A former Pentagon intelligence chief, Iraqi government sources, and a retired career US diplomat reveal US complicity in the rise of ISIS
A new memoir by a former senior State Department analyst provides stunning details on how decades of support for Islamist militants linked to Osama bin Laden brought about the emergence of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS).
The book establishes a crucial context for recent admissions by Michael T. Flynn, the retired head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), confirming that White House officials made a “willful decision” to support al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists in Syria — despite being warned by the DIA that doing so would likely create an ‘ISIS’-like entity in the region.
J. Michael Springmann, a retired career US diplomat whose last government post was in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, reveals in his new book that US covert operations in alliance with Middle East states funding anti-Western terrorist groups are nothing new. Such operations, he shows, have been carried out for various short-sighted reasons since the Cold War and after.
In the 1980s, as US support for mujahideen fighters accelerated in Afghanistan to kick out the Soviet Union, Springmann found himself unwittingly at the heart of highly classified operations that allowed Islamist militants linked to Osama bin Laden to establish a foothold within the United States.
After the end of the Cold War, Springmann alleged, similar operations continued in different contexts for different purposes — in the former Yugoslavia, in Libya and elsewhere. The rise of ISIS, he contends, was a predictable outcome of this counterproductive policy.
Pentagon intel chief speaks out
Everyday brings new horror stories about atrocities committed by ISIS fighters. Today, for instance, the New York Times offered a deeply disturbing report on how ISIS has formally adopted a theology and policy of systematic rape of non-Muslim women and children. The practice has become embedded throughout the territories under ISIS control through a process of organized slavery, sanctioned by the movement’s own religious scholars.
But in a recent interview on Al-Jazeera’s flagship talk-show ‘Head to Head,’former DIA chief Lieutenant General (Lt. Gen.) Michael Flynn told host Mehdi Hasan that the rise of ISIS was a direct consequence of US support for Syrian insurgents whose core fighters were from al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Back in May, INSURGE intelligence undertook an exclusive investigation into a controversial declassified DIA document appearing to show that as early as August 2012, the DIA knew that the US-backed Syrian insurgency was dominated by Islamist militant groups including “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
Asked about the DIA document by Hasan, who noted that “the US was helping coordinate arms transfers to those same groups,” Flynn confirmed that the intelligence described by the document was entirely accurate.
Telling Hasan that he had read the document himself, Flynn said that it was among a range of intelligence being circulated throughout the US intelligence community that had led him to attempt to dissuade the White House from supporting these groups, albeit without success.
Flynn added that this sort of intelligence was available even before the decision to pull out troops from Iraq:
“My job was to ensure that the accuracy of our intelligence that was being presented was as good as it could be, and I will tell you, it goes before 2012. When we were in Iraq, and we still had decisions to be made before there was a decision to pull out of Iraq in 2011, it was very clear what we were going to face.”
In other words, long before the inception of the armed insurrection in Syria — as early as 2008 (the year in which the final decision was made on full troop withdrawal by the Bush administration) — US intelligence was fully aware of the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) among other Islamist militant groups.
Supporting the enemy
Despite this, Flynn’s account shows that the US commitment to supporting the Syrian insurgency against Bashir al-Assad led the US to deliberately support the very al-Qaeda affiliated forces it had previously fought in Iraq.
Far from simply turning a blind eye, Flynn said that the White House’s decision to support al-Qaeda linked rebels against the Assad regime was not a mistake, but intentional:
Hasan: “You are basically saying that even in government at the time, you knew those groups were around, you saw this analysis, and you were arguing against it, but who wasn’t listening?”
Flynn: “I think the administration.”
Hasan: “So the administration turned a blind eye to your analysis?”
Flynn: “I don’t know if they turned a blind eye. I think it was a decision, a willful decision.”
Hasan: “A willful decision to support an insurgency that had Salafists, Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood?”
Flynn: “A willful decision to do what they’re doing… You have to really ask the President what is it that he actually is doing with the policy that is in place, because it is very, very confusing.”
Prior to his stint as DIA chief, Lt. Gen. Flynn was Director of Intelligence for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command.
Flynn is the highest ranking former US intelligence official to confirm that the DIA intelligence report dated August 2012, released earlier this year, proves a White House covert strategy to support Islamist terrorists in Iraq and Syria even before 2011.
In June, INSURGE reported exclusively that six former senior US and British intelligence officials agreed with this reading of the declassified DIA report.
Flynn’s account is corroborated by other former senior officials. In an interview on French national television , former French Foreign MinisterRoland Dumas said that the US’ chief ally, Britain, had planned covert action in Syria as early as 2009 — after US intelligence had clear information according to Flynn on al-Qaeda’s threat to Syria:
“I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business. I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria.”
Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the movement now known as ‘Islamic State,’ was on the decline due to US and Iraqi counter-terrorism operations from 2008 to 2011 in coordination with local Sunni tribes. In that period, al-Qaeda in Iraq became increasingly isolated, losing the ability to enforce its harsh brand of Islamic Shari’ah law in areas it controlled, and giving up more and more territory.
By late 2011, over 2,000 AQI fighters had been killed, just under 9,000 detained, and the group’s leadership had been largely wiped out.
Right-wing pundits have often claimed due to this background that the decision to withdraw troops from Iraq was the key enabling factor in the resurgence of AQI, and its eventual metamorphosis into ISIS.
But Flynn’s revelations prove the opposite — that far from the rise of ISIS being solely due to a vacuum of power in Iraq due to the withdrawal of US troops, it was the post-2011 covert intervention of the US and its allies, the Gulf states and Turkey, which siphoned arms and funds to AQI as part of their anti-Assad strategy.
Even in Iraq, the surge laid the groundwork for what was to come. Among the hundred thousand odd Sunni tribesmen receiving military and logistical assistance from the US were al-Qaeda sympathisers and anti-Western insurgents who had previously fought alongside al-Qaeda.
In 2008, a US Army-commissioned RAND report confirmed that the US was attempting to “to create divisions in the jihadist camp. Today in Iraq such a strategy is being used at the tactical level.” This included forming “temporary alliances” with al-Qaeda affiliated “nationalist insurgent groups” that have fought the US for four years, now receiving “weapons and cash” from the US.
The idea was, essentially, to bribe former al-Qaeda insurgents to breakaway from AQI and join forces with the Americans. Although these Sunni nationalists “have cooperated with al-Qaeda against US forces,” they are now being supported to exploit “the common threat that al-Qaeda now poses to both parties.”
In the same year, former CIA military intelligence officer and counter-terrorism specialist Philip Geraldi, stated that US intelligence analysts “are warning that the United States is now arming and otherwise subsidizing all three major groups in Iraq.” The analysts “believe that the house of cards is likely to fall down as soon as one group feels either strong or frisky enough to assert itself.” Giraldi predicted:
“The winner in the convoluted process has been everyone who wants to see a civil war.”
By Flynn’s account, US intelligence was also aware in 2008 that the empowerment of former al-Qaeda insurgents would eventually backfire and strengthen AQI in the long-run, especially given that the Shi’a dominated US-backed central government continued to discriminate against Sunni populations.
Having provided extensive support for former al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni insurgents in Iraq from 2006 to 2008 — in order to counter AQI — US forces did succeed in temporarily routing AQI from its strongholds in the country.
Simultaneously, however, if Roland Dumas’ account is correct, the US and Britain began covert operations in Syria in 2009. From 2011 onwards, US support for the Syrian insurgency in alliance with the Gulf states and Turkey was providing significant arms and cash to AQI fighters.
The porous nature of relations between al-Qaeda factions in Iraq and Syria, and therefore the routine movement of arms and fighters across the border, was well-known to the US intelligence community in 2008.
In October 2008, Major General John Kelly — the US military official responsible for Anbar province where the bulk of US support for Sunni insurgents to counter AQI was going — complained bitterly that AQI fighters had regrouped across the border in Syria, where they had established a “sanctuary.”
The border, he said, was routinely used as an entry point for AQI fighters to enter Iraq and conduct attacks on Iraqi security forces.
Ironically, at this time, AQI fighters in Syria were tolerated by the Assad regime. A July 2008 report by the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point documented AQI’s extensive networks inside Syria across the border with Iraq.
“The Syrian government has willingly ignored, and possibly abetted, foreign fighters headed to Iraq. Concerned about possible military action against the Syrian regime, it opted to support insurgents and terrorists wreaking havoc in Iraq.”
Yet from 2009 onwards according to Dumas, and certainly from 2011 by Flynn’s account, the US and its allies began supporting the very same AQI fighters in Syria to destabilize the Assad regime.
The policy coincided with the covert US strategy revealed by Seymour Hersh in 2007: using Saudi Arabia to funnel support for al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islamists as a mechanism for isolating Iran and Syria.
Reversing the surge
During this period in which the US, the Gulf states, and Turkey supported Syrian insurgents linked to AQI and the Muslim Brotherhood, AQI experienced an unprecedented resurgence.
US troops finally withdrew fully from Iraq in December 2011, which means by the end of 2012, judging by the DIA’s August 2012 report and Flynn’s description of the state of US intelligence in this period, the US intelligence community knew that US and allied support for AQI in Syria was directly escalating AQI’s violence across the border in Iraq.
Despite this, in Flynn’s words, the White House made a “willful decision” to continue the policy despite the possibility it entailed “of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor)” according to the DIA’s 2012 intelligence report.
The Pentagon document had cautioned that if a “Salafist principality” did appear in eastern Syria under AQI’s dominance, this would have have “dire consequences” for Iraq, providing “the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi,” and a “renewed momentum” for a unified jihad “among Sunni Iraq and Syria.”
Most strikingly, the report warned that AQI, which had then changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI):
“ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”
As the US-led covert strategy accelerated sponsorship of AQI in Syria, AQI’s operations in Iraq also accelerated, often in tandem with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhut al-Nusra.
According to Prof. Anthony Celso of the Department of Security Studies at Angelo State University in Texas, “suicide bombings, car bombs, and IED attacks” by AQI in Iraq “doubled a year after the departure of American troops.” Simultaneously, AQI began providing support for al-Nusra by inputting fighters, funds and weapons from Iraq into Syria.
As the Pentagon’s intelligence arm had warned, by April 2013, AQI formally declared itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In the same month, the European Union voted to ease the embargo on Syria to allow al-Qaeda and ISIS dominated Syrian rebels to sell oil to global markets, including European companies. From this date to the following year when ISIS invaded Mosul, several EU countries were buying ISIS oilexported from the Syrian fields under its control.
The US anti-Assad strategy in Syria, in other words, bolstered the very al-Qaeda factions the US had fought in Iraq, by using the Gulf states and Turkey to finance the same groups in Syria. As a direct consequence, the secular and moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army were increasingly supplanted by virulent Islamist extremists backed by US allies.
In February 2014, Lt. Gen. Flynn delivered the annual DIA threat assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee. His testimony revealed that rather than coming out of the blue, as the Obama administration claimed, US intelligence had anticipated the ISIS attack on Iraq.
In his statement before the committee, which corroborates much of what he told Al-Jazeera, Flynn had warned that “al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) also known as Iraq and Levant (ISIL)… probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah.” He added that “some Sunni tribes and insurgent groups appear willing to work tactically with AQI as they share common anti-government goals.”
Criticizing the central government in Baghdad for its “refusal to address long-standing Sunni grievances,” he pointed out that “heavy-handed approach to counter-terror operations” had led some Sunni tribes in Anbar “to be more permissive of AQI’s presence.” AQI/ISIL has “exploited” this permissive security environment “to increase its operations and presence in many locations” in Iraq, as well as “into Syria and Lebanon,” which is inflaming “tensions throughout the region.”
It should be noted that precisely at this time, the West, the Gulf states and Turkey, according to the DIA’s internal intelligence reports, were supporting AQI and other Islamist factions in Syria to “isolate” the Assad regime. By Flynn’s account, despite his warnings to the White House that an ISIS attack on Iraq was imminent, and could lead to the destabilization of the region, senior Obama officials deliberately continued the covert support to these factions.
US intelligence was also fully cognizant of Iraq’s inability to repel a prospective ISIS attack on Iraq, raising further questions about why the White House did nothing.
The Iraqi army has “been unable to stem rising violence” and would be unable “to suppress AQI or other internal threats” particularly in Sunni areas like Ramadi, Falluja, or mixed areas like Anbar and Ninewa provinces, Flynn told the Senate. As Iraq’s forces “lack cohesion, are undermanned, and are poorly trained, equipped and supplied,” they are “vulnerable to terrorist attack, infiltration and corruption.”
Senior Iraqi government sources told me on condition of anonymity that both Iraqi and American intelligence had anticipated an ISIS attack on Iraq, and specifically on Mosul, as early as August 2013.
Intelligence was not precise on the exact timing of the assault, one source said, but it was known that various regional powers were complicit in the planned ISIS offensive, particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey:
“It was well known at the time that ISIS were beginning serious plans to attack Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey played a key role in supporting ISIS at this time, but the UAE played a bigger role in financial support than the others, which is not widely recognized.”
When asked whether the Americans had attempted to coordinate with Iraq on preparations for the expected ISIS assault, particularly due to the recognized inability of the Iraqi army to withstand such an attack, the senior Iraqi official said that nothing had happened:
“The Americans allowed ISIS to rise to power because they wanted to get Assad out from Syria. But they didn’t anticipate that the results would be so far beyond their control.”
This was not, then, a US intelligence failure as such. Rather, the US failure to to curtail the rise of ISIS and its likely destabilization of both Iraq and Syria, was not due to a lack of accurate intelligence — which was abundant and precise — but due to an ill-conceived political decision to impose ‘regime change’ on Syria at any cost.
This is hardly the first time political decisions in Washington have blocked US intelligence agencies from pursuing investigations of terrorist activity, and scuppered their crackdowns on high-level state benefactors of terrorist groups.
According to Michael Springmann in his new book, Visas for al-Qaeda: CIA Handouts that Rocked the World, the same structural problems explain the impunity with which terrorist groups have compromised Western defense and security measures for the last few decades.
Much of his book is clearly an effort to make sense of his personal experience by researching secondary sources and interviewing other former US government and intelligence officials. While there are many problems with some of this material, the real value of Springmann’s book is in the level of detail he brings to his first-hand accounts of espionage at the US State Department, and its damning implications for understanding the ‘war on terror’ today.
Springmann served in the US government as a diplomat with the Commerce Department and the State Department’s Foreign Service, holding postings in Germany, India, and Saudi Arabia. He began his diplomatic career as a commercial officer at the US embassy in Stuttgart, Germany (1977–1980), before becoming a commercial attaché in New Delhi, India (1980–1982). He was later promoted to head of the Visa Bureau at the US embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1987–1989), and then returned to Stuttgart to become a political/economic officer (1989–1991).
Before he was fired for asking too many questions about illegal practices at the US embassy in Jeddah, Springmann’s last assignment was as a senior economic officer at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (1991), where he had security clearances to access restricted diplomatic cables, along with highly classified intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA.
Springmann says that during his tenure at the US embassy in Jeddah, he was repeatedly asked by his superiors to grant illegal visas to Islamist militants transiting through Jeddah from various Muslim countries. He eventually learned that the visa bureau was heavily penetrated by CIA officers, who used their diplomatic status as cover for all manner of classified operations — including giving visas to the same terrorists who would later execute the 9/11 attacks.
CIA officials operating at the US embassy in Jeddah, according to Springmann, included CIA base chief Eric Qualkenbush, US Consul General Jay Frere, and political officer Henry Ensher.
Thirteen out of the 15 Saudis among the 9/11 hijackers received US visas. Ten of them received visas from the US embassy in Jeddah. All of them were in fact unqualified, and should have been denied entry to the US.
Springmann was fired from the State Department after filing dozens of Freedom of Information requests, formal complaints, and requests for inquiries at multiple levels in the US government and Congress about what he had uncovered. Not only were all his attempts to gain disclosure and accountability systematically stonewalled, in the end his whistleblowing cost him his career.
Springmann’s experiences at Jeddah, though, were not unique. He points out that Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted as the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, received his first US visa from a CIA case officer undercover as a consular officer at the US embassy in Khartoum in Sudan.
The ‘Blind Sheikh’ as he was known received six CIA-approved US visas in this way between 1986 and 1990, also from the US embassy in Egypt. But as Springmann writes:
“The ‘blind’ Sheikh had been on a State Department terrorist watch list when he was issued the visa, entering the United States by way of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Sudan in 1990.”
In the US, Abdel Rahman took-over the al-Kifah Refugee Center, a major mujahideen recruitment hub for the Afghan war controlled by Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. He not only played a key role in recruiting mujahideen for Afghanistan, but went on to recruit Islamist fighters for Bosnia after 1992.
Even after the 1993 WTC attack, as Springmann told BBC Newsnight in 2001, “The attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 did not shake the State Department’s faith in the Saudis, nor did the attack on American barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three years later, in which 19 Americans died.”
The Bosnia connection is highly significant. Springmann reports that alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad “had fought in Afghanistan (after studying in the United States) and then went on to the Bosnian war in 1992…
“In addition, two more of the September 11, 2001, hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both Saudis, had gained combat experience in Bosnia. Still more connections came from Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who supposedly helped Mohammed Atta with planning the World Trade Center attacks. He had served with Bosnian army mujahideen units. Ramzi Binalshibh, friends with Atta and Zammar, had also fought in Bosnia.”
US and European intelligence investigations have uncovered disturbing evidence of how the Bosnian mujahideen pipeline, under the tutelage of Saudi Arabia, played a major role in incubating al-Qaeda’s presence in Europe.
According to court papers filed in New York on behalf of the 9/11 families in February, covert Saudi government support for Bosnian arms and training was “especially important to al-Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the US.”
After 9/11, despite such evidence being widely circulated within the US and European intelligence communities, both the Bush and Obama administrations continued working with the Saudis to mobilize al-Qaeda affiliated extremists in the service of what the DIA described as rolling back “the strategic depth of the Shia expansion” across Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The existence of this policy has been confirmed by former 30-year MI6 Middle East specialist Alastair Crooke. Its outcome — in the form of the empowerment of the most virulent Islamist extremist forces in the region — was predictable, and indeed predicted.
In August 2012 — the same date as the DIA’s controversial intelligence report anticipating the rise of ISIS — I quoted the uncannily prescient remarks of Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, who forecast that US support for Islamist rebels in Syria would likely to lead to “the slaughter of some portion of Syria’s Alawite and Shia communities”; “the triumph of Islamist forces, although they may deign to temporarily disguise themselves in more innocent garb”; “the release of thousands of veteran and hardened Sunni Islamist insurgents”; and even “the looting of the Syrian military’s fully stocked arsenals of conventional arms and chemical weapons.”
I then warned that the “further militarization” of the Syrian conflict would thwart the “respective geostrategic ambitions” of regional powers “by intensifying sectarian conflict, accelerating anti-Western terrorist operations, and potentially destabilizing the whole Levant in a way that could trigger a regional war.”
Parts of these warnings have now transpired in ways that are even more horrifying than anyone ever imagined. The continued self-defeating approach of the US-led coalition may well mean that the worst is yet to come.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. A former Guardian writer, he writes the ‘System Shift’ column for VICE’s Motherboard, and is also a columnist for Middle East Eye.
He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award, known as the ‘Alternative Pulitzer Prize’, for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work, and was selected in the Evening Standard’s ‘Power 1,000’ most globally influential Londoners.
Nafeez has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist, Counterpunch, Truthout, among others. He is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Faculty of Science and Technology at Anglia Ruskin University.
Nafeez is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), and the scifi thriller novel ZERO POINT, among other books. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.
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