used to be an intelligence advisor to General Petraeus, and I used to talk to one of their generals, and I said do you know who General Najimullah is? He said yes. I said, well, tell him Mike says hi.
That is all I had to say. And they sat down, and we talked. And I asked them, were you guys ever part of ISIS? No. Are you part of ISIS now? No. So ‘are you part of ISIS now’ was a definite no. ‘Were you ever part of ISIS or did you ever work with ISIS,’ there was a yeah.
See, the thing about the argument that ISIS is comprised of the best of the best, the cream of the crop of Saddam’s former security and intelligence apparatus is like saying that General McCrystal, General Flynn, General Petraeus, [and] General Keane are all about Branch Davidians that are leading this group in Texas, and they all now are going down this path that they cannot be shaken from. It does not make sense.
So they were part of it. They were part of it, but the apocalyptic wing has taken over ISIS. With the downing of the Russian aircraft, with the Paris attacks, pragmatic Ba’athists have started exiting ISIS over the last year and a half because ISIS is bringing too many enemies to the battlefield.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I could intervene see if there could possibly be a short answer to this one. Just as you have pointed out the strategic realignment toward Iran by the United States has been a great recruitment tool for ISIS, should the next administration do so, what would be the most convincing thing they could do to show that that realignment now is going to be changed?
The first thing the president should do in my opinion is tear up the Iran Deal on day one, put sanctions back on Iran for ballistic missile testing, for supporting terrorism, for using banks to support terrorism, for funding Hezbollah, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asal ul-Haq. Those are all things the administration is considering now. The administration would actually make the argument that we already have sanctions on Iran for all of these things. The problem is they are not enforcing it. They are not freezing those assets that are allowing Iran to prop up Assad, and they are not freezing those assets that are allowing Iran to secure deals with Russia in the future, and not freezing those assets that change hands between China and Russia and Iran.
We have not released the U.S. banking system to European businesses to do business with Iran, and Zarif is calling that a violation of the Iran Deal. And we are not doing that because we have designated businesses with an IRGC affiliation as a violation. So I know it is not a short answer, but the thing the next president needs to do in order to show the Sunnis of the northern Middle East and our traditional allies is put sanctions on Iran for violations, the missile violations, continuing to support terrorism, and then actually set up no-fly zones, increase the U.S. military and advisory role in both Iraq and Syria.
I talk to European national security people all the time that talk about how to defeat ISIS, and they are willing to commit air for airstrikes to defeat ISIS, but they are not willing to commit a ground force. Yet in each one of these countries, they have Syrian refugees that are in their country. I would make a call out to Syrian refugees.
How many of you want to go back to your country, and how many of you want to be supported by us? We will train you to be collectors, intelligence operatives, and we will train you to be close quarter counterterrorism forces to go back and secure your country. And in exchange if you want a visa or something like that, we will do that after this is already taken care of. So the ground force Europe is looking for is already in their country. They are just called Syrian refugees. And you should start recruiting those Sunni military-aged males.
Is anybody trying to do that?
No, I think it is a great idea, but nobody is trying to do it. I have talked about it.
Robert R. Reilly:
Please join me in thanking Mr. Pregent.