The German news and current affairs magazine Der Spiegel has an informative and surprisingly forthright interview with Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in the United States and one of the country’s most senior military intelligence officers. Previously he served as an adviser to president Barack Obama and before that he was a special forces commander in Afghanistan and Iraq. So his opinions come with the weight of inside knowledge and experience. Below are a handful of the more interesting extracts from the exchange though you should read the whole thing for yourself.
“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.
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.”
This is a particularity telling point:
“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.”
Though surely another historic lesson for the nations of the “West” is this: engaging in close political, economic and military relationships with various tyrannical regimes in the Middle East and north Africa implicitly makes one complicit to the actions of those regimes. The United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy cannot supply military equipment and know-how to a rogues’ gallery of dictatorships, kingdoms and theocracies and then deny guilt-by-association when those assets are used to suppress liberal or democratic forces in the region.