Ex-US Intelligence Chief on Islamic State’s Rise: ‘We Were Too Dumb’
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.
In an interview, Flynn explains the rise of the Islamic State and how the blinding emotions of 9/11 led the United States in the wrong direction strategically.
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?
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
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