November 30, 2016—In an interview for Spiegel Online, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn explained why the Bush administration’s emotional response to 9/11 put the country in the wrong direction, exposing Americans and others in the Middle East to unnecessary danger due to the rise of ISIS.
According to the nation’s former highest-ranking military intelligence officer, the US post-9/11 strategy may have allowed the Islamic State to grow.
In the interview, Flynn said that the international community failed to prevent the Paris and Lebanon attacks, as well as the Islamic State’s attack against a Russian airplane, because global leaders simply did not take the group’s warning seriously.
“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.”
To the former official who served as the commander of the US special forces in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2004 and 2007, killing the Islamic State’s leader and self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi now would make no difference. Killing bin Laden was also a bad idea:
“He [al-Baghdadi] could be dead today, you haven’t seen him lately. I would have much preferred to have captured bin Laden and [Ayman al-]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.”
Flynn said that when analyzed closely, al-Baghdadi has been able to do what Zarqawi and bin Laden weren’t able to do, by “bringing in 1,500 [foreign] fighters a month, from more than 100 nations.”
“At the peak of Zarqawi’s days,” Flynn explained, “they may have been bringing in 150 a month from a dozen countries.”
“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 up for jobs in downtown Baghdad. Al-Baghdadi is much smarter and more precise in his target selection, but still very vicious.”
To fight ISIS and win, Flynn told Spiegel, boots on the ground are necessary, but fighting alone is not the way to go.
“We have to work constructively with Russia,” Flynn said.
“Whether we like it or not, Russia made a decision to be there (in Syria) and to act militarily. They are there, and this has dramatically changed the dynamic. So you can’t say Russia is bad, they have to go home. It’s not going to happen. Get real.”
To the veteran officer, “we need the Arabs as partners,” to make the mission work. “They must be the face of the mission—but, today, they are neither capable of conducting nor leading this type of operation, only the United States can do this.”
While Flynn advocated for sanctions against Arab nations that funnel money to ISIS, he also claimed that former US policies in the Middle East may have helped to create the current crisis.
In February 2004, al-Baghdadi was arrested and kept in a military camp but cleared by a US military commission after being seen as “harmless.” To Flynn, “we were too dumb” for not understanding who they had in their hands.
“When 9/11 occurred, all the emotions took over, and our response was, ‘Where did those bastards come from? Let’s go kill them. Let’s go get them.’ Instead of asking why they attacked us, we asked where they came from. Then we strategically marched in the wrong direction.”
While Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was quick to invade Iraq. To Flynn, that was a deadly mistake:
“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.”
When asked whether he regretted being part of the fall of Hussein since ISIS wouldn’t be a threat if Baghdad hadn’t fallen, Flynn said “yes, absolutely.”
“[The Iraq war] 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.”
In a previous interview, Flynn talked about a “willful decision” to let ISIS rise:
Read the full Spiegel interview here.
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