THE CRIMES OF SEAL TEAM 6
February 7, 2017
Officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, SEAL Team 6 is today the most celebrated of the U.S. military’s special mission units. But hidden behind the heroic narratives is a darker, more troubling story of “revenge ops,” unjustified killings, mutilations, and other atrocities — a pattern of criminal violence that emerged soon after the Afghan war began and was tolerated and covered up by the command’s leadership.
THE WEDDING PARTY MASSACRE
ON THE AFTERNOON of March 6, 2002, Lt. Cmdr. Vic Hyder and more than two dozen operators from SEAL Team 6 boarded two Chinook helicopters en route to eastern Afghanistan hoping that within hours, they would kill or capture Osama bin Laden.
Earlier that evening, general officers from the Joint Special Operations Command had scrambled the SEALs after watching a Predator drone video feed of a man they suspected was bin Laden set off in a convoy of three or four vehicles in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, where al Qaeda forces had fortified themselves. Although the video had revealed no weapons, and the generals had only tenuous intelligence that the convoy was al Qaeda — just suspicions based on the color of the man’s flowing white garb and the deference others showed him — they were nervous that bin Laden might get away again, as he had a few months earlier after the bombing of the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. This was a crucial moment: Kill bin Laden now and the war could be over after only six months. The vehicles were headed east toward the Pakistani border, as if they were trying to escape. The mission was code-named Objective Bull.
Afghanistan’s Paktia province is about the size of New Hampshire, with 10,000-foot ridgelines and arid valleys with dried riverbeds below, nestled along the border with Pakistan’s tribal areas. The prominent mountain range often served as the last geographic refuge for retreating forces entering Pakistan. As the special operations helicopters approached the convoy from the north and west, Air Force jets dropped two bombs, halting the vehicles and killing several people instantly.
That was not how the SEALs wanted the mission to develop. Inside the helicopters, some of the operators had pushed to hold off any air attack, arguing that they had plenty of time to intercept the convoy before it reached the Pakistani border. “The reason SEAL Team 6 exists is to avoid bombs and collateral damage,” said a retired SEAL Team 6 member who was on the mission. “We said, ‘Let us set down and take a look at the convoy to determine if it’s al Qaeda.’ Instead, they dropped several bombs.”
The bombing stopped the convoy along a dry wadi, or ravine, with two of the trucks approximately a kilometer apart. Survivors began to flee the wreckage, and over the radio, Hyder and his team heard the order that the convoy was now in a “free fire zone,” allowing the Chinooks’ gunners to fire at anyone deemed a threat, regardless of whether they were armed. The SEALs had no authority over the helicopter gunners.
The two Chinooks landed separately, one near each end of the convoy. Both teams exited the helicopters to find a grim scene. The SEALs with Hyder came out and separated into two groups. One, led by an enlisted operator, took in the damage to one of the vehicles. Men, women, and a small girl, motionless and in the fetal position, appeared dead. Inside the vehicle were one or two rifles, as is customary in Afghanistan, but none of the men wore military clothing or had any extra ammunition. “These were family weapons,” said the retired SEAL.
The SEALs from the other helicopter immediately headed up a steep hill after landing to locate an armed man who had been shot from the helicopter. When they reached the hilltop, the operators looked down in disbelief at women and children, along with the man — all were dead or mortally wounded from the spray of gunfire from the Chinook’s gunners, who had unloaded after the free fire zone had been declared. They realized the man had been trying to protect the women and children.
Other SEALs on the ground proceeded as though the survivors were combatants. Hyder and an enlisted operator named Monty Heath had gone in a different direction and saw a survivor flee the bombed vehicle toward a nearby berm. Heath fired once, hitting the man, sending him tumbling down the back side of the small rise.
At that point, Hyder began assessing the damage and surveying the dead. “I was going around to the different KIAs with my camera to take photos,” Hyder told me in an interview, using the military term for enemies killed in action. “It was a mess.”
Hyder said that he and a few other SEALs began to bury the casualties near a ravine by piling rocks over them. As he did so, he approached the man Heath had shot. “He was partially alive, faced down, his back to me, and he rolled over. I shot him, finished him. He was dying, but he rolled over and I didn’t know whether he was armed or not. That was the end of that.” Hyder said that his single shot had blasted open the man’s head.
According to Hyder, the encounter ended there. But the retired SEAL who was on the mission tells a different story. According to this source, after shooting the man, who turned out to be unarmed, Hyder proceeded to mutilate his body by stomping in his already damaged skull. When Heath, who witnessed Hyder’s actions, reported them to his team leader in the presence of other members of the team, “several of the guys turned and walked away,” said the retired SEAL. “They were disgusted.” He quoted Heath as saying, “I’m morally flexible but I can’t handle that.” Heath refused to comment for this article.
The retired SEAL, who spent the better part of two decades at the command, said he never asked Hyder why he mutilated the corpse. It wasn’t necessary. He assumed it was a twisted act of misplaced revenge over the previous days’ events — specifically, the gruesome death of Hyder’s teammate Neil Roberts.
reset-5-1484005850 Top: Photo of helicopter on Takur Ghar. Bottom left: Screengrab from drone feed during the battle of Roberts Ridge. Bottom right: Candid photo of U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts. Photos: U.S. Department of Defense; Screengrab from video by U.S. Department of Defense; U.S. Navy by the Roberts family
LESS THAN 48 HOURS before Objective Bull commenced, a small reconnaissance group from SEAL Team 6’s Red Team had tried to establish an observation post on the 10,000-foot peak of Takur Ghar, overlooking the Shah-i-Kot valley, where forces from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division intended to strike the last redoubt of al Qaeda forces massed in Afghanistan. Neil “Fifi” Roberts, a member of the SEAL recon team, fell 10 feet from the back of a Chinook and was stranded as the helicopter took fire from foreign al Qaeda fighters who were already on the snow-covered mountaintop. Two hours passed before the SEALs in the damaged helicopter were able to return. They didn’t know it, but Roberts was already dead, shot at close range in the head shortly after his helicopter departed the mountaintop. A Predator drone video feed filmed an enemy fighter standing over Roberts’s body for two minutes, trying to behead the dead American with a knife.
Eventually, two other elements of a quick reaction force — one of which included Hyder — landed at the top of Takur Ghar. In the ensuing 17-hour battle with the al Qaeda fighters, six more Americans were killed, and several were wounded. After the bodies were recovered, Hyder and the other members of Red Team were forced to reckon with the mutilation and near beheading of their fellow SEAL. Hyder was new to SEAL Team 6, but as the ranking officer on the ground during that operation, he was technically in charge. He took Roberts’s death hard.
Neil Roberts was the first member of SEAL Team 6 to die in the Afghan war, and among the first elite operators who died after 9/11. Beyond the dehumanizing manner in which the al Qaeda fighters had treated his corpse, Roberts’s death pierced the SEALs’ self-perception of invincibility.
The battle of Roberts Ridge, as it came to be known, has been frequently described in books and press accounts. But what happened during Objective Bull, the assault on the convoy in the Shah-i-Kot Valley, has never been previously reported.
Roberts’s death, and the subsequent operations in eastern Afghanistan during the winter 2002 deployment, left an indelible impression on SEAL Team 6, especially on Red Team. According to multiple SEAL Team 6 sources, the events of that day set off a cascade of extraordinary violence. As the legend of SEAL Team 6 grew, a rogue culture arose that operated outside of the Navy’s established mechanisms for command and investigation. Parts of SEAL Team 6 began acting with an air of impunity that disturbed observers within the command. Senior members of SEAL Team 6 felt the pattern of brutality was not only illegal but rose to the level of war crimes.
“To understand the violence, you have to begin at Roberts Ridge,” said one former member of SEAL Team 6 who deployed several times to Afghanistan. “When you see your friend killed, recover his body, and find that the enemy mutilated him? It’s a schoolyard mentality. ‘You guys want to play with those rules?’ ‘OK.’” Although this former SEAL acknowledged that war crimes are wrong, he understood how they happen. “You ask me to go living with the pigs, but I can’t go live with pigs and then not get dirty.”
SEAL Team 6 patches. Clockwise from top left: Blue Squadron, known as the Pirates; Gold Squadron, known as the Crusaders or Knights; Red Squadron, known as the Redmen; and Silver Squadron.
NO SINGLE MILITARY unit has come to represent American military success or heroism more than SEAL Team 6, officially designated as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and known in military vernacular as DevGru, Team 6, the Command, and Task Force Blue. Its operators are part of an elite, clandestine cadre. The men who make it through the grueling training represent roughly the top 10 percent of all SEALs. They are taught to live and if necessary die for one another. The extreme risks they take forge extreme bonds.
Made up of no more than 200 SEAL operators when the Afghan war began, SEAL Team 6 was the lesser known of the U.S. military’s elite “special mission” units. Created in 1980 and based at the Dam Neck Annex of Naval Air Station Oceana near Virginia Beach, the command prided itself on its culture of nonconformity with the larger military. The unit’s name itself is part of an attempt to obscure U.S. capabilities. When it was commissioned, the Navy had only two SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) assault teams, but founding officer Cmdr. Richard Marcinko hoped that the number six would lead the Soviet military to inflate its assessment of the Navy’s SEALs.
When SEAL Team 6 first deployed to Afghanistan in January 2002, the command had three assault teams, Red, Blue, and Gold, each with a mascot. Red Team, known as the Redmen, employed a Native American warrior as a mascot; Blue Team, known as the Pirates, wore the Jolly Roger; and Gold Team, known as the Crusaders or Knights, wore a lion or a crusader’s cross.
The prevailing narrative about SEAL Team 6 in news coverage, bestselling books, and Hollywood movies is unambiguously heroic; it centers on the killing of Osama bin Laden and high-profile rescue missions. With few exceptions, a darker, more troubling story has been suppressed and ignored — a story replete with tactical brilliance on battlefields around the world coupled with a pattern of silence and deceit when “downrange” actions lead to episodes of criminal brutality. The unit’s elite stature has insulated its members from the scrutiny and military justice that lesser units would have faced for the same actions.
This account of the crimes of SEAL Team 6 results from a two-year investigation drawing on interviews with 18 current and former members of the unit, including four former senior leaders of the command. Other military and intelligence officials who have served with or investigated the unit were also interviewed. Most would speak about the unit only on background or without attribution, because nearly every facet of SEAL Team 6 is classified. Some sources asked for anonymity citing the probability of professional retaliation for speaking out against their peers and teammates. According to these sources, whether judged by its own private code or the international laws of war, the command has proven to be incapable and unwilling to hold itself accountable for war crimes.
Most SEALs did not commit atrocities, the sources said, but the problem was persistent and recurrent, like a stubborn virus. Senior leaders at the command knew about the misconduct and did little to eradicate it. The official SEAL creed reads, in part: “Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.” But after 9/11, another code emerged that made lying — especially to protect a teammate or the command from accountability — the more honorable course of action.
“You can’t win an investigation on us,” one former SEAL Team 6 leader told me. “You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”
BY THE TIME the two dozen Red Team operators departed for Objective Bull, tension had built up between Hyder, a commissioned officer, and the enlisted operators technically under his command. The situation was not particularly unusual. Historically, SEAL Team 6 is known as a unit where officers “rent their lockers,” because they typically serve about three years before rotating out, whereas the enlisted operators remain for much of their careers, often for a decade or more. Simply put, the unit is an enlisted mafia, where tactics are driven by the expertise developed by the unit’s enlisted assaulters, whose abilities and experience at making rapid threat decisions make up the command’s core resource. Officers like Hyder, who did not pass through the brutal SEAL Team 6 internal training program, known as Green Team, are often viewed with suspicion and occasionally contempt by the enlisted SEAL operators.
Even before the attack on the convoy and the alleged mutilation of the dead Afghan, Hyder had committed at least one killing with questionable justification. Several weeks earlier, in January 2002, Hyder killed an unarmed Afghan man north of Kandahar during the unit’s first ground assault of the war. In that operation, Hyder led a team of Red operators on a nighttime mission to capture suspected al Qaeda militants in a compound. After securing several detainees and cordoning the area, Hyder and his men waited for their helicopters to arrive and extract them. During the mission, the SEALs reported receiving small arms fire from exterior positions, though no one was hit. After 90 minutes, as the helicopters were nearing the rendezvous point, one of the SEALs alerted Hyder that an old man who had been lying in a ditch nearby was walking toward the SEALs’ position.
In an interview, Hyder said the man had approached his position with his arms tucked into his armpits and did not heed warnings from other SEALs to stop. Hyder acknowledged that the man likely did not understand English and probably couldn’t see very well. Unlike the SEALs, the man was not wearing night-vision goggles. “He continued to move towards us,” Hyder said. “I assessed he was nearing a distance where he was within an area where he could do damage with a grenade.” Hyder said that a week earlier, a militant had detonated a concealed grenade after approaching some American CIA officers, seriously injuring them. “He kept moving toward us, so at 15 meters I put one round in him and he dropped. Unfortunately, it turned out he had an audiocassette in his hand. By the rules of engagement he became a legitimate target and it was supported. It’s a question, why was he a threat? After all that activity, he’d been hiding in a ditch for 90 minutes, he gets up, he’s spoken to, yelled at in the dark … it’s disturbing. I’m disappointed he didn’t take a knee.”
Hyder, who was the ground force commander for the Kandahar operation, was cleared in an after-action review of the shooting. The rules of engagement allowed the ground force commander to shoot anyone he viewed as a threat, regardless of whether they were armed at the time of the shooting. But in the eyes of the enlisted SEALs of Red Team, Hyder had killed a man who didn’t have to die. Two of the operators with Hyder reported afterward that the man was not a threat. One of those operators was Neil Roberts.
“The SEALs believe that they can handle the discipline themselves, that’s equal to or greater than what the criminal justice system would give to the person.”
The morning after Objective Bull, Red Team gathered at Bagram Air Base. Most of the operators held a meeting to discuss what had happened on the mission. No officers were present, and the enlisted SEALs used the meeting to address Hyder’s alleged mutilation of the dead Afghan the previous day. The discussion covered battlefield ethics. Inside a heated tent, as many as 40 SEAL Team 6 operators asked themselves how they wanted to treat their fallen enemies. Should they seek revenge for Roberts? Was it acceptable, as Hyder had done with the wounded man whom he executed, to desecrate the dead?
“We talked about it … and 35 guys nodded their heads saying this is not who we are. We shoot ’em. No issues with that. And then we move on,” said a former SEAL who was present at the meeting. “There’s honor involved and Vic Hyder obviously traipsed all over that,” he said. “Mutilation isn’t part of the game.”
Nonetheless, Red Team did not report Hyder’s alleged battlefield mutilation, a war crime. In what would become part of a pattern of secrecy and silence, the SEAL operators dealt with the issue on their own and kept the incident from their chain of command.
“The SEALs believe that they can handle the discipline themselves, that’s equal to or greater than what the criminal justice system would give to the person,” said Susan Raser, a retired Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent who led the agency’s criminal division but did not investigate this mission. “They have an internal process that they think is sufficient and they are not inclined to cooperate unless they absolutely have to.” Raser, who conducted investigations into both regular SEAL units and SEAL Team 6, said that in her experience, SEALs simply didn’t report wrongdoing by their teammates.
Senior leaders at the command knew the grisly circumstances of Roberts’s death had unsettled Red Team. “Fifi was mutilated,” said a retired noncommissioned SEAL leader who was involved in internal discussions about how to prevent SEAL Team 6 from seeking revenge. “And then we had to address a very important question, how do you get the guys’ heads straight to mitigate any retaliation for Fifi? Otherwise we knew it’s going to get out of control. A third of the guys literally think they’re Apache warriors, then you had the Muslim way of removing a head. I understand the desire, I don’t condone it, but there was definite retaliation.”
Hyder told me that he did not desecrate the body. “I deny it,” he said, adding that he didn’t understand why Heath would have claimed to have witnessed it. “Even if it was true, I don’t know why he would say that.” Hyder said he was not aware of the Bagram meeting held by the enlisted operators about him or the accusations. “Why would I do that?” he asked. “Somebody else is making this up. Memories get distorted over 14 years. They’re telling you how they remember it. There was a lot of chaos. I’m telling you the absolute truth.”
After the deployment, SEAL Team 6’s leadership examined Hyder’s actions during Objective Bull. For some of them, what was most troubling was not that Hyder might have taken gratuitous revenge for Roberts’s death on an unrelated civilian, but that on more than one occasion, as ground force commander, he had fired his own weapon to neutralize perceived threats. “If you have multiple incidents where the ground force commander pulls the trigger on a deployment, you have a total breakdown of operational tactics,” said one retired SEAL leader. “It’s not their responsibility — that is why we have DevGru operators.”
Beyond the story of the alleged mutilation, the sight of the dead civilians killed during the opening airstrikes of Objective Bull, especially the women and children, left members of Red Team with deep psychological scars. “It ruined some of these guys,” said the former SEAL operator on the mission.
Six days after Objective Bull, the Pentagon announced at a press conference that an airstrike had killed 14 people, who a spokesperson said were “somehow affiliated” with al Qaeda. Sources at SEAL Team 6 who were present during the operation estimated the number of dead was between 17 and 20. Inside the command, the incident became known as the Wedding Party bombing after it was learned that the convoy was driving to a wedding.
Hyder finished his tour at SEAL Team 6 shortly after returning from the Afghanistan deployment and was later promoted to the rank of commander, the Navy equivalent of a lieutenant colonel. He was awarded the Silver Star for his efforts at Takur Ghar to save Roberts and the rest of the Red Team recon element. A few years later, after Hyder’s name was mentioned for another rotation in Red Team, some of Hyder’s former operators informed SEAL Team 6 leadership that he was not welcome back in the unit.
Neil Roberts’s bent rifle was placed on the wall of Red Team’s room at the SEALs’ base near Virginia Beach, a visible reminder of their teammate, their first deployment, and the troubles that would follow.
BLOODY THE HATCHET
ONE CLEAR SIGN that all was not right with the command was the way sadism crept into the SEALs’ practices, with no apparent consequences. A few months after Objective Bull, for example, one of Hyder’s operators began taunting dying insurgents on videos he shot as part of his post-operation responsibilities. These “bleed out” videos were replayed on multiple occasions at Bagram Air Base. The operator who made them, a former SEAL leader said, would gather other members of Red Squadron to watch the last few seconds of an enemy fighter’s life. “It was war porn,” said the former SEAL, who viewed one of the videos. “No one would do anything about them.” The operator who made the bleed-out videos was forced out of SEAL Team 6 the following year after a drunken episode at Bagram in which he pistol-whipped another SEAL.
The SEALs’ successes throughout 2002 resulted in the Joint Special Operations Command choosing the unit to lead the hunt for al Qaeda, as well as the invasion of Baghdad in March 2003. The rise of JSOC as the sharp tip of America’s military effort led to a similar increase in size and responsibility for SEAL Team 6 in the early years of America’s two post-9/11 wars. By 2006, the command rapidly expanded, growing from 200 to 300 operators. What were originally known as assault teams now formally became squadrons, and by 2008, the expansion led to the creation of Silver, a fourth assault squadron. One result of the growth was that back in Virginia, the captain in command of the entire 300-SEAL force had far less oversight over tactical battlefield decisions. It was at this point that some critics in the military complained that SEAL Team 6 — with their full beards and arms, legs, and torsos covered in tattoos — looked like members of a biker gang. Questions about battlefield atrocities persisted, though some excused these actions in the name of psychological warfare against the enemy.
Against this backdrop, in 2006, Hugh Wyman Howard III, a descendant of an admiral and himself a Naval Academy graduate, took command of Red Squadron and its roughly 50 operators. Howard, who has since risen through the ranks and is currently a rear admiral, was twice rejected by his superiors for advanced SEAL Team 6 training. But in 1998, after intervention by a senior officer at Dam Neck, Howard was given a slot on Green Team. Because of Howard’s pedigree, SEAL Team 6 leaders running the training program felt pressure to pass him. After being shepherded through the nine-month training, he entered Red Squadron. Howard took the unit’s identity seriously, and after 9/11, despite the questionable circumstances that led to his ascent, his influence steadily grew.
In keeping with Red Squadron’s appropriation of Native American culture, Howard came up with the idea to bestow 14-inch hatchets on each SEAL who had a year of service in the squadron. The hatchets, paid for by private donations Howard solicited, were custom-made by Daniel Winkler, a highly regarded knife maker in North Carolina who designed several of the period tomahawks and knives used in the movie “The Last of the Mohicans.” Winkler sells similar hatchets for $600 each. The hatchets Howard obtained were stamped with a Native American warrior in a headdress and crossed tomahawks.
At first the hatchets appeared to be merely symbolic, because such heavy, awkward weapons had no place in the gear of a special operator. “There’s no military purpose for it,” a former Red Squadron operator told me. “But they are a great way of being part of a team. It was given as an honor, one more step to strive for, another sign that you’re doing a good job.”
For some of Howard’s men, however, the hatchets soon became more than symbolic as they were used at times to hack dead fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others used them to break doorknobs on raids or kill militants in hand-to-hand combat.
During the first deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was common practice to take fingers, scalp, or skin from slain enemy combatants for identification purposes. One former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that he feared the practice would lead to members of the unit using the DNA samples as an excuse to mutilate and desecrate the dead. By 2007, when Howard and Red Squadron showed up with their hatchets in Iraq, internal reports of operators using the weapons to hack dead and dying militants were provided to both the commanding officer of SEAL Team 6 at that time, Capt. Scott Moore, and his deputy, Capt. Tim Szymanski.
Howard, who declined to answer questions from The Intercept, rallied his SEALs and others before missions and deployments by telling them to “bloody the hatchet.” One SEAL I spoke with said that Howard’s words were meant to be inspirational, like those of a coach, and were not an order to use the hatchets to commit war crimes. Others were much more critical. Howard was often heard asking his operators whether they’d gotten “blood on your hatchet” when they returned from a deployment. Howard’s distribution of the hatchets worried several senior SEAL Team 6 members and some CIA paramilitary officers who worked with his squadron.
reset-1-1484001268 Top left: Red Squadron tattoo. Top right: A bearded Red Squadron SEAL in Afghanistan. Bottom left: A Winkler hatchet similar to those issued to Red Squadron. Bottom right: Undated photo of Adm. Wyman Howard. Photos: Facebook; airsoft-army.com; www.lightfigher.net; Facebook
BEGINNING IN 2005 and continuing through 2008, as U.S. Special Operations forces became more central to the American military strategy, the number and frequency of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan increased dramatically.
One former SEAL Team 6 senior leader said that he and others at the command were concerned that the scale and intensity of the violence in Iraq was so great that U.S. operators might be tempted to engage in retaliatory mutilations, a tactic al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency sometimes employed. “Iraq was a different kind of war — nothing we’d ever seen,” said the now-retired Team 6 leader. “So many dead bodies, so many, everywhere, and so the potential opportunities for mutilations were great.”
The operational tempo was very high. “On my 2005 deployment in Afghanistan, we only went on a handful of ops,” said a retired SEAL who served under Howard. “By the time we moved over to Iraq, we were doing missions as much as five nights a week. Iraq was a target rich environment, and Wyman allowed us to be more aggressive.” According to several former SEAL Team 6 leaders, it was JSOC commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal who ordered the increased operational tempo and pushed SEAL Team 6, including Howard, to conduct more frequent raids to help wipe out the insurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Howard, according to two of his former operators, was more willing than previous officers to greenlight operations based on “weak” intelligence, leading to more raids and strikes. As a result, Howard became popular among the enlisted SEALs under his command, several of whom defended and praised him.
Howard’s critics argue that the hatchets were emblems of the rogue, at times criminal, conduct on the battlefield the commander was encouraging. “Every one of us is issued and carries a suppressed weapon,” said one former senior SEAL, referring to the Heckler & Koch assault rifles, equipped with silencers, issued to the operators. “There just isn’t a need to carry a two-pound hatchet on the battlefield.” For those who favored them, this former SEAL said, the hatchets could be justified as being no more than knives. “It’s a great way to explain it away, but they have the hatchets to flaunt the law. Our job is to ensure that we conduct ourselves in a way befitting the American people and the American flag. The hatchet says, ‘We don’t care about the Geneva Conventions’ and that ‘we are above the law and can do whatever we want.’”
Critics inside the command were troubled by the combination of battlefield aggression and Howard’s lack of military discipline. A retired noncommissioned officer said Howard’s encouragement and provision of Winkler hatchets was simply adding fuel to the fire. The power of the Native American mascot, he said, was not to be dismissed. Since the 1980s, when Red Team was first created, there were many operators in the unit who had experienced a “metamorphosis of identity and persona” into Native American warriors. “Guys are going out every night killing everything. The hatchet was too intimate, too closely aligned with a tomahawk, to have been a good idea.” The former SEAL, who himself had served in Red during his career, said that by giving operators the weapon of their battlefield persona, Howard sent an unmistakable message to his men: Use it. “That’s when you take away a hatchet,” the retired SEAL said. “Not provide them.”
During one Iraq deployment, Howard returned from a raid to an operations center with blood on his hatchet and his uniform. Back at the base, he gave a speech to a group of analysts and nonoperational officers in which he told them that his bloody appearance was a demonstration of how a battlefield commander should lead. One operator, who confirmed Howard’s remarks, added his own: “That’s the business we’re in.”
HEAD ON A PLATTER
THE DEATH AND attempted decapitation of Neil Roberts on Takur Ghar affected no one so profoundly as Britt Slabinski, the operator who led the rescue team back up the mountain only to find that Roberts was already dead. One former teammate who served with Slabinski described his effort that day — outnumbered and with inferior fire support, taking incoming fire from the moment the helicopter landed — as “one of the most heroic things I’ve ever seen.” On the day when SEAL Team 6 lost its first operator in the post-9/11 era, Slabinski became a unit legend.
By all accounts, Slabinski, a second-generation SEAL who joined Team 6 in 1993, was an excellent sniper and reconnaissance operator. Thin and lanky, he was less physically imposing than many SEALs but was charismatic and dedicated. After Roberts’s death, Slabinksi wanted revenge. In audio of an unpublished interview with the late Malcolm MacPherson, author of a 2005 book about Roberts Ridge, Slabinski describes in great detail an operation that took place about a week after Objective Bull. In that mission, known as Objective Wolverine, Slabinski and his fellow SEALs were sent in Chinook helicopters to follow a convoy they believed was filled with al Qaeda fighters escaping to Pakistan. A drone flying above the convoy showed the occupants of three vehicles were heavily armed.
After the Chinook miniguns strafed the vehicles and stopped them, Slabinski and his team of snipers landed and moved to a rise several hundred yards away from one of the trucks and began firing sniper rounds at the militants. In that brief firefight, the SEALs killed nearly 20 foreign al Qaeda fighters, some of whom carried U.S. military equipment taken from Takur Ghar. Slabinski told MacPherson that Wolverine had been “really good payback.”
“Just a phenomenal, phenomenal day. We just slaughtered those dudes.” After describing one particular fighter who from a distance had resembled Osama bin Laden, Slabinksi continued: “To this day, we’ve never had anything as good as that. Oh my gosh. We needed that … there was not a better group of people to go and do that. The guys needed that to get back in the saddle because everyone was gun shy.”
“I mean, talk about the funny stuff we do. After I shot this dude in the head, there was a guy who had his feet, just his feet, sticking out of some little rut or something over here. I mean, he was dead, but people have got nerves. I shot him about 20 times in the legs, and every time you’d kick him, er, shoot him, he would kick up, you could see his body twitching and all that. It was like a game. Like, ‘hey look at this dude,’ and the guy would just twitch again. It was just good therapy. It was really good therapy for everybody who was there.”
Audio from an unpublished interview with Britt Slabinksi conducted by Malcolm MacPherson, author of a 2005 book on the battle of Roberts Ridge.
Shortly after that operation, Slabinski returned to the SEAL Team 6 base at Dam Neck. He was awarded a Navy Cross, the second highest battlefield award for heroism. For several years afterward, the leaders at the command limited Slabinski’s battlefield exposure — assigning him to Green Team as an instructor, for example — hoping the psychological wounds from Roberts Ridge would heal.
By late 2007, Slabinski was deployed to Afghanistan as the senior noncommissioned officer in Blue Squadron. The war was entering its seventh year and had become intractable, with no clear path to victory. Early in the war, the SEALs’ mission was to hunt down al Qaeda’s senior leaders, who had largely vanished into Pakistan, but now Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the leader of JSOC, extended the mission to target the Taliban, who along with al Qaeda were moving back and forth across the Pakistani border with impunity. The SEALs were now going after low-level Taliban financiers and shadow governors.
Blue Squadron was led at that time by Cmdr. Peter Vasely, a Naval Academy graduate who had not gone through the advanced assault training of Green Team that the other members of SEAL Team 6 had endured. He was an outsider, despite having been at the command for many years. Like Vic Hyder, he struggled to command the respect of his men. Slabinski — experienced, charismatic, and by now legendary — bridged the gap.
According to two senior SEAL Team 6 sources, however, the leadership dynamic in Blue Squadron was a failure. By 2007, the command’s leadership was aware that some Blue Squadron operators were using specialized knives to conduct “skinnings.” Using the excuse of collecting DNA, which required a small piece of skin containing hair follicles, operators were taking large strips of skin from dead enemy fighters. The two leading officers at the command, Moore and Szymanski, were informed that small groups in each of the three squadrons were mutilating and desecrating combatants in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Slabinkski and others in the squadron had fallen under the influence of an obscure war novel, “Devil’s Guard,” published in 1971 by George Robert Elford. The book purported to be a true account of an S.S. officer who with dozens of other soldiers escaped Germany after World War II, joined the French Foreign Legion, and spent years in Vietnam brutalizing the insurgency. The novel, which glorifies Nazi military practices, describes counterinsurgency tactics such as mass slaughter and desecration and other forms of wanton violence as a means of waging psychological warfare against the “savage” Vietnamese.
“These fucking morons read the book ‘The Devil’s Guard’ and believed it,” said one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders who investigated Slabinski and Blue Squadron. “It’s a work of fiction billed as the Bible, as the truth. In reality, it’s bullshit. But we all see what we want to see.” Slabinski and the Blue Squadron SEALs deployed to Afghanistan were “frustrated, and that book gave them the answers they wanted to see: Terrorize the Taliban and they’d surrender. The truth is that such stuff only galvanizes the enemy.”
One telling illustration of what had gone wrong with Blue Squadron occurred on December 17, 2007, during a raid in Helmand province. Slabinski had told his operators that he wanted “a head on a platter.” Although some of the more seasoned SEALs took the statement metaphorically, at least one operator took Slabinski at his word, interpreting it as an order.
Later that night, after Blue Squadron’s assaulters had successfully carried out the raid, killing three or four armed men and recovering weapons and explosives, Vasely and Slabinski conducted a walk-through of the compound. Vasely, who was wearing night-vision goggles, looked through a window and saw one of his operators, his back turned, squatting over the body of a dead militant. Vasely later told investigators he saw the operator moving his hand back and forth over the militant’s neck in a sawing motion. Alarmed at seeing what he believed was a decapitation, he told Slabinski to go inside and see what the young operator was doing. By the time Slabinski entered the room where the dead militant lay, according to three former SEAL Team 6 leaders, the operator had severed much of the dead man’s neck.
Slabinski did not report the decapitation, however. He told Vasely that the operator had been trying to remove the dead fighter’s chest rack, a small vest that can hold ammunition and clips. Slabinski told Vasely, and later, Navy investigators, that there had been “no foul play.”
After leaving the compound and returning to their base in Kandahar province, Vasely reported to Moore, his superior officer, that he believed he had witnessed a war crime, a mutilation. Vasely told Moore he wanted an investigation into the incident. Moore, sitting in his office in Virginia Beach, pressed Vasely: What had he actually seen? Was there another explanation?
Moore told his deputy, Szymanski, who was in Afghanistan, to sort things out. Ten days later, the internal JSOC investigation was closed. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service then opened an investigation but was forced to rely on photographs and witness statements because active hostilities made the alleged crime scene inaccessible. When investigators approached the operator accused of mutilating the dead fighter, he exercised his right to remain silent and his right to counsel. A few days after the attempted interview, investigators obtained photos purporting to be of the dead fighter. No cuts were visible in the photos, according to a military official who has reviewed the file. Three weeks after the incident, NCIS closed its investigation, concluding that there was no evidence the SEAL had violated the laws of armed conflict. But according to multiple SEAL sources, the incident did in fact occur.
Szymanski, according to these sources, was directed by Moore to make the episode disappear. “Tim took a dive,” said a former noncommissioned SEAL officer, and it was “at Moore’s direction.” Szymanski had known Slabinski for at least 15 years. They had bonded over Roberts’s death.
Although Blue Squadron had avoided criminal charges, their battlefield conduct continued to set off alarms within the command. Some SEAL Team 6 leaders were appalled by how easily Vasely and Szymanski had folded under Moore’s pressure.
Within two weeks of the apparent beheading, Moore deployed to Afghanistan. While he was there, he confronted the Blue Squadron troop and the operator who’d tried to behead the Taliban fighter. A former SEAL Team 6 leader who has knowledge of the episode told me Moore shamed Slabinski and the squadron for their conduct. That was the only punishment. (The Intercept is withholding the name of the operator, who believed he was following an order. He remains on active duty and has not responded to requests for comment.)
One of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders, who investigated several Blue Squadron incidents, including the mutilation of bodies, said he repeatedly asked the operators why they felt the need to commit such acts. “Often we’d hear, well, they’re savages,” the former leader said. “They don’t play by the rules, so why should we?”
The Intercept submitted three pages of questions to both Adm. Szymanksi, who as head of Naval Special Warfare now commands all SEALs in the Navy, and Capt. Vasely, who currently runs the operations divisions of JSOC. Both declined to comment. Moore did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson at Naval Special Warfare, which oversees SEAL Team 6, declined repeated requests for interviews and refused to answer a detailed list of questions, writing in a statement, “We do not entertain or support public discussion of classified information because it puts our forces, their families and our future operations at great risk.” The SEAL command asserted that “all members of Naval Special Warfare are required to comply with the Laws of Armed Conflict in the conduct of military operations.”
reset-3-1484001272 Top: Capt. Peter Vasely with members of Blue Squadron in Afghanistan. Bottom: Britt Slabinski, left, and Capt. Timothy Szymanski, commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Group, after Slabinski was blackballed by SEAL Team 6 in Norfolk, Va., March 25, 2011. Photos: www.navyseals.hu; Robert J. Fluegel/U.S. Navy
IN 2010, WHEN Slabinski was up for a promotion at the command, SEAL Team 6 leaders conducted two internal inquiries before making a decision. Almost immediately, the issue that received the most scrutiny was the December 2007 attempted beheading. According to two former SEALs, Slabinski told his teammates and superiors that his remark about wanting a head was figurative and not a literal order. By then, there was no question about whether the attempted beheading had occurred; the question was why.
“We didn’t debate whether Slab had told his guys he wanted a head on a platter — he copped to that. The only issue was, was his order real, or just talk?” said one of the retired SEALs involved. “It didn’t make a difference. He said it and one of his operators did it because he believed he was following an order.”
Ten officers and master chiefs voted unanimously against allowing Slabinski to return to the command. At that point, the second inquiry was commissioned by the SEAL Team 6 commanding officer, Pete Van Hooser. Evidence was presented that Slabinski gave an order to shoot all the men they encountered during another raid, whether or not they were armed. According to the New York Times, Afghans accused Blue Squadron of killing civilians during that operation, but a subsequent military investigation determined that all those killed had been armed and hostile. When Slabinski was confronted by the command’s senior enlisted leader about whether he had instructed Blue Squadron operators to kill all males during the operation, code-named Pantera, Slabinski acknowledged that he had done so. The second inquiry also uncovered the “head on a platter” remark as the instigation for the beheading in December 2007, but the command’s senior enlisted leader told Slabinski he would not get the promotion or be allowed to serve at the command again because of the Pantera order. Overall, it had become clear that Slabinski’s run as a leader on the battlefield caused Blue Squadron to come “off the rails,” according to a former SEAL Team 6 leader.
Slabinski has not responded to multiple queries and requests for comment, though he did deny to the New York Times in 2015 that he gave the illegal pre-mission guidance to kill all males. In his interview with the Times, Slabinski asserted that it was he who had witnessed the operator slashing at the dead fighter’s throat, saying, “It appeared he was mutilating a body.” Slabinski portrayed himself as trying to police his men and said that he gave them “a very stern speech.” He claimed to the Times that he told his men, “If any of you feel a need to do any retribution, you should call me.” Slabinski says nothing in the Times story about Vasely ordering him to investigate the scene or the remark about a head on a platter.
“To this day, he thinks the guys turned on him,” said one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders. “Well, they did. What we didn’t do was turn him in. You will step over the line and you start dehumanizing people. You really do. And it takes the team, it takes individuals to pull you back. And part of that was getting rid of Britt Slabinski.”
Two other SEAL Team 6 leaders with a combined 35 years at the command said the removal of Slabinski and the failure to pursue official punishment was an indictment of the senior officers — they had failed one of their most basic duties, to hold themselves and others accountable for wrongdoing.
When Szymanski, who was then commanding officer of all regular East Coast-based SEAL teams, heard that Slabinski had been rejected by Team 6, he requested him as his senior enlisted adviser. The request was approved and Slabinski was promoted.
“If a guy cuts off another guy’s head and nothing happens, that becomes the standard,” said one of the former SEAL Team 6 leaders. “You’re moving the bar and buying into an emotional justification, ‘War is hell.’ If you’re not disciplining your force, you’re saying it’s OK.”
Slabinski retired from the military in 2014 after 25 years in the Navy. The operator accused of the attempted beheading has experienced difficulties as a result of his service. Last year, the command became concerned about his psychological condition, determining that he was medically unfit to deploy again. His superiors believed he had become “unglued” over the 2007 deployment. He was quietly removed from Team 6 and returned to a regular SEAL unit. He has told at least one former SEAL Team 6 teammate that he hopes to never deploy again.
“He’s just beginning to suffer for what he did,” said another SEAL Team 6 leader.
A KIND OF SPORT
ON THE SECOND floor of the SEAL Team 6 headquarters in the Dam Neck naval annex, a computer, known as the “ops computer,” stores the classified data on every mission the unit has completed for the past decade. Here, commanders returning from a deployment leave their hard drives with technicians who transfer PowerPoints, after-actions reports, and photos of each operation a squadron conducted abroad. The database contains photographs of persons killed by SEAL operators during their missions and other mission documentation.
Some of those photographs, especially those taken of casualties from 2005 through 2008, show deceased enemy combatants with their skulls split open by a rifle or pistol round at the upper forehead, exposing their brain matter. The foreign fighters who suffered these V-shaped wounds were either killed in battle and later shot at close range or finished off with a security round while dying. Among members of SEAL Team 6, this practice of desecrating enemy casualties was called “canoeing.”
The canoeing photos are dramatic documentary evidence of the extreme and unnecessary violence that began to occur during multiple high-risk, exhausting, and traumatizing tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There is and was no military reason whatsoever to split someone’s skull open with a single round,” said a former SEAL Team 6 leader. “It’s sport.”
The former SEAL Team 6 leader said that he first noticed canoeing in 2004, and that it does occur accidentally on the battlefield, but rarely. He said canoeing became “big” in 2007. “I’d look through the post-op photos and see multiple canoes on one objective, several times a deployment,” the retired SEAL said. When SEAL Team 6 operators were occasionally confronted about the desecration, the SEAL leader said, they’d often joke that they were just “great shots.”
Canoeing was just one of several acts of mutilation frequently carried out by SEALs. Two different sources said that over a six-year period — roughly 2005 through 2011 — battlefield reports and accounts of atrocities, particularly mutilations and taking of trophies, were ignored by SEAL Team 6 leadership. One source said his superiors repeatedly refused to address the issue.
The lack of battlefield discipline was not limited to a single squadron. Unlawful violence, aberrations from rules of engagement, mutilations, and disrespect of enemy casualties, actions that had been isolated at the beginning of the Afghan war, had by this point spread throughout SEAL Team 6.
In the early years of the war, SEAL Team 6 had an inflexible standard: Shooting people who were unarmed was forbidden and anyone who did so had to demonstrate the target had displayed hostile intent. Operators and officers prided themselves on their ability to kill only those who were deemed a threat.
If a SEAL couldn’t justify the threat after a shooting, he was quietly removed from the unit. But even that rule evolved over time. SEALs were given wide berth as long as they could explain why they made the decision to shoot an unarmed person. In 2007, for example, a Gold Squadron sniper was pushed out of the unit after he killed three unarmed people — including a child — in at least two different operations. He was allowed to return to the regular SEAL teams. No investigation into an unjustified killing has ever resulted in formal disciplinary action against a member of SEAL Team 6.
reset-2-1484001270 Top left: CIA paramilitary officer and former SEAL Team 6 member Richard Smethers. Top right: Adm. William McRaven. Bottom: McRaven, left, and Capt. Scott Moore, right, then commander of SEAL Team 6. Photos: United States Navy
IN 2008, TENSIONS began to rise between SEAL Team 6 and the CIA over operations in Afghanistan. Paramilitary officers from the CIA, including a covert joint unit under the agency’s command called the Omega program, worked closely with the SEALs. These small teams of CIA, Seal Team 6, and Afghan commandos operated under the agency’s Title 50 authority, which governs covert activities. This meant there was less oversight over their missions — and less accountability if things went wrong.
Late that year, the CIA joined operators from Gold Squadron for an operation near Jalalabad. According to a CIA officer with direct knowledge of the incident, the CIA requested that the SEALs capture, rather than kill, their militant targets. During the pre-dawn raid, a small team from Gold Squadron breached a compound that was home to an insurgent cell that had targeted a U.S. base. Inside, they found six militants, four in one room, all sleeping with weapons near their beds. Despite orders to detain the men, the SEALs killed all six. In the room with four of the suspected insurgents, four SEALs counted down and canoed each sleeping man with a shot to the forehead. One of their teammates killed the other two targets in another room. All six were photographed.
The CIA team on the operation was angry because they had lost an opportunity to interrogate the suspected militants. “These were guys who were running a cell near our base,” the CIA officer said. “We could’ve used the intel.” Outside the compound, the SEALs were quick to show the photos to others on the assault team. “They were smiling, almost gleeful,” he said. “Canoeing them was funny.”
Shortly after that operation, a CIA paramilitary officer named Richard Smethers, who was himself a retired SEAL Team 6 officer, complained to his CIA superiors in Kabul that SEALs were committing atrocities. Smethers threatened to expose the SEALs for what he believed was a series of war crimes; the canoeing incident was just one of several operations in which Smethers alleged that Gold Squadron operators violated the laws of war. Over a period of several weeks, a fight erupted between SEAL Team 6 and CIA officers in Afghanistan. The SEALs quickly intervened and made a deal with the CIA station in Kabul. Gold Squadron was set to redeploy to the U.S., and the SEALs promised to rein in their operators. In exchange, Smethers, who never filed an official allegation or complaint, was sent back to the U.S. Smethers did not respond to requests for comment.
According to multiple members of SEAL Team 6, the fight with the CIA was one of the few instances in which the command’s battlefield misconduct was in danger of being exposed. A retired noncommissioned officer who tried to police the unit said the command suffered from “unspoken oaths of allegiance” among both the officers and the operators, and that the first instinct when misconduct surfaced was to “protect the command and then the men” rather than hold bad actors accountable.
“It’s important that you put this stuff in context,” the CIA officer said. “I’m not going to tell you this didn’t happen. Yes, we — they committed war crimes. It happens in war. War is an adrenaline rush. After three or four deployments in, you need more to get that stimulation. We didn’t hit women or kids. We killed bad guys. And afterwards, we added the psychological warfare.”
The CIA declined to comment for this article.
SMETHERS’S THREAT TO expose Team 6 came just as Vice Adm. William McRaven settled in as the new commander of the Joint Special Operations Command. McRaven became the first Navy SEAL to lead JSOC and was already familiar with Dam Neck’s status as the disrespectful sibling in the U.S. special operations family. In the early 1980s, a group of seasoned enlisted SEAL Team 6 operators kicked McRaven off a training exercise, relieving him of his already tenuous command for being too rule-bound. McRaven was subsequently transferred from the unit.
Just eight months after taking over JSOC, after a series of complaints from the Afghan government over special operations night raids and civilian deaths, McRaven sought to pull Team 6 back from its overly aggressive stance. He ordered a pause in most SEAL and JSOC operations over a two-week period in February 2009. Although the stoppage was not limited to the SEALs, his former unit pushed back against a new set of operational guidelines.
First, the SEALs would now be required to do “call outs” before entering a compound. The intention was to permit women and children to get out of harm’s way before operators conducted their assault. The operators were unhappy about the new restriction, arguing that call outs gave up the tactical advantage of surprise. McRaven’s other directive required a more extensive post-operation review to document and justify combatant deaths. Previously, the command had required only a frontal shot and a profile of each dead militant. The new rule required a full photographic accounting of who was killed, photos of the entire body, where the target was when he dropped, what weapons he held, the vantage point of the operator when he fired, and other atmospherics.
This directive had one primary purpose: to protect U.S. forces from accusations of unjustified killings by Afghan government officials. The photos and other review documents could be shared with local officials to justify operations. But the directive had another benefit. With more extensive photographic documentation, SEAL operators had less time to fire unnecessary rounds into the dead, and they had to use the photos to explain why they fired their weapon. As a result, photographs of canoed enemy fighters virtually ceased to appear in after-action reports.
MCRAVEN’S NEW ORDERS set off a struggle between the JSOC commander and SEAL Team 6’s enlisted ranks that played out in a series of high-profile hostage rescues ordered by President Obama. The first and best-known was the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, captain of the commercial vessel the “Maersk Alabama,” in April 2009 from Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Red Squadron snipers killed three pirates who were holding Phillips in a lifeboat. But McRaven, who commanded the operation, had not ordered the snipers to fire, and neither had a SEAL Team 6 officer. The sniper team leader acted under his own “emergency assault” authority to kill the pirates as soon as all three could be taken out at the same time. McRaven, who was informed of the killings only after he knew Phillips was safe, was incensed.
After the operation, $30,000 in cash, which the pirates had stashed in a lifeboat, went missing. The SEALs were suspected of taking the money. The FBI and NCIS investigated two members of Red Squadron and conducted polygraphs, but the money was never recovered and neither of the SEALs was charged.
Then, in October 2010, SEAL Team 6 set out to rescue a British aid worker named Linda Norgrove, who had been taken captive in Afghanistan. The operation, code-named ANSTRUTHER, an homage to Norgrove’s Scottish heritage, was authorized by British Prime Minister David Cameron. The operation commanded high-level interest because Norgrove, though in Afghanistan as an aid worker for DAI, an American NGO, secretly worked with Britain’s MI-6, according to four U.S. military and intelligence sources. Two of these sources told me that the British government informed SEAL Team 6 mission planners that Norgrove worked for the spy agency, and that they had been tracking her movements since the abduction. Asked for comment, the British government told The Intercept that it does not comment on security matters and would “neither confirm nor deny” that Norgrove worked for the intelligence agency.
During a late-night raid at a northern Kunar compound, Silver Squadron operators killed several captors but accidentally killed Norgrove when an inexperienced SEAL threw a fragment grenade at one of the captors.
The operation’s team leader believed that a suicide vest had been detonated by one of the captors, and two Silver Squadron operators initially withheld the fact that a grenade had been thrown. Consequently, the SEALs initially reported to JSOC senior leaders that Norgrove had been killed by her captors.
Later, a JSOC officer watching drone footage of the operation noticed one of the SEALs throw an object that landed and exploded near where Norgrove’s body was found. One of the two SEALs who knew about the grenade eventually told his team leader, who then failed to inform his commanders until he was confronted the next day.
The operation commanded high-level interest because Norgrove, though in Afghanistan as an aid worker for DAI, an American NGO, secretly worked with Britain’s MI-6.
After a joint British-American investigation into the operation identified the failures and recommended that only the SEAL who threw the grenade be punished, McRaven personally traveled to Dam Neck and determined that all three SEALs involved in the cover-up should be thrown out of SEAL Team 6. The “admiral’s mast” was an unprecedented disciplinary action at the command, which had always been allowed to discipline itself. Normally, SEAL Team 6’s commanding officer, a captain, would conduct a captain’s mast, a form of non-judicial punishment. According to a senior JSOC official, the Norgrove operation was an “I told you so moment.” Even so, two of the three SEALs later returned to the unit.
In the world of SEAL Team 6, where operators never face criminal charges — despite allegations of war crimes, unjustified killings, and corruption — the admiral’s mast was a serious rebuke. One former SEAL leader who attended the proceeding told me McRaven’s message to the command’s leadership was clear. “What you’re saying is you have no faith in the commander,” he said. “All of us were upset.” The former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that for the unit’s operators, the greatest punishment was being kicked out of the unit in front of their peers.
McRaven, who did not respond to requests for comment, also held a meeting with a large group of senior officers under his command and said that SEAL Team 6 had effectively made lying to protect a teammate an honorable course of action, according to a person who attended the meeting. “He told us they had put unit and self before mission and country,” the retired officer said. “He reminded us all that our first loyalty was to the Constitution.”
Tactically, however, the command was winning on the battlefield, and despite McRaven’s directives, there was no serious internal scrutiny of the SEALs’ most excessive conduct.
“Several of us confronted the officers,” said one former noncommissioned officer who tried to stop the criminal behavior. “We knew what needed to be done to police the kids.” The former senior enlisted leader said he pressed several commanding officers to address what he believed were war crimes. “We failed to fix the problem,” he said. “It wasn’t complex, and had it been several one-off events, a guy chopping a head off — it wouldn’t be such a failure. But this started in 2002 and continued through the wars. Our leadership punted and I’m not sure it will ever be corrected.”
The failure of SEAL Team 6 to hold itself accountable for battlefield atrocities has resulted in lasting consequences for operators at the command. “No one prepared our guys for the collateral damage and the second- and third-order effects of this war,” the former SEAL leader said. “Night after night of kill or be killed. [There was] so much savagery. I’m not condoning the behavior — there’s no justification to hacking a body — but we didn’t prepare them either. If I told you I cut off a head after an operation, explaining that I got caught up in the moment, went over the line one time — you’d have sympathy for me. War is awful and it’s human to go too far, but this isn’t one time. This is multiple times on each deployment.”
THE PRESIDENT’S OWN
ALTHOUGH CANOEING AS a ritualized form of enemy mutilation ceased to be a widespread practice after McRaven’s clamp-down on the SEALs’ atrocities, it did not entirely cease. And though the gruesome and illegal practice has never been previously reported, at least one canoeing incident is quite well known, if hidden in plain sight.
By the time Robert O’Neill entered Osama bin Laden’s bedroom in the Abbottabad compound on May 2, 2011, the al Qaeda leader was bleeding out on the floor, possibly already dead, after being shot in the chest and leg by the lead assaulter on the raid. That operator, known as Red inside the unit, is still an active-duty member of SEAL Team 6 and has never been publicly identified. O’Neill entered the room, walked over to where bin Laden lay on the floor, and shot him twice in the face. He then stood above the now indisputably dead man and canoed him, firing a round into his forehead and splitting open the top of his skull, exposing his brain. Osama bin Laden had been branded by SEAL Team 6.
O’Neill has not been shy about the fact that he canoed bin Laden. “His forehead was gruesome,” he later told Esquire magazine. “It was split open in the shape of a V. I could see his brains spilling out over his face.” He has even alluded to the grisly practice on Twitter. What he has not done is name the practice or reveal that by canoeing bin Laden he had secured the ultimate war trophy, the culmination of a decade’s worth of bloody “sport” by elements of SEAL Team 6 who considered themselves craftsmen of killing.
The story of the bin Laden raid has been told and retold, but crucial details have never been made public. And from the moment President Obama announced the operation’s successful conclusion in a televised address, a variety of individuals and institutions have sought to profit from the elimination of America’s most hated enemy.
Two different SEALs, Robert O’Neill and Matthew Bissonnette, have publicly taken credit for killing bin Laden. According to multiple sources, both of their accounts contain multiple self-serving falsehoods. The texture of those accounts reveals much about what went wrong with the most celebrated special operations command in the U.S. military. The falsehoods, both significant and slight, demonstrate that even when conducting the most important missions, SEAL Team 6 was unable to rise above the culture of deceit, personal enrichment, and self-aggrandizement that has corrupted a fighting unit legendary for its discipline and code of honor.
“The beauty of what they have constructed,” said a former teammate about how Bissonnette and O’Neill cornered the market on the bin Laden raid, “is that there is only one guy, essentially, who can come forward and say they’re lying — and he won’t ever talk.”
reset-7-1484007096 Top left: Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette in 2001. Top right: Robert O’Neill with his tattoo of two bloody feathers, representing his kills. Bottom: Winkler hatchet from Bissonnette’s personal collection. Photos: U.S. Navy; U.S. Air Photo by Force Technical Sgt. Brian Snyder; Instagram
O’NEILL’S AND BISSONNETTE’S careers mirrored one another. They each entered Red Squadron at the same time, and were both recipients of the Winkler hatchets handed out by Wyman Howard. They were both talented and competitive, and they were determined to profit from their experiences as SEALs.
Bissonnette was viewed by Howard as the prototypical SEAL Team 6 operator: a college-educated enlisted man with a savvy understanding of tactics and technology. O’Neill, by contrast, was not considered as clever as his teammate, but he was a deadly sniper and had a successful tour as a team leader in Red Squadron.
Both men were notorious among their teammates for their self-promotional tendencies — a trait not well-suited for a “team-first” environment. In the end, their inclusion in the bin Laden raid and their roles defined where they fit in: Bissonnette worked closely with the CIA and SEAL Team 6 superiors during the planning phase to help plot out the assault, and would lead a team of operators to find and kill bin Laden’s courier. O’Neill was chosen as a team leader for a group providing external security but ultimately traded that leadership role for a junior spot on the team he and Bissonnette believed would get the first shot at bin Laden.
The 23 SEAL Team 6 operators assigned to the mission prepared constantly for the entire month of April 2011, practicing on two different full-scale mock-ups of the bin Laden compound. Tactically, there was little about the upcoming raid that was complex. Unlike the hundreds of other assaults SEAL Team 6 had carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the operators would plan and carry out a raid within a matter of hours, this time they had weeks to prepare. They had detailed plans of the Abbottabad compound provided by the CIA and knew where they could expect to find bin Laden. The SEALs’ biggest concern was how much time they would have, which was dictated by the amount of fuel the two Black Hawks could carry for the round trip.
The planning was so meticulous, one retired SEAL Team 6 leader told me, that a helicopter pilot warned mission planners that one of the two stealth Black Hawks they were to use would likely experience a “vortex ring state,” which means air disturbed by the rotors would prevent the helicopter from getting the lift necessary to continue hovering. The pilot noted that the two mock-up compounds had chain link fences around the buildings, allowing the air to disperse, while the real compound had thick concrete walls.
Less than a week before the assault, Bissonnette and O’Neill got into a shouting match at the Dam Neck base over who would sell the inside story of the raid. Several of their teammates on the mission had to intervene, according to a former SEAL Team 6 operator. A former SEAL Team 6 leader told me that O’Neill and Bissonnette originally agreed to cooperate on a book or movie project after the raid was over, but later had a falling out. The former SEAL leader said the extensive amount of training for the mission, combined with Bissonnette’s planning role, gave both men ample opportunity to find ways to put themselves on the third floor, in a good position to kill bin Laden.
Despite claims by John O. Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, that the raid was a capture or kill operation, the SEALs were told explicitly to kill bin Laden. There was no plan for capture, and no contingency for a surrender. “They were told, ‘Go in, kill him, and bring the body back,’” said a former SEAL Team 6 leader involved in the raid.
FILE – In this May 5, 2011 file photo, local residents and media are seen outside the house where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Local residents say Pakistan has started to demolish the compound in the northwest city of Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden lived for years and was killed by U.S. commandos. Two residents say the government brought in three mechanized backhoes Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012, and began destroying the tall outer walls of the compound after sunset. They set up floodlights to carry out the work. (AP Photo/Aqeel Ahmed, File) Local residents and media on May 5, 2011, outside the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Photo: Aqeel Ahmed/AP
ON MAY 1, two stealth Black Hawk helicopters took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and headed east toward Abbottabad. The flight took 90 minutes, and as the Black Hawk Bissonnette rode in approached the compound walls, it effectively slammed on the brakes. The pilot who had warned that one of the helicopters would stall was right. Bissonnette’s helicopter crashed into bin Laden’s side yard. Bissonnette and his teammates were nearly killed, and many of the operators aboard ended up with chronic injuries.
Bissonnette and a small team of SEALs moved from the helicopter to a small building adjacent to bin Laden’s main house. After the SEALs tried blowing the building’s gated front door, someone inside fired several rounds out a window. They were the only shots not fired by the SEALs during the raid. One of Bissonnette’s teammates then put his gun through the front door, which was now slightly ajar, and shot the gunman in the head. He was Ahmed al Kuwaiti, one of bin Laden’s couriers.
Afterward, Kuwaiti’s wife confirmed that bin Laden could be found on the third floor of the main building, just as the team had been briefed. Bissonnette and his team then moved to the main house.
Once inside, the SEALs proceeded slowly and methodically. O’Neill’s teammates shot and killed Kuwaiti’s brother and his wife on the first floor. After blowing open the iron gate blocking the main stairway, the lead assaulters, among them Bissonnette and O’Neill, followed the operator known as Red up the stairs. Red encountered and shot bin Laden’s son just before the second floor landing, and the SEALs following behind him fanned out into the hallways and rooms on the second floor to search and secure the area. It was then that both Bissonnette and O’Neill hung back on the stairway. Both should have remained on the second floor. Instead, as Red began his ascent to the third floor, they followed him up, hoping to get in on the kill. O’Neill was closer to Red, one of the first five assaulters. Bissonnette was much farther back down the stairwell.
As he approached the third floor bedroom, Red saw bin Laden standing in the doorway, peering out. He was unarmed and wearing pajamas. A few of his female relatives were nearby. Red came to a stop and fired two shots with his suppressed rifle. One shot hit bin Laden in the chest and the second shot glanced off his hip or thigh as Bin Laden stumbled backward into his room and fell toward the foot of his bed.
Red could see bin Laden bleeding out from his chest wound but he still had not entered the bedroom.
Red watched bin Laden fall. He later told his teammates that it was possible one arm was twitching reflexively as he died, but otherwise he was effectively dead and not a threat. The distinction was crucial. As the lead assaulter, it was Red’s job to make the most important tactical judgments because he largely blocked the view of the SEALs behind him. According to several former members of SEAL Team 6, the most basic principle of assault training is “follow your shot,” meaning that an operator who has fired on a target must ensure the target no longer poses a threat. Your teammates beside and behind you will cover all the other possible angles and areas of a room as you move forward.
Red could see bin Laden bleeding out from his chest wound but he still had not entered the bedroom. Then, as two of bin Laden’s eldest daughters began to scream, Red quickly corralled them at the doorway, a move considered heroic by other SEALs on the mission. Had the daughters been wearing explosives, Red would have died while shielding his teammates from much of the blast. Instead, he held them back long enough for his teammates, including O’Neill, to enter the bedroom.
O’Neill and two or three more assaulters moved past Red into the bedroom as bin Laden lay on the ground. O’Neill then fired two rounds. According to his own description, the first two rounds hit bin Laden’s forehead. Then O’Neill canoed bin Laden with a final shot.
Conflicting accounts have emerged about how many other SEALs fired rounds into bin Laden’s lifeless body, though one former SEAL Team 6 leader who viewed the body in Jalalabad told me the body appeared to be intact aside from the chest wound and obliterated face.
The SEALs had been specifically asked to avoid shooting bin Laden in the face. O’Neill’s decision to canoe the al Qaeda leader made him unrecognizable. A SEAL who spoke Arabic interviewed bin Laden’s wives and daughters until he was able to get two positive identifications. O’Neill later implied in the Esquire profile that he shot bin Laden because he wasn’t sure Red’s shots had hit the target. He also claimed that bin Laden had been standing when he fired and that a weapon was visible nearby. Yet immediately after the mission, O’Neill described shooting bin Laden while he was on the floor. The two weapons found on the third floor were not discovered until the rooms were searched. Neither was loaded.
O’Neill’s canoeing of bin Laden cost his teammates precious time, but his final shot to bin Laden’s head was unremarkable to them. They ransacked the compound for documents and media for intelligence, left the survivors inside, and returned to Jalalabad air base with the body.
THE RED SQUADRON assaulters later gathered in a private area of Bagram Air Base and debriefed the mission in front of a military lawyer. The squadron’s commanding officer recorded it on a cellphone. Bissonnette claimed he shot and killed al Kuwaiti and had fired bullets into bin Laden on the third floor. According to three sources familiar with the debrief, Bissonnette never fired his weapon at Kuwaiti. At least two of Bissonnette’s teammates who were with him when al Kuwaiti was killed were angry about the deception — taking credit for a teammate’s actions on a mission was unprecedented and dishonorable — but did not contradict him in the presence of a military lawyer. Several of Bissonnette’s teammates later informed their superiors that he had lied about his actions.
During the debrief, Red was identified as having hit bin Laden with a fatal shot, and O’Neill was credited with putting security rounds into him after bin Laden had already gone down. There was no discussion of a visible weapon, no claims that one of bin Laden’s wives had been used as a shield or a threat. The raid, several of the SEALs said afterward, was one of the easiest missions they’d ever conducted. There were no heroics, and, apart from al Kuwaiti’s shots, no firefight.
The SEALs in the unit were furious that the White House revealed to the world that Navy SEALs had carried out the raid, violating the traditional code of silence about their missions.
Some of the assaulters on the mission were also angry with Bissonnette and O’Neill because they neglected their responsibilities after bin Laden’s son was shot. Instead of helping search and secure the second floor, both headed to the third floor, hoping to get a chance for the historic kill. Both operators were accused of breaking with standard operating procedure to get themselves in position to be among the first to see or kill bin Laden. Morale at Red Squadron fell apart shortly after the team returned to Virginia Beach from Afghanistan. The SEALs in the unit were furious that the White House revealed to the world that Navy SEALs had carried out the raid, violating the traditional code of silence about their missions. Within hours, news trucks and reporters fanned out through the seaside town looking for anything affiliated with Navy SEALs.
O’Neill was soon removed from his role as a team leader in Red Squadron after he was observed publicly bragging in Virginia Beach bars that he was the man who shot bin Laden. Bissonnette left Red Squadron soon after the raid and retired from the Navy almost one year later. He had already set himself up for a profitable future. While on active duty, he’d formed a consulting company with four other SEALs and secured a contract with one of the command’s biggest equipment suppliers.
Bissonnette’s bestselling book, “No Easy Day,” was published in September 2012, four months after he retired and less than two weeks after O’Neill got out of the Navy. The publication came as a surprise to the Pentagon because Bissonnette had failed to clear it as required.
In the book, Bissonnette implies that he was directly behind Red just below the third floor when bin Laden was shot, and was one of the next two SEALs who entered bin Laden’s bedroom. His account credits Red with the shot that felled bin Laden and holds that he and a third SEAL — presumably O’Neill — fired several rounds into bin Laden as he was lying on the floor.
After the raid, the White House struggled to describe the exact circumstances of bin Laden’s death. First, bin Laden was armed, involved in a firefight, and using one of his wives as a human shield. Then officials took all three of those details back, though they maintained the al Qaeda leader posed a threat. Bissonnette’s book was the first eyewitness account, and it contradicted the Obama administration’s narrative.
After the publication of “No Easy Day” — which in one chapter describes in great detail the specialized gear, along with brand names, Bissonnette wore on the bin Laden mission — the Navy opened several inquiries into Bissonnette’s outside business contracts. They soon discovered he had violated a series of Navy regulations. A joint NCIS-FBI investigation into whether he disclosed classified material in the book lasted two years. During the investigation, Bissonnette surrendered a photo of bin Laden’s dead body that he had unlawfully retained.
Bissonnette eventually settled his legal case with the government, agreeing to return $6.7 million in profits from the sale of “No Easy Day” and giving up any proceeds from future sales of the book.
Other active-duty SEAL Team 6 operators who worked with Bissonnette on his various consulting deals were punished as a result of their profiteering. The unit conducted a captain’s mast on at least seven SEALs for revealing sensitive information during a series of promotional videos for the video game “Medal of Honor: Warfighter.” The reprimand ended the careers of two veteran SEAL Team 6 noncommissioned officers.
Although Bissonnette was able to sell a book and tell his story first, O’Neill arguably got the better deal. In March 2013, Esquire’s profile of O’Neill portrayed him as a humble “quiet professional” who after 16 years in the Navy would no longer have health insurance and was otherwise a downtrodden American hero. The account did not dwell on the fact that O’Neill had chosen to separate from the Navy nearly four years before he was eligible for extensive retirement benefits.
In O’Neill’s account, he did not see Red fire his shots at bin Laden because he was looking back down the stairs for reinforcements. When he finally entered the bedroom, alone, bin Laden was standing uninjured, a weapon nearby, his wife in front of him like a human shield. Only inches from his target, O’Neill claims, he shot bin Laden twice in the forehead. Bin Laden dropped and O’Neill fired the security round that canoed him.
Some of O’Neill’s teammates were outraged he’d been so brazenly inaccurate and self-serving in his account. For many on the raid, including those who had been present in bin Laden’s bedroom with O’Neill, it was the first time they’d heard anyone in the command say the terrorist leader was standing, posing a threat of any kind.
In 2014, O’Neill unveiled himself as the man who killed bin Laden in an hourlong Fox News special, just as Bissonnette published a second book. The former teammates both hit the press circuit, each telling reporters off the record that the other was a liar. Already a popular motivational speaker, O’Neill now charges up to $35,000 per speech. Today, he is a paid on-air commentator for Fox News and is reportedly eyeing a run for the Senate in his native Montana. He even has his own line of clothing.
Both Bissonnette and O’Neill declined to answer questions for this article.
The truth about what happened in bin Laden’s bedroom may never be fully known. One former SEAL Team 6 leader who was involved in the raid told me he was never too concerned about the discrepancies between O’Neill’s and Bissonnette’s claims. A veteran of hundreds of raids and assaults during his career, the former SEAL said he disagreed with the order to kill bin Laden, regardless of whether he was armed, and compared it to Britt Slabinski’s order to his Blue Squadron men in 2007. “I didn’t give their different accounts much thought,” the SEAL said. “They shot an unarmed dude. It was disappointing. I’d almost wish they’d beaten him to death. That seems more fair.” And here were two guys who set out to make money off a mission that required 23 SEALs to pull off: “It’s dishonorable.”
Bissonnette and O’Neill are no longer welcome at SEAL Team 6 headquarters. The command’s top noncommissioned officer placed their names on the SEAL Team 6 rock of shame, the unofficial list of unit pariahs. The list also includes Britt Slabinski, who was blacklisted in 2015 following the New York Times article that quoted him denying he’d ever ordered his men to kill unarmed Afghan targets. “That’s what’s wrong with my community,” the former SEAL Team 6 leader told me. “Our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong is warped. No one was upset that he ordered a beheading or all the men shot even if they were unarmed. They were mad because he spoke to the New York Times and lied.”
GoogleEarth_Image-2-crop-1484001263 SEAL Team 6 headquarters at Dam Neck naval annex, Virginia Beach, Va., showing the 30-foot trident sculpted from a fragment of the World Trade Center. Photo: Google
SEVERAL MONTHS AFTER the bin Laden raid, in October 2011, SEAL Team 6 held its annual “stump muster,” a reunion of current command members and their families, as well as past leaders and senior operators. That year’s reunion, the first under Wyman Howard as commanding officer, was held at their new headquarters, a $100 million, state of the art testament to the stature of the command as the home of the “President’s Own,” the clandestine global force capable of striking anywhere, killing anyone, the tip of America’s military spear. Outside the main entrance stands a 30-foot trident sculpted out of a fragment of the World Trade Center.
At the reunion, a few hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean, a small group of current and former master chiefs stood around drinking and telling war stories. One retired senior SEAL Team 6 leader was there who led the unit during the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the years, he had worried about battlefield discipline and retaliation after Neil Roberts had been nearly beheaded, and he had feared his men would seek retribution in Iraq during the height of the violence there. He’d left the SEALs before the worst of the atrocities had taken place, though his former teammates would occasionally call him to report what was happening on deployments. He’d been told that Blue Squadron had collected ears and that mutilations had become common. He wasn’t surprised. After more than 30 years in special operations, he knew that elite forces would inevitably cross ethical, moral, and legal boundaries if they were given too long a leash. When he first arrived at Dam Neck, operators in the unit who had served in Vietnam warned him that war crimes and battlefield atrocities hung like a cloud over the entire unit — even if only one SEAL had participated.
Sitting with old friends, the retired SEAL was handed a ring-bound portfolio. Opening it up, he saw a collection of photographs, more than a dozen canoed enemy heads. He was told that the photographs were part of SEAL Team 6’s “greatest hits” of terrorists killed since 9/11. They were not the private collection of some individual operator, but the command’s official after-action pictures. The old sailor put the portfolio down. After a short while, he quietly left the base. He hasn’t returned since.
Illustrations: Attila Futaki, Colorist: Greg Guilhaumond
January 10 2017, 12:01 p.m.
Find this story at 10 January 2017
New Intercept Exposé Uncovers SEAL Team 6’s Ghastly Trail of Atrocities, Mutilations, Killings
February 7, 2017
A stunning new exposé published today in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6 reveals a darker side of the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden. National security reporter Matthew Cole spent two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—and often helped to cover it up.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a stunning new exposé published today in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6. Known as the “President’s Own,” the group is best known for killing Osama bin Laden, as well as other high-profile rescue missions, including that of Captain Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama. But Intercept national security reporter Matthew Cole reveals a darker side of the celebrated group. Cole spent more than two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—and often helped to cover it up. In the article, “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6,” Cole quotes one former leader as saying, “You can’t win an investigation on us. You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”
Well, for more, we’re joined by Matthew Cole.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
MATTHEW COLE: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you found, what we don’t know about—and there’s much we don’t know about—this unit.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. I think the biggest takeaway is, is that after 15 years of war and unquestionable successes on the battlefield, there have been virtually no accounts of SEAL Team 6 outside of the parameters of heroism, and they’ve become almost mythic in terms of the American public and how popular they are. And what was missing from those accounts was that after 15 years of continuous warfare, very personal, up-close warfare, there were some very, very dark things that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere that were largely suppressed and hidden from the public, and actually from the military itself, as a way of protecting the command and those who had gone over the line to commit war crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the bombing that occurred—you write about it in the opening part of this very lengthy article—in Afghanistan.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, in March of 2002, there was a operation that was—JSOC had video footage of a tall man in white garb—
AMY GOODMAN: It’s Joint Special Operations Command.
MATTHEW COLE: Joint Special Operations Command—and saw someone that they thought was bin Laden, and was afraid he was going to get away. They didn’t have much intelligence, but they had the notion that he was—people around him were showing deference, and he was leaving a compound. So they sent SEAL Team 6 in some helicopters to go investigate and, basically, to do an interdiction. But fearing that the convoy was going to get across the border into Pakistan before the SEALs would get there, JSOC officers ordered a bombing, and they dropped two bombs on the convoy. And they killed a lot of people pretty quickly, almost instantaneously. As the helicopters were coming down onto the scene, they then fired their—the helicopter guns, miniguns, onto the remaining survivors, if—regardless of whether they were armed, because it was all presumed that everyone there was al-Qaeda.
When the SEALs got down onto the ground and inspected, what they found right away was that it was all civilians and that the men, the few men who were armed, were carrying family weapons, because in Afghanistan it’s traditional and customary for each male, at least, and certainly each family, to have one weapon. And, in fact, what they saw were dead women and children, along with men. And it was a horrific sight for the SEALs, who were on their first deployment in the war. And remember, this is right—this is shortly after 9/11 and shortly after the war in Afghanistan begins. And they weren’t veterans yet of those kind of wars.
And according to my sources, the—one of the officers who was on the mission allegedly mutilated one of the victims, one of the civilian victims, after he had been killed. And it was so upsetting to his teammate in the unit, that he then came back and reported it to his leader. And what transpires then is a meeting with everyone in the unit who was enlisted, and not the officers, the next day to discuss battlefield ethics. How are we going to treat the dead? How are we going to conduct ourselves on the battlefield? And the decision in the meeting was, hey—you know, one person who was there told me, “We shoot them, and we move on. If they’re bad guys, we shoot them, and we move on. That’s fine. But we don’t mutilate. That’s not part of the game.” And they essentially ostracized the officer who they believed had done so. But they didn’t turn him in. They didn’t report it. They didn’t tell anyone. It was strictly within the unit. And that’s one of the things—
AMY GOODMAN: And the officer’s name was?
MATTHEW COLE: Was—his name was Lieutenant Commander Vic Hyder. And just to be clear, in the article, on the record, he denies that he stomped this man’s head in. But that story became—it really becomes a sort of blueprint for how SEAL Team 6 has kept war crimes, excessive violence, criminal brutality a secret for 15 years. They keep it in house, and they have their own system of justice—prison rules, if you will. And there is a real divide between the officers, who have the commission by law for law and order, and the enlisted, who make up most of the command.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the SEAL Team 6 officer who made so-called bleed-out videos?
MATTHEW COLE: OK, he wasn’t an officer. He was an enlisted—he was enlisted. He was a very troubled SEAL, a member of Red Team—Red Squadron, who filmed—his job, he had a responsibility, which was to film the aftermath of an operation for intelligence gathering. So he had a camera. It was part of the normal course of duties. After an operation would end, he went around and filmed to identify—you know, later they can try to identify who had been killed, in terms of the militants.
And he began doing what he—what was described to me as bleed-out videos and what were known as bleed-out videos within the team at the time. He would bring them back, and having—on the battlefield, having taunted people who were dying, essentially telling them that they weren’t—they couldn’t die yet, they weren’t going to heaven, they weren’t going to see Allah, there were no virgins, and then bring the videos back and then spend time reviewing them, rewinding them over and over with a group and doing a countdown, to watch the last few moments of a person’s life as they expired.
And that was done—this wasn’t done in some corner of, you know, some dark hole in Afghanistan. It was done at Bagram Air Base in front of a lot of people. And no one would do anything about it. It was not considered morally reprehensible. And that was—we use that as an example because, in and of itself, it’s not illegal, but it gives you a sense of sort of the dark nature of what this war brought for members of elite special operations forces, in particular, SEAL Team 6.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened to U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts.
MATTHEW COLE: So, Neil Roberts was the first SEAL Team 6 member and the first special operations soldier to die after 9/11. He was killed by—he fell off the back of a helicopter during Operation Anaconda in early March of 2002 in eastern Afghanistan. And there was a—later became known as the Battle for Roberts Ridge, was an effort to save him. But Roberts fell off, was killed fairly quickly by al-Qaeda fighters, who had already established a stronghold on the mountaintop. And Predator drone feed later sees one of the fighters standing over him, attempting to behead him, and, in fact, mutilated him very significantly. And so, when his body was brought back to Bagram and his teammates found that not only had they lost their teammate and pierced their sense of invincibility, which is appropriately built up for your best warriors, they were devastated by the manner, and the gruesome manner, in which his body had been treated.
And so, Objective Bull, which happens about 18 hours later, we don’t know, but we believe that the alleged stomping in and mutilation of the civilian armed man in Objective Bull was very much—
AMY GOODMAN: Objective Bull is the story you describe before.
MATTHEW COLE: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the operation, they called it.
MATTHEW COLE: That it was the beginning of what was sort of a tit for tat against al-Qaeda, which was “You do this to ours, we’ll do this to yours.” But the Roberts death and the manner of his death really shook up SEAL Team 6. And although there have been an enormous amount of accounts of the Battle of Roberts Ridge and some of the heroism and valor in trying to get him back, and there were others who died, what had—
AMY GOODMAN: And others who died—
MATTHEW COLE: Up on the—up on the—
AMY GOODMAN: —and didn’t die, as it was originally thought, and survived and then died.
MATTHEW COLE: Right. And so—but what was never told was this incident that happens 18 hours later. And there’s—looking back, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t tell the story. But the Pentagon itself, they had announced a week after the bombing of—in Objective Bull, that they had killed civilians, but even then, they made—they said that they were associated somehow with—affiliated somehow with al-Qaeda. So they left the impression that although they killed civilians, it was a justifiable bombing. In fact, it was only civilians, and they had no intelligence whatsoever.
AMY GOODMAN: It was a wedding party?
MATTHEW COLE: It was—they were on their way to a wedding party, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Where does Britt Slabinski fit into this picture?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, that’s very interesting. Britt Slabinksi is sort of at the heart of all of this, although we have to remember that he was an enlisted SEAL and not an officer, although he became a very senior enlisted. Britt Slabinski was on Roberts Ridge. It was—Neil Roberts was part of his team. He was the leader of the team that went back to get Neil Roberts. He won a Navy Cross for his efforts on the top of Takur Ghar, which was the mountaintop in eastern Afghanistan. And he was in the meeting at Bagram after Objective Bull, in which the discussion about how Vic Hyder had behaved and what he had done during Objective Bull was determined that was just not how SEAL Team 6 was going to operate.
Slabinski was devastated by Roberts’ death. And frankly, according to sources who spoke with him at the time, he sought revenge. He wanted to go back out on the battlefield and get payback. And we unearthed, in the course of reporting, some exclusive audio that had never been found before of Slabinski giving an interview to an author, who was writing a book about Roberts Ridge, in which he describes a third operation that happens after Objective Bull, in which they ambushed a group of al-Qaeda fighters who had been on top of Takur Ghar, who had been in the Battle of Roberts Ridge. And he was a sniper who led a sniper team at the time. And they killed roughly 18 or 19 al-Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan in mid-March 2002. And in the audio, what you hear him talk about is the operation as payback and revenge, essentially, for what happened on Roberts Ridge, as a way for the guys and his men to get their confidence back, as I think he says, is to get back in the saddle again.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski, here describing the aftermath of an operation to take down a convoy they believed was filled with al-Qaeda fighters trying to escape to Pakistan. Slabinski and the team of snipers had killed what? Nearly 20—
MATTHEW COLE: Nearly 20.
AMY GOODMAN: —al-Qaeda—
MATTHEW COLE: Fighters.
AMY GOODMAN: —fighters.
BRITT SLABINSKI: After I shot this dude in the head, there was a guy that had his feet, just his feet, sticking out of some little rut or something over here. I mean, he was dead. But, I mean, you know, it got—people got nervous. I shot him about 20 times in the legs. And every time you’d kick him or shoot him, he would kick up, and you could see his body twitch and all that. And it was like a game. Like [inaudible]. And the guy would just, you know, twitch again. It was good therapy. It was really good therapy for everybody that was there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Navy SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski, this audio being played publicly for the first time—
MATTHEW COLE: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —that you got at The Intercept. And the significance of this?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think what it does is it gives you a window into the mindset of someone who became a very senior—first of all, he was—after the Battle of Roberts Ridge, he became a legendary SEAL. He had a Navy Cross. He was a hero. He became a very influential member of SEAL Team 6. And at a command that is referred to and known as an enlisted mafia, run effectively by the enlisted SEALs who spend a decade or more in the unit, he was a top leader. And as a result, he ended up in a position running a squadron.
And there were a series of events that occurred, that I report exclusively for the first time, about the fallout of his leadership. And what you get to see—what you get to hear in that is the mindset. I mean, the thing that was most disturbing to me, I think, in listening to it was the gleefulness in his voice, that it was therapy for him. And I don’t—that, I think, gives us some understanding. And as I was talking to a former senior leader of SEAL Team 6 about that tape—he had never heard it, and I showed him the transcript. And one of the things he said, he said, “What’s so scary is, is that this guy undoubtedly influenced so many of our guys with that kind of attitude.”
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, one of the most disturbing forms of atrocities Navy—the SEAL Team 6 committed was called “canoeing.” If you can talk about that and then talk about whether you believe Osama bin Laden was canoed?
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, one of the—I would say one of the, if not the darkest secret in the last 15 years is that over the course of the war, SEAL Team 6, as well as other elements of JSOC, were involved in something called canoeing, which is a form of firing a bullet in the top of the forehead that splits the head open in the most gruesome manner and leaves, frankly, the brain matter exposed, and looks like a—puts the head, the top of the head, in the shape of a V, with a negative space that looks like a canoe would fit in there or that a canoe went through it. And it can happen incidentally in battle, and it does happen incidentally in battle.
What I found was that for a period of years SEAL Team 6 was photographing—they photographed their dead for documentation and preservation. And for a period of years, canoed dead took up an enormous amount of space in those—in that catalog. And it was not mathematically possible. And what my sources said were, it became a sport. You shoot a person when they’re dead or dying, at very close range, for the sake of seeing the gruesome results.
AMY GOODMAN: And Osama bin Laden?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, what happened to Osama bin Laden was hiding sort of in plain sight. The man who claims that he killed Osama bin Laden, Robert O’Neill, did an interview, a long interview in Esquire in 2013, in which he described what bin Laden’s face looked like after he shot him three times in the face and forehead. And there it is. Without using the word “canoe,” he describes this gruesome scene of splitting the top of his skull open into a V, you know, with the negative space in the shape of a V, and his brain matter exposed. And one of the points that I make in the story is, is that SEAL Team 6 then branded Osama bin Laden. That was—it’s an act of dominance, and it is a form of sport, and it’s reflexive. And it doesn’t—in this case, it does not necessarily mean that Robert O’Neill committed a war crime, but there is no question that the ritualistic manner in which and the frequency in which it occurred and the fact that it had no military necessity was criminal.
AMY GOODMAN: You believe that bin Laden was killed unarmed and in the dark?
MATTHEW COLE: Absolutely. I think one of the things that my story presents fairly conclusively is that the order from the beginning was to kill him, regardless of the situation inside. And, in fact, one of my sources who was a—
AMY GOODMAN: We have four seconds.
MATTHEW COLE: —senior member, said, “Kill him. Bring the body back.” That was the order.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation, post it online at democracynow.org. Matthew Cole, we’ll link to your piece at The Intercept.
Part 2: Intercept Exposé on How SEAL Team 6 Killed Osama bin Laden, “Canoeing” & Other Atrocities
We continue our conversation with reporter Matthew Cole about his stunning new exposé published this week in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6 that reveals a darker side of the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden. National security reporter Matthew Cole spent two years investigating accounts of ghastly atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings and attempted beheadings. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—and often helped to cover it up.
Watch Part 1: New Intercept Exposé Uncovers SEAL Team 6’s Ghastly Trail of Atrocities, Mutilations, Killings
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn to Part 2 of our discussion about the stunning new exposé published in The Intercept about the elite military unit SEAL Team 6. It’s called the “President’s Own,” the group best known for killing Osama bin Laden, as well as other high-profile rescue missions, including that of Captain Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama. But Intercept national security reporter Matthew Cole reveals a darker side of the celebrated group. Cole spent more than two years investigating accounts of atrocities committed by members of the unit, including mutilating corpses, skinnings, attempted beheadings and canoeings, which we’ll talk about in a moment. According to sources, senior command staff were aware of the misconduct but did little to stop it—often helped to cover it up. The article is called “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” Cole quotes one former leader as saying, “You can’t win an investigation on us. You don’t whistleblow on the teams … and when you win on the battlefield, you don’t lose investigations.”
Matthew Cole, thank you for staying with us for Part 2 of this conversation. And I want to start where we left off on Democracy Now!, talking about the killing of Osama bin Laden. but now we have a little time, so take us through what happened in May of 2011.
MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think the first thing—the first place to start is that, despite what the Obama administration was at pains to try to say in the hours and days after the raid, was that, from the beginning, the order to the SEALs were—was to go in and kill Osama bin Laden. And it went further than that. The order was to go in and kill all males on the compound, regardless of whether they were armed. It was an assassination, an execution, however you’d like to call it. It was murder. And the SEALs went out and did it, very effectively. And what we know is that despite the fact that—
AMY GOODMAN: You write that even before the killing, that two of the Team 6 members, Matt Bissonnette and Robert O’Neill, had an argument that had to be broken up by their fellow SEALs about who would tell the story after.
MATTHEW COLE: Right. So, the two SEALs who have come out from that raid and given first-hand accounts, one in the form of a book, the other in a magazine article and then in a Fox News special identifying himself as the shooter, were involved in an argument prior to the raid, before they had even gone to Afghanistan and Pakistan, over how they were going to work together to sell the story afterwards, and then had to be separated by their teammates, because they were—it wasn’t a physical fight. They got into a screaming match. And lo and behold, after the raid, they, of course, were the first to get out of the unit, and there was—as one of their former bosses said to me, they were in a race to write a book and make money off of the operation.
And so, after their accounts came out, in addition to the Obama administration’s account, everything sort of got muddled in terms of what happened. And one of the impressions that was left was that bin Laden was killed because he was a threat, because he hadn’t laid down on the ground and said, “I surrender.” But that was always fiction. He was killed because there was an order to kill him, no matter what. And he was killed by a SEAL who was the first to encounter him. He was unarmed. He was wearing, effectively, his pajamas. He was standing with two female relatives to the side—on each side of him. And he was put down with two shots, one to the chest and a second which glanced off his hip as he fell back onto the floor.
And that’s a key point, because he falls down on the floor, and then the man who says that he ended bin Laden’s life, Robert O’Neill—and no one disputes that he put the bullets into bin Laden and effectively ended his life, but the way O’Neill tells the story is that bin Laden was standing, had his wife in front of him, holding his wife’s shoulders as a sort of shield, and has a weapon nearby, and so that he’s scanning the scene and making the determination that—based on his training, that this man is a threat, and he can be killed. And so he shoots him, he drops, and then he puts a third bullet in his forehead. And by his own words, he describes in Esquire magazine a canoeing, which is the intentional splitting open of the skull with a round to the top of the forehead. And what my reporting found was that he wasn’t standing. There was no threat. He was—he would have died had he not been shot by Mr. O’Neill. He was on the ground bleeding out from his—the shot to his chest.
And what was interesting, actually, is how much, I learned over the two years—how much animosity was directed towards the two SEALs who spoke out and exaggerated or lied, whatever you want to say, falsehoods. They spun a story to make themselves heroic and make money off of it, and it wasn’t accurate. And so, there’s an enormous amount of animosity inside the unit at these two guys.
AMY GOODMAN: What did Matt Bissonnette say? You say that he lied in No Easy Day, his book.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so his book—his account, effectively, of how bin Laden died is actually mostly accurate. The issue is, is that he actually wasn’t a witness. He makes—he makes it sound as though he was there and next to O’Neill and, with O’Neill, fires the last shots that kill bin Laden. In fact, he was much further back down the line, comes in later. But prior to that, his team was to go after bin Laden’s courier. And they killed him. Both in the book but then also in the official debrief that SEAL Team 6 did with a lawyer in Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he lied and said that he had killed the courier. And, in fact, he had not.
And that became a big deal, because that’s something you—even within their code, that’s something you don’t do. You don’t take credit for another man’s work. And so, in the subsequent years afterwards, their teammates viewed that lie, that he had killed the courier outside in the adjacent compound, as the beginning of Bissonnette’s effort to shape his story so that he could sell it, because you need to have drama whenever you’re selling a myth. And in the case of both O’Neill and Bissonnette, and in SEAL Team 6 at large, that’s what we have here. We have a set of myths. We have narratives that are filled with—you know, let’s say 75 percent of the facts are true, but a quarter of them are false or omitted. And it makes a big difference in terms of understanding what really happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew, you write, “‘The beauty of what they have constructed,’ said a former teammate about how Bissonnette and O’Neill cornered the market on the bin Laden raid, [quote] ‘is that there is only one guy, essentially, who can come forward and say they’re lying—and he won’t ever talk.’”
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. So that’s in reference to what is known as sort of the lead assaulter on the mission, whose nickname in the unit is “Red.” And he was the first to get up the stairs onto the third floor of Osama bin Laden’s house and is the first to see bin Laden peeking through the doorway of his bedroom. And he fires two shots into bin Laden. And he then waits to see what happens. And they slowly get to the door. One of the things that’s interesting, just as an aside, in learning about special operations and the SEALs is that there’s not a whole lot of running. They have a whole terminology, which is, “Don’t run to your death. Walk to your death.” You take your time to make decisions. And that’s one of the things—you know, their training is—their brilliance is at the tactical level. It’s minutiae. And so, he did exactly as he was trained to do, which was to go slowly to the doorway and see and assess whether or not the person he shot was still a threat.
And he says to his—to the debrief and to the team later, he wasn’t a threat, so he then wraps his arms around two of the women who are in the room, who are becoming hysterical. And that’s described in both O’Neill and Bissonnette’s book. And what’s funny is, is they give him credit for doing something very heroic, that had they been wearing suicide vests, he put himself on top of them and would have absorbed the blast. But what they’ve left out is that the only reason why he made that decision to do that was because he had already determined that bin Laden was either dead or was going to die in a matter of moments.
And he is the one who, effectively, is the only one who could come out and say, “Here’s what really happened,” because he was the first in the room, the first up and the one who fired the shots. And one of their teammates said to me that quote that you just read, which is, there was a cleverness to what O’Neill and Bissonnette did to make it so that it’s just—you know, they’re not going to have people contradicting them in public. And as a result, they’ve made a lot of money.
AMY GOODMAN: And why won’t he contradict them?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, because he is a silent professional. I mean, in a world where silence is part of the—is supposed to be part of the norm. He sticks by it and is still in.
AMY GOODMAN: So explain how, as you put it, Osama bin Laden was canoed.
MATTHEW COLE: So, essentially, O’Neill, who is the second to fire shots in bin Laden, puts two rounds in his face or his forehead. And after he’s down, at a very close range, O’Neill fires a third round. And that round hits him in the top of the forehead. And that’s—canoeing requires a certain location in the head. And by his own description, by O’Neill’s own description, it split open his head and exposed his brain matter and split open his head in a V shape. And that V shape is the canoe.
And what I know, and is not in the story, but what I know is that his face was so disfigured, when they brought his body back to Jalalabad and they took him out of the body bag, they had him nude with only his genitals and his face covered, because—genitals, out of respect, and face, because it was so disfigured, they put a small towel or tissue over his face. And splitting his head open disfigured him so much that the SEALs in the compound couldn’t recognize him. He was unrecognizable. And so, it required one of the SEALs who was there, who was doing—who spoke Arabic, to go around and get confirmation, double confirmation, that this was Osama bin Laden. So there was a practical side to it, too. But splitting his face open, I think, is, it’s very safe to say, a significant reason why the Obama administration never released the photo of bin Laden’s face. It was just too gruesome to show.
AMY GOODMAN: As they had released the photo, for example, of capturing Saddam Hussein.
MATTHEW COLE: Right, or his sons, killing his sons. They put out Uday and Qusay pictures shortly after he was killed. I mean, it was a curious thing to do, given the—what you knew would be conspiracy theories and questions about whether he had even been killed. But his face was just too gruesome to show.
AMY GOODMAN: So you say bin Laden was killed unarmed and in the dark.
MATTHEW COLE: Absolutely. He was killed 15 minutes after the mission began. No lights. Could hear certain things, but there wasn’t a lot of noise. I mean, their suppressed weapons are very quiet. And he dies with no—he has two weapons in the room that they find later in a search. They are—they have no bullets in them. They’re essentially trophies. Certainly wasn’t carrying them or holding onto them. He died in the dark in his pajamas, listening to the sounds of people moving through the house. And with very little—you know, he sticks his head out of his room, and he gets shot.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is your sense of why the Obama administration wanted him dead, not alive?
MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think it was just a heck of a lot easier to not have to worry about the spectacle of a trial, that the story was over and a case closed. And it certainly would easier to sell to the American people that, to some end, part of the war was over. So, you know, and I still think that there are questions that remain unanswered about the mission, the operation and how the—what the administration knew about his location. But by and large, I think the order to kill him was just to have everything tied up neatly.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, as you talk about, really, in some of these cases, for the first time, what this unit has done, Team—SEAL Team 6, and you talk about canoeing, in general, there are those who wanted to expose this, like a CIA paramilitary officer’s attempt to blow the whistle on this. Explain what happens to someone who wants to challenge the practices.
MATTHEW COLE: So, in 2008, a former Navy SEAL 6, Team 6, member himself, who was retired and went to the CIA as a paramilitary officer, named Richard Smethers, was upset with some of the conduct that SEAL Team 6 was up to in the late end—the end of the year in 2008. He was upset about civilians being killed, unarmed people being killed, excessive violence and an overall failure of leadership at SEAL Team 6 in not policing their men. And so, he was put forward by a small group of CIA officers at a base in Northeast Afghanistan to complain and to blow the whistle, effectively, on SEAL Team 6. And it began a very rancorous fight between SEAL Team 6 and the CIA in Afghanistan over what to do. And SEAL Team 6 said very quickly he needed to be quiet. And his response was “I’ll go to the press.” And, in fact, I think, specifically, he threatened to go to The New York Times. And SEAL Team 6 told the CIA, “If this guy goes public, we will end his career. He will lose his clearances. He will never work again,” and also told the CIA, “Hey, we’re working together here. If this stuff comes out or there are investigations into war crimes or excessive criminality and excessive violence and brutality, it’ll hurt all of us.” And so the CIA agreed to send him home. He was up for going back home anyway. There was a natural change both with him and with the SEAL unit that was in at the time. And so, the two sides said, “Listen, we will calm things down. You send him home, keep him quiet. And we will go about taking care of our guys.”
And what happened shortly after that is, Admiral Bill McRaven, who was then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, had come in, and the complaints from the Afghan government about night raids and civilians, unarmed civilians, being killed had grown—the complaints about them had grown loud inside Afghanistan. And politically, Karzai was hitting U.S. forces. So McRaven orders a stand-down, about a two-week stop in almost all special operations forces. And a lot of that was meant to pull the leash on SEAL Team 6. And he issued new guidelines in terms of how they operated in country. And those guidelines were, in a lot of ways, done to protect SEALs. You know, it is important to remember that in all of this, most members of SEAL Team 6, the majority of SEAL Team 6, did not commit war crimes and atrocities. This was more like a persistent virus. But a significant number did. And they had gotten out of control. And the man who led them, at a very high level, understood that. And so, McRaven orders the stand-down, gives them new rules. And the Smethers issue, the whistleblowing, just sort of fades off into the sunset.
And that was the only case and it was the only time there was someone who had whistleblown on SEAL Team 6, where there was some threat, and they were worried about being exposed for what they were doing on the battlefield. And I think the lesson you can learn from that is, is that they go to great lengths to make sure that it goes away. And it hurts—you know, their view to the CIA, I think, was really interesting. It doesn’t just hurt us. It hurts you. It’ll hurt the administration. It’ll hurt the war. And I think that’s a very compelling argument for people who work in the government or the military when you’re in the middle of a war. And so, it’s swept under the rug. And that—that’s the kind of thing that has occurred at a small level for SEAL Team 6 and at a bigger level. And that’s really what the story is trying to—attempted, and I hope succeeded, in uncovering, are these various levels in which it was obvious that things were going on that were illegal, that were immoral, that were unconscionable, and they were either quietly and implicitly, sort of tacitly encouraged, or people in charge just looked the other way.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew, talk about how Linda Norgrove fits into this picture and who she was.
MATTHEW COLE: So, Linda Norgrove was a aid worker working in Afghanistan in 2010, when she was kidnapped by factions of the Taliban or militants in Northeast Afghanistan. And she was taken from a road and sent up into a very mountainous place, and was a U.K. citizen, was actually from Scotland originally. And the only unit that was capable, both at the time and in general, to operate in Afghanistan for a high-risk rescue mission was SEAL Team 6. So, the British government requested that SEAL Team 6 go save her. And as SEAL Team 6 was putting the mission together, the British government kept giving her location with a very precise—with total precision. And SEAL Team 6 said, “How do you know where she is with such precision, in a place where we’ve been operating for years, and you just don’t get that kind of fidelity in such short time?” And the British government disclosed, according to my sources, to four sources, that she was working for MI6 and had been essentially working undercover for British intelligence, and so they had a—some form of tracking on her and knew her exact location. And that was a bona fides that SEAL Team 6 needed to feel comfortable with sending their men out to find her at this location. And she was unfortunately killed in the raid, unintentionally, by SEAL Team 6, as the—as a firefight broke out when they arrived.
And the initial story that the SEALs presented to their superiors and to the British government was that she had been killed by one of her captors, who had detonated a suicide vest that he was wearing, and it blew up, and she was nearby, and it killed her. Well, it turned out that that was not what happened. And, in fact, what had occurred was that one of the SEALs, a young SEAL operative on his first hostage rescue mission, had thrown a grenade and hadn’t seen her, and initially had reported that he had thrown the grenade. And what came there was a slow—sorry, I should say, a fast cover-up by three members of SEAL Team 6 who were on the mission, to avoid the embarrassment of what had just happened, which was that, in fact, the captor had not killed her, SEAL Team 6 had.
And that was another case where the punishment, you know, the way the command tried to hold itself accountable, was considered insufficient. And so, Admiral McRaven stepped in and conducted what’s called an admiral’s mast, which was unprecedented. And it’s a—SEAL Team 6 is a—you know, it has a law unto itself. It’s in its own world. It’s its own tribe. And one of the things that it uses is a Navy system called non-judicial punishment. And what it allows you to do is to punish an individual without any form of court-martial. It’s a reprimand. And you can be removed from a unit, but it saves your career. And he stepped in and conducted a mast and punished, threw out, three members of SEAL Team 6. And it was considered this total insult that the admiral had to come to the command and conduct a proceeding that normally would be done by a captain. But I think one of the things I say in the article is, is that this was very dramatic in the world of SEAL Team 6, but even within their own mores, two of the three later returned to the unit. So, you don’t get justice or accountability at SEAL Team 6. It just doesn’t happen. It hasn’t happened. I have sources that argue that it hasn’t happened since they were started in 1980. And I think one of the reasons—one of the motivations for sources to talk to me over the last couple of years has been their frustration, some of them over two decades, to get the command’s leadership to hold itself accountable for what it’s been doing.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk a lot about Britt Slabinski, the legendary member of SEAL Team 6. Talk about the story of this man, who was a Navy Cross winner, telling his men he wanted a head on a platter.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, so, in 2007, Britt Slabinski was the Blue Squadron master chief, which is one of the assault teams within SEAL Team 6. And they deployed to Afghanistan late in the year into Kandahar and Helmand, which at the time was, and still is, an incredibly violent, incredibly destabilized section of the country where the Taliban effectively rule. They had encountered an enormous amount of resistance and violence from the Taliban. And at some point during that deployment, he tells his men that he wants a head on a platter. One of his men interpreted that remark as an order, as a direction to be given and followed through. And so, on December 17th, 2007, they conduct a raid into a compound in Helmand province, killing three or four Taliban fighters. And in the aftermath, one of the young operators begins to try to cut off the head of one of the fighters.
And the officer of the unit, who was Slabinski’s superior, happens to be on the mission, and he walks by a window of a compound and peers in and sees this young operator standing over this dead fighter and what he believes is the sawing action over this man’s neck. And he sends Britt Slabinski, who is his senior enlisted leader, into the room to inquire what happened. And Slabinski comes back and says, “No foul play. He was just trying to take gear off of the man’s body, and nothing—nothing was untoward.” But the officer doesn’t believe it. He still has suspicions, thinks there was something wrong with what he saw, and so he goes back and reports it to the command, to his leadership, at SEAL Team 6 and demands an investigation. And two subsequent investigations, first one for JSOC, and which is effectively an internal investigation, and one for the Navy—Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the federal law enforcement organization that the Navy has that conducts criminal investigations—
AMY GOODMAN: NCIS.
MATTHEW COLE: NCIS—find no evidence to support a violation of the law of armed conflict. And part of what they found was that Slabinski tells his story, the officer tells his story, and they—the young SEAL, who was alleged to have done this, refused to testify—he took the Fifth—and was moved out of the country, was sent home. And my sources—from the beginning, it was never a question of whether this operator had mutilated this guy. In fact, he had severed a good portion of this man’s head off before he was stopped by Slabinski. The real question became: Why had he done it? And after some internal inquiries at the command, what became clear was that he believed that he was following an order.
And when Britt Slabinski was up for a promotion a few years later, they did two informal internal inquiries. You can’t call them in investigations. And again, this—you know, these words, they mean something in terms of understanding how subtle SEAL Team 6 operates. They were inquiries. And they were inquiries because there’s no paper record of this. And what they found was that during that deployment, Slabinski had, A, said that he wanted a head on a platter. Some of the men who were more veteran and savvy saw him as speaking metaphorically and didn’t pay attention. The younger ones didn’t. And, B, that this young man, this young SEAL—and, by the way, he wasn’t young. He was young for SEAL Team 6. When you join SEAL Team 6, you already have six years of experience as a SEAL. So he wasn’t a kid. He was just a kid relative to someone like Slabinski, and impressionable and easily influenced. He believes he’s following an order. So, after a mission, he tries to cut a man’s head off. And Slabinski tries to protect him, but also protect himself.
And the inquiry finds that, you know, he—was no question that this was a result of Slabinski’s leadership. And then they find additionally that there was another operation in which he ordered—Slabinski ordered all the men on the operation shot, regardless of whether they were armed. Now, that order is illegal. It is effectively—it’s tantamount to ordering murder or an execution, precisely as the SEALs were ordered in the bin Laden raid to do. As it happened, in that operation, the subsequent investigation found that all the people who were killed in that operation had been armed. But the order itself was illegal. And so, in 2010, Britt Slabinski was told that he could never come back to SEAL Team 6. He was not allowed to be back. And one of my sources, who was a former senior member of the command, said to me something—I’m paraphrasing roughly, but he said, “You know, to this day, Slabinski thinks that the guys turned on him. And they did. But what they didn’t do was turn him in.” And that was—to me, that was so telling. Their justice was to throw him out of the unit. That’s their justice. It wasn’t to bring him up on charges or suggest that he should retire, or provide any other sense of accountability. It was to make sure he couldn’t be among them.
And so, what happens? He is then requested by a—someone who was close to him, who had been another SEAL Team 6 officer, who was in Afghanistan during the Roberts Ridge, Neil Roberts’ death, and that deployment, who was one of the investigators and the senior SEAL Team 6 member on the ground when the young SEAL had tried to behead the Taliban. He—upon learning that Slabinski had been blackballed out of the unit for substantiated allegations of war crimes or criminal activity, what does he do? He requests that he be promoted and come in as his senior enlisted leader at his command. And that man is currently a two-star admiral, Rear Admiral Tim Szymanski. And he is now in charge of all SEALs in the United States. So, that’s the—that really gets at the heart of what is at this story, which is that they knew what was going on. When they had an opportunity to do something about it, not only did they not do anything about it, they effectively encouraged it by promoting their own. There was no punishment whatsoever. And Slabinski, Britt Slabinski, is really—his story, which is really a tragic one, and it starts in 2002 on Roberts Ridge, and it extends all the way out to being blackballed by SEAL Team 6, is really indicative of sort of the worst of what can happen at a unit like this.
AMY GOODMAN: But he is awarded a Navy Cross.
MATTHEW COLE: He was awarded a Navy Cross, and that won’t ever be taken away from him. And he—by all accounts, what he did on the battle—on the top of Takur Ghar during Roberts Ridge to try to retrieve his teammate was heroic. And it’s not—you know, what happened subsequently is not meant to take away from what he did on this day in this mission. But it—you know, the command had opportunities, specifically with Britt Slabinski. The command had opportunities. They understood that he had deep psychological scars from what happened on Roberts Ridge. And they knew he was troubled. And I think the audio that we played, that you played earlier, is indicative of someone who does not have his head right. And I shared that, the transcript of it, with two of his former bosses, who were horrified that he said this, and not only that he said it, but that he said it in an interview to an author, and that the younger men around him were undoubtedly influenced by that kind of talk, by that kind of bravado and bloodlust.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to that clip, which we played in Part 1 of the conversation. Again, it’s being played here publicly for the first time. A Team 6 member at the time, Britt Slabinksi, describing the aftermath of an operation to take down a convoy that they believed was filled with al-Qaeda fighters trying to escape to Afghanistan—Slabinski and a team of snipers, who killed nearly 20 al-Qaeda fighters.
BRITT SLABINSKI: After I shot this dude in the head, there was a guy that had his feet, just his feet, sticking out of some little rut or something over here. I mean, he was dead. But, I mean, you know, it got—people got nervous. I shot him about 20 times in the legs. And every time you’d kick him or shoot him, he would kick up, and you could see his body twitch and all that. And it was like a game. Like [inaudible]. And the guy would just, you know, twitch again. It was good therapy. It was really good therapy for everybody that was there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is, at the time, SEAL Team 6 member Britt Slabinski—actually, not at the time, because this is recounted afterwards. Is that right? And he was—
MATTHEW COLE: No, he was—he was a member. That was in 2004, 2003-2004. He was a member of SEAL Team 6 at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: The title of your investigative exposé in The Intercept is “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” The crimes. So, you are putting this out at the end of the Obama administration. Talk about exactly what you found, the crimes as you’ve been telling us, and what you think should happen now.
MATTHEW COLE: I think that what this investigation has found, what I’ve found over the last couple of years, is that there was a consistent and persistent forms of largely mutilations and desecration of bodies in Iraq and Afghanistan, beginning in 2002, continuing all the way through at least 2011. To be honest with you, I don’t think it stopped. I think it might have lessened. I mean, I’ve got some indications that, simply from the lowering of the—slowing down of the tempo of the wars, both in Afghanistan and then the pullout in Iraq, simply brought things to—mostly to a halt. There were a series of pretty horrific acts. We had canoeing, as we described, which is this particular type of firing a bullet into someone’s head after they’ve been killed or are mortally wounded; skinnings, which were done under the excuse of needing DNA and became sort of a cover to pull large sections of skin off of someone with a knife, using these specialized hatchets that were given to some members of the—of SEAL Team 6 to hack bodies after they were killed or, again, dying. There were, frankly, a whole host of criminal activity, excessive violence, brutality, unjustified killings, some of which were not criminal in nature or intent, but were certainly problematic and poor judgment. And again, just there’s not a case—there is not a single case of punishment or legal action against any member of SEAL Team 6 in 15 years for accusations of unjustified killings, in particular, or any atrocity or what would be deemed a war crime, mutilating a body.
You know, one thing that I didn’t mention before, and one of the things that needs to be said, is that what they were doing, in large part, was a form of psychological warfare. I spoke to several SEAL Team 6 members and people who worked with SEAL Team 6 who witnessed war crimes, who said that this was a message that they were sending, and they felt encouraged to send, to al-Qaeda, to the Taliban, that they, too, fought dirty. And that, to me, was one of—I mean, you know, in a large sense, this has been going on since the beginning of time, in terms of warfare. But with such a professional force, it was really startling to hear that America’s most heralded unit, the best of the best, the “President’s Own,” were so emotionally involved with this war and these battles that they felt the need to conduct a form of psychological warfare on the enemy.
And what I think—what I took away from this investigation, what I hope happens is that the senior leaders of the command, who knew about it or should have known about it, are held to account from the standpoint of their ability to be promoted. And I think—we put this story out now. It comes at the end of the Obama administration. It is a very thorough accounting of what this unit became, first under President Bush and then under President Obama. And the senior leaders who knew about it, who failed to hold their men to account, are now senior people inside JSOC and special operations who end up being who President Trump will have at his beck and call to conduct operations. And that is the significance. The real significance here is, is a lot of this is history, but when no one gets punished and people get promoted, you’re bringing that history forward. And you’re saying to people who made decisions when they were, you know, young officers, who are now—have stars on their lapels, who are making serious decisions for the United States and making recommendations to the president about what they’re going to do on a mission or in general in a war zone, they are now in positions of great responsibility and authority, and there has been no accounting. So, if there was something that we hoped could happen out of this, it would be that some of these people’s careers would effectively end. Not fired. There’s—you know, there’s very little chance that anyone will look back into and reopen these investigations. This is more about trying to determine whether particular officers who had served at SEAL Team 6 did their job, whether they, you know, did what they were supposed to do, which was provide law and order.
AMY GOODMAN: And the names of the officers you feel should be challenged?
MATTHEW COLE: There are three in particular that my story goes into. One is current Rear Admiral Hugh Wyman Howard, who is a one-star admiral at JSOC. Another is rear admiral, two-star, Tim Szymanski, who is the commander of WARCOM, which is the overall SEAL command out in California, is effectively the highest-ranking SEAL or the—in charge of all Navy SEALs in the Navy. And Captain Pete Vasely, Peter Vasely, who is—who may in fact be—have already made promotion to admiral, who is—also has a senior position inside JSOC. These are people who have—and, by the way, we spent months, in some cases years, trying to get these people to answer questions, to talk to us. They refused. The military refused to respond to this story for five months, with dozens of questions, specific questions, to get them to say, “Hey, we’d like your help here.” And it was total silence. Total silence.
AMY GOODMAN: And your allegations of what Vasely did?
MATTHEW COLE: Vasely initially reported the beheading in Afghanistan in 2007, but, effectively, allowed Slabinski to cover it up. And so, there was a—in a very subtle way, he made sure that there were no charges. And he—there was pressure applied to him from above to make the charges go away, and he did his duty. He certainly was fully aware of what occurred in that room, and walked away from it.
AMY GOODMAN: And Howard?
MATTHEW COLE: Howard was—Howard is a very interesting individual. He is a descendant of an admiral, a long history of naval officers in his family, graduate of the Naval Academy. And Wyman—he’s known as Wyman in the SEAL world. Wyman Howard was commander of Red Squadron. And he came up with the idea of purchasing $600 custom-made hatchets to give to his men, because their unit insignia and moniker was a Native American warrior. They wear patches. They have tattoos. He thought it would be great to give them a hatchet and then encourage them to wear them on the battlefield. They had no military purpose whatsoever. And then he would—he would tell some of his men and others that he wanted them to go out and bloody their hatchet. And it was largely a euphemism, but not unlike the way Britt Slabinski tells his men that he wants a head on a platter, what occurred was people started using those hatchets to hack bodies and commit war crimes with them. And Howard later became the commander, overall commander, of SEAL Team 6 and has had, frankly, quite a rising career. And when you look deeply at some of the things that happened under his command, it’s quite disturbing. And that’s the point, you know, that no one has looked deeply at what’s occurred.
AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama’s knowledge of all of this?
MATTHEW COLE: Can’t speculate. I mean, I—you know, on the bin Laden raid, obviously, he has very good knowledge. But, you know, overall, my impression and what I’ve been told is that the—what was so, you know, in a way, sinister about what occurred on the battlefield by SEAL Team 6 was their way—their ability to suppress the information from getting out beyond even to the admiral level or the generals level. They kept it in the unit. And so, I don’t know, you know, who knew or how many people knew. I certainly know that senior leaders at JSOC had an idea. They certainly—I’ve spoken to some officers from JSOC who said, “We feared it. We had inclinations. But we never could prove anything.” And, you know, I think that’s probably largely true for a lot of people. “We feared it, but we couldn’t prove anything.”
AMY GOODMAN: And, Matthew Cole, the difference between your piece for The Intercept, your piece called “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6,” and The New York Times in the summer of 2015, “SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killings and Blurred Lines”?
MATTHEW COLE: The Times did a very good job of introducing the public to some of the darker side of SEAL Team 6, which—you know, that article was very well reported. And what it did was it raised a lot of questions, I think. But it didn’t provide a whole lot of answers. And what I tried to do was get past that, which was there was a lot there. And they—their story, in particular, quotes, on the record, Britt Slabinski denying that he ever gave an order to kill all men on an operation, that the young man who—young SEAL who was cutting off the head of another—of a militant had done anything other than having his knife slipped when he was trying to get, you know, military equipment off of a dead body. And my story pieces together what really happened.
And one of the things that was so interesting was that SEAL Team 6 has essentially a—what we call a rock of shame. They have a rock that sits in one of their senior leaders’ offices that has names on of former SEAL Team 6 members that are no longer welcome to come to the command physically. And two names that are on there are Matthew Bissonnette and Rob O’Neill from the bin Laden raid, because of their publicity. After The New York Times article was published, Britt Slabinski’s name was added to that list. And I was talking to my source, who had told me about it, and he was—he was disgusted, but he said—and I think we quoted him in the story—he said, “That’s the problem with SEAL Team 6. They didn’t put his name on after they blacklisted him for suspicion of war crimes. They put his name on after he went and spoke on the record and lied to the press.”
And, you know, I felt—we felt we had to put that in there to explain sort of the full narrative of what the values are, sort of how the values are off at SEAL Team 6. The Times did a very good job with their story, but it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t go deep enough. And I won’t speculate as to why. I’m glad that they did the story. I think we need to have more stories about SEAL Team 6 that are not putting them on a pedestal. They do great work. They do important things. I’m not vilifying them in any way. But they need to be held to account, because the secrecy has insulated them, and their elite stature has insulated them from any kind of accountability or justice.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we turn to another of Donald Trump’s picks for his Cabinet. This piece in The Intercept is headlined “Trump’s Pick for Interior Secretary Was Caught in ‘Pattern of Fraud’ at SEAL Team 6.” In it, Matthew Cole writes, “A Montana lawmaker tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be secretary of the interior committed travel fraud when he was a member of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6, according to three former unit leaders and a military consultant. In announcing the nomination of Republican [Rep.] Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL commander, Trump praised his military background. [He said,] ‘As a former Navy SEAL, he has incredible leadership skills and an attitude of doing [whatever] it takes to win.'” Matthew Cole, you dug deep into Zinke’s history. Talk about what he did as a Navy SEAL and why, ultimately, he was forced out.
MATTHEW COLE: So, Congressman Zinke was a member of SEAL Team 6 as a mid-career officer and junior officer in the 1990s. And he—during the war in Bosnia, in which SEAL Team 6 was assigned, he frequently came home to the United States after a deployment and, instead of coming back to Virginia Beach, would fly to Montana, where he’s from, Whitefish, and work on a house that he had there, that he was hoping to live in when he retired. And he did this several times and was warned, I think after one or two times, that what he was doing was travel fraud. He was expensing it to the U.S. government and calling it work, when in fact it was personal. And he was warned verbally not to do it, and then he got caught doing it again. And after he shifted positions inside SEAL Team 6, the people who followed him discovered his paperwork and realized he had been—he had a long pattern of it. And so they brought it to the command’s attention.
And the command—this was in 1999 or 2000, before the wars—decided that he had to leave the unit. They were going to, you know, spank him. But he wasn’t going to—they weren’t going to punish him or reprimand him in any way. And as one source said to me, the commander of—commanding officer of SEAL Team 6 at the time said, “We don’t want to punish him, because it will hurt his family. He’s got a family, and, you know, he’ll lose pay. And we don’t want to do that. He’s a nice guy.” And so, they wrote his evaluation report in such a way that he wouldn’t be allowed into SEAL Team 6, but he could leave the unit and continue on as a—in his career as an officer in the Navy SEALs. And that’s exactly what happened.
And, you know, in a lot of ways, Zinke is sort of too small a crook to be nominated for Trump’s Cabinet. But it gets at the issue of integrity and leadership in SEAL Team 6, the officer corps. And here was someone who made some serious mistakes and—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain further what he did and how many times he did it.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, oh, I’m not sure the specific number of times. We were told multiple times, in the range of four or five times. He would fly out to Montana and claim that it was some kind of SEAL Team 6-related endeavor. Publicly, he has stated that these were training trips. My understanding is, is that he never claimed that they were training trips, and that, in fact, what he was doing was helping to rebuild or renovate a house that he intended to live in when he retired from the military. He was—he’s a native of Whitefish, Montana. And so, he got caught. I couldn’t get a sense, actually, of—my sources couldn’t remember, because it was a long time ago—how much money was the total dollar figures.
He has—in his 2014 campaign, to give him his side of it, he reported that he wrote a check—returned a check to the Navy for something like $214, that covered a travel voucher that he did, and that he had been duly punished for this. He had made a poor decision. He didn’t—he portrayed it as a—something that was justifiable, but that the Navy ultimately decided they wouldn’t pay for.
My sources, who were both contemporaries of his at the time at SEAL Team 6, as well as senior to him, said that that was not an honest portrayal, that he in fact did it several more times than that and for higher amounts, and that there was nothing close to a justifiable reason for his travel. He was spending government time and resources for his own personal efforts on a home, essentially.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what kind of response—you wrote this in December, after, of course, Donald Trump chose him to be his nominee for secretary of interior. What kind of response did you get to your piece?
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, you know, a lot of silence. I mean, Zinke has still never responded. The Trump team, the transition team, called me to say that—they didn’t dispute any facts in the story. They only said this was old news. And, you know, they had confidence, the president-elect had confidence in the congressman.
AMY GOODMAN: They called you because you called them?
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, we had called—we had sought comment before the story ran. They responded after the story published. Zinke’s team never responded. You know, there’s been some response. Actually, a lot of people from Montana responded to our story, on both sides, saying that he was honorable, other side saying that, you know, he was terrible. And he’s their congressman, so it’s a political issue. I think I do—I do know—and it wasn’t in this piece, but there is more to—you know, he had some subsequent positions in the Navy SEALs that were—had some—there were some ethical flags raised in those positions, as well, towards the end of his career. And we may or may not get to those in the coming days. But there was—this was not an isolated incident, is the sense that I have from talking to folks who were in the Navy with him.
AMY GOODMAN: And he was forced to leave?
MATTHEW COLE: He was effectively forced to leave SEAL Team 6. He was not officially forced to leave the Navy. He retired at retirement age.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain the difference.
MATTHEW COLE: The difference between being forced to leave versus?
AMY GOODMAN: Forced to leave SEAL Team 6 but not the Navy.
MATTHEW COLE: So, SEAL Team 6 has—and any unit can do this, but there are effective ways to get someone to move on, which is that when their time is up, when their pre-assigned task is over, their assignment, the evaluation is written in such a manner, as I understand it, that they cannot get another job within that command afterwards, because of the way the evaluation is written. And so, you’re never fired. You are never dismissed. You are—your time is up, and you are quietly told that you just won’t be able to come back here. But no one else is told, going forward, in any other assignment that you get, that that’s what happened to you.
AMY GOODMAN: You write about a celebration, a reunion, really, of Navy SEALs back in Virginia at the headquarters. Describe where that his and what happened.
MATTHEW COLE: So, each year in October, SEAL Team 6 has what it calls its annual stump muster, which is like a reunion, and it brings back old members of the command, original members of the command, people who have just recently retired, current members and their families. And, you know, they—it’s a party. And my story ends with a former senior leader of the command who went back in October of 2011. The organization, the headquarters, had just completed a $100 million building and facility and essentially were christening it. And it was under the command then of Captain Wyman Howard, who had just taken over at SEAL Team 6.
And he was—this former SEAL team leader was standing in a group with old friends, and he was handed a portfolio, a ring-bound book. And he opened it up, and someone said to him, “This is our greatest hits.” And he looked down, and they were a collection of canoed heads since 9/11. And what he realized, and I subsequently was able to confirm, was that this collection was not the private collection of some member of SEAL Team 6. This was the SEAL Team 6 official collection and photo book that they were sending around as entertainment at a private party, essentially, but out in the open. And the senior who saw it decided after he left—he was disgusted with what he saw, and decided he was never going to—he has not gone back to the command for a reunion since, because of how upset he was with the lack of morality and the sort of, you know, bloodlust and glee, you know, the gleefulness around essentially what is their professional work.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, I want to thank you for being with us, national security reporter for The Intercept. We’ll link to his new exposé, just out, “The Crimes of SEAL Team 6.” This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.
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A Former CIA Official Apologizes to ‘Every American’ For Iraq Intelligence Failures
October 23, 2015
An intelligence assessment drafted by the CIA months prior to the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq asserting that Saddam Hussein harbored an active weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) cache has been thoroughly debunked time and again.
But even after the deaths of more than 4,000 US soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, CIA officials have never publicly taken responsibility for getting the pre-war intelligence so wrong.
Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, however, now owns up to the disastrous “mistakes” the agency made on the Iraqi WMD failures.
The veteran intelligence official has written The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight against Terrorism from al Qa’ida to ISIS, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at numerous national security crises since 9/11. Morell writes in the book about the CIA’s Iraq intelligence failures, and he apologizes to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003 that Iraq had “biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” When WMDs weren’t located in Iraq after the US invasion, Powell’s credibility was destroyed.
Related: CIA Report Says No Evidence Saudi Arabia ‘Willingly Supported’ al Qaeda Leading up to 9/11
“Let me tell you why I [apologized to] Colin Powell,” Morell told VICE News before a recent appearance at the Richard Nixon Library to promote his book. “Here’s a guy who had a stellar reputation… and quite frankly that reputation was tarnished when he went before the UN and laid out the case. That case turns out to be wrong. Almost every part of it turns out to be wrong. I knew he had said to folks over the years, ‘You know, nobody from the agency has ever apologized to me.’ And so that’s why I wanted to apologize to him…. The apology applies to every single American.”
Morell was somewhat defensive when asked to discuss why CIA analysts were unable to determine that Iraq had abandoned its weapons program in the 1990s. He compared the analysts to “weather forecasters.”
“This is a very difficult business,” he said. “I don’t know a harder job in the world than trying to get an understanding of what’s the status of the Iran nuclear program. Or, what’s the status of North Korea’s long-range missile system. Or, where does Chinese military modernization stand. Or, what are the plans, intentions, and capabilities of al Qaeda in Yemen.”
Watch the VICE News interview with Michael Morell
Ultimately, Morell said the main reason “we were not able to come up with the right answer is that we didn’t do our fundamental job of penetrating [Saddam Hussein’s] inner circle with a human asset. So there was no information to give to the analyst to say, ‘Here’s what this guy is up to.’ This was our failure, and quite frankly a national security failure, to get inside of Saddam’s inner circle to tell us exactly what he was up to with regards to weapons of mass destruction.”
While Morell leaves no doubt that the CIA failed on Iraq, he mounts a full-throated defense when discussing the agency’s so-called enhanced interrogation program, which he “doesn’t like calling torture, because to call it torture says my guys were torturers, and they were told that they weren’t.”
“I have no doubt after spending months looking at this that [the program] was effective,” Morell said. “I’ve seen the intelligence that these guys provided before enhanced interrogation techniques. It was not full answers to questions, it was not specific information, it was not actionable. After enhanced interrogation techniques, full answers to questions, specific information, actionable information. There’s no doubt in my mind it was effective.”
His analysis is at odds with the damning findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which last December released a declassified executive summary of its mammoth report on the CIA’s torture program, an investigation that took five years to complete, cost $40 million, and led to chilled relations between the CIA and the committee.
In fact, the harshest critique in Morell’s book is aimed directly at Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, including the panel’s former chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, who led the oversight effort into the detention and interrogation program and said what committee staffers discovered in millions of pages of CIA documents clearly rose to the level of torture. He declined to respond to some of the more brutal findings in the Senate report, such as subjecting a handful of detainees to “rectal feeding” and whether that amounted to torture.
So how did the Senate get it wrong if it perused the CIA’s own highly classified documents to reach its conclusions?
“One of the things I learned as an intelligence analyst very early on is it’s very dangerous to speculate,” Morell said. “When you speculate, you get things wrong a lot more then you get right. But I’ll speculate for you with that caveat. Senator Feinstein made it very clear to everyone who would talk to her about this, that she wanted the report to be the nail in the coffin of the country ever doing anything like this again. Well, when you’re on her staff and you hear that day after day after day, and your job is to put this report together, it takes you in a certain direction.”
“Republican leaders in the House and the Senate [approved] this program back in 2002, 2003, 2004. And not only approved the program but encouraged us to go further — they thought we were risk-averse when we stopped the program for a period of time…. So what’s the only way that the [Senate] can get themselves out of this discussion? To say that the CIA lied to them at the time about what we were doing and about the effectiveness of the program. That’s the only way to get themselves off the hook. I can’t prove any of that. I’m speculating.”
VICE News tried numerous times to obtain a comment from Feinstein, but her office failed to respond to our queries.
However, a day before Morell’s book went on sale, Feinstein took the unprecedented step of issuing a press release attacking Morell’s contradictory claims about the torture program and said he did not even bother to read the full 6,700-page report. Feinstein’s office then issued a 54-page point-by-point rebuttal to all of the assertions Morell made in his book about the efficacy of the program.
Morell, who now works for a private security firm founded by former aides to Hillary Clinton, told VICE News that the US is engaged in an “intelligence war.”
“In this new era of terrorism, the enemy is very hard to find, but very easy to kill,” he said. “The finding, which is the hard part, is all about intelligence. So this is an intelligence war…. You cannot capture and kill your way out of this. The other problem that you have to deal with is how do you stop the creation of new terrorists? How do you deal with the radicalization problem of young men and young women around the globe? That’s something that we have not done well as a country or as a coalition of countries… and it’s not going to go away until we get our arms around that.”
An earlier version of this report incorrectly said the CIA’s pre-war Iraq intelligence concluded that Saddam Hussein colluded with Al Qaeda. The story has been updated.
By Jason Leopold
June 25, 2015 | 7:35 pm
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Military Analyst Again Raises Red Flags on Progress in Iraq
October 23, 2015
WASHINGTON — As the war in Iraq deteriorated, a senior American intelligence analyst went public in 2005 and criticized President George W. Bush’s administration for pushing “amateurish and unrealistic” plans for the invasion two years before.
Now that same man, Gregory Hooker, is at the center of an insurrection of United States Central Command intelligence analysts over America’s latest war in Iraq, and whether Congress, policy makers and the public are being given too rosy a picture of the situation.
As the senior Iraq analyst at Central Command, the military headquarters in Tampa that oversees American military operations across the Middle East and Central Asia, Mr. Hooker is the leader of a group of analysts that is accusing senior commanders of changing intelligence reports to paint an overly optimistic portrait of the American bombing campaign against the Islamic State. The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating.
Although the investigation became public weeks ago, the source of the allegations and Mr. Hooker’s role have not been previously known. Interviews with more than a dozen current and former intelligence officials place the dispute directly at the heart of Central Command, with Mr. Hooker and his team in a fight over what Americans should believe about the war.
Gregory Hooker is critical of reports on the ISIS fight.
Mr. Hooker, who declined to comment, has been an Iraq analyst for more than two decades. Some on his team were at Central Command, or Centcom, when American troops poured into Iraq in 2003. The analysts remained focused on the country long after President Obama officially ended the war in 2011.
“This core group of Iraq analysts have been doing this for a long time,” said Stephen Robb, a retired Marine colonel and a former head of the Centcom Joint Intelligence Center. “If they say there’s smoke, start looking for a firehouse.”
The investigation has repercussions beyond the question of whether the American-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria is succeeding. The allegations call into question how much the president — this one or the next — can rely on Centcom for honest assessments of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other crisis spots.
In some ways, the Iraq team’s criticism mirrors the disputes of a decade ago, when Mr. Hooker wrote a research paper saying the Bush administration, over many analysts’ objections, advocated a small force in Iraq and spent little time thinking about what would follow the invasion.
That dispute was separate from the battle over flawed intelligence assessments by the C.I.A. and other spy agencies that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Central Command did not contribute significantly to those assessments.
Several current and former officials said that it was the two most senior intelligence officers at Centcom — Maj. Gen. Steven Grove and his civilian deputy, Gregory Ryckman — who drew analysts’ ire with changes in draft intelligence assessments. But why the assessments were changed remains an open question. Some analysts suggested that leaders in Tampa feared that reporting bad news might anger the White House. Others described an institutional bias that makes it hard for the military to criticize its own operations.
Continue reading the main story
Graphic: Where ISIS Has Directed and Inspired Attacks Around the World
Centcom’s leader, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, was chosen for the job in part because the White House regarded him as a steady, cautious loyalist who would execute military operations in the Middle East with little drama — an especially important consideration after the contentious relationship between the White House and Gen. James Mattis, the previous Centcom commander. General Austin gave testimony last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee that was roundly criticized by some lawmakers as being an overly positive assessment of the war’s progress.
Centcom’s mammoth intelligence operation, with some 1,500 civilian, military and contract analysts, is housed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, in a bay front building that has the look of a sterile government facility posing as a Spanish hacienda. In banks of plain cubicles, the analysts try each day to measure the progress of war.
That effort has long been difficult, particularly in campaigns without traditional armies and clear battle lines. During the war in Vietnam, generals were criticized for measuring success in body counts. In the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, the military issues daily reports that suggest tactical victories but offer little hint about how the war is going.
“One airstrike struck an ISIL tactical unit and destroyed an ISIL cache, three ISIL fighting positions and one ISIL motorcycle,” a report this month said. “Near Ramadi, one airstrike destroyed an ISIL vehicle.”
Brian Hale, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, played down the significance of Centcom’s conclusions in shaping the thinking of senior policy makers, including Mr. Obama, about the war. In a statement on Wednesday he said that Centcom and other military commanders do not provide “broad or strategic assessments.”
The success of daily airstrikes, experts say, can give the illusion of progress, particularly for Centcom commanders who are judged in Washington on their ability to carry out a successful mission. Iraq analysts, officials said, are less optimistic.
Continue reading the main story
Obama’s Evolution on ISIS
Some of President Obama’s statements about the American strategy to confront ISIS and its effectiveness.
“You can get pulled into watching the laser dot on a target and watching it blow up,” said Kevin Benson, a retired Army colonel who teaches intelligence analysis to officers at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. “After that, it can be hard to hear that you’re not making progress, because you saw it.”
Analysts like Mr. Hooker and his team are supposed to be immune from such pressure because they are employed by the Defense Intelligence Agency. In practice, though, the analysts are reviewed by officials at Centcom.
Although critics have suggested that the bombing campaign’s stalemate proves the need for more troops in Iraq, colleagues say Mr. Hooker’s team is not advocating that approach. “I don’t know anyone outside of a political commercial who thinks we need to send large numbers of troops into Iraq,” said one intelligence official who has worked closely with the Centcom analysts.
Instead, analysts say the dispute centers on whether the military is being honest about the political and religious situation in Iraq and whether a bombing campaign can change it.
“What are the strategic objectives here? There are none. This is just perpetual war,” said David Faulkner, the former targeting director at Centcom who worked alongside the Iraq analysts. “People say: ‘Oh, you’re military. You like that.’ No, we don’t.”
Current and ex-officials said tension about how to portray the war’s progress began almost at the start of the campaign last summer, when Mr. Obama authorized strikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and later expanded the bombings to Syria.
Continue reading the main story
Graphic: How ISIS Expands
Early this year, one former official said, Mr. Hooker’s team concluded that, despite public statements to the contrary, airstrikes against Islamic State-held refineries had not significantly weakened its finances because it had built makeshift refineries to sell oil on the black market. But the finding was not distributed outside Centcom, the ex-official said.
Over this past year, analysts felt pressure to keep their assessments positive. In order to report bad news, current and former officials said, the analysts were required to cite multiple sources. Reporting positive news required fewer hurdles. Senior officials sent emails cautioning against using pessimistic phrases that they said were more likely to get attention, according to one former official. In some instances, officials said, conclusions were completely changed.
Anger among analysts grew so intense that in the spring, Mr. Hooker’s civilian boss, William Rizzio, confronted his superiors about the problems. Mr. Rizzio, a retired Marine colonel who had gradually come to take the side of the analysts in the dispute, had meetings with General Grove and Mr. Ryckman. It is unclear what transpired in the meetings, but three people with knowledge of the situation, who, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is part of the inspector general’s investigation, said the result was that Mr. Rizzio was punished for siding with the analysts. He was temporarily reassigned, and analysts were left wondering what happened to him after his name was scraped off the front of his office at Centcom’s Joint Intelligence Center.
Mr. Rizzio, who has since returned to his position, declined to be interviewed.
His concerns gained a more sympathetic hearing several months later, when officials began speaking to the Pentagon’s inspector general, who opened his investigation in July. Officials would not say if Mr. Hooker was the first analyst to do so.
The inspector general’s investigation turned a quiet matter into one of the most high-profile intelligence disputes since officials issued new rules that encourage dissenting views. Those rules were intended to prevent a repeat of the debacle over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The investigation has put this team of analysts, who for years worked in relative obscurity, at the center of a dispute that has the attention of intelligence officials across the government.
“Signing onto a whistle-blowing complaint can easily be a career-ender,” David Shedd, a former acting head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, wrote in a column this week on Defense One, a national security news website. “The nation’s analytic professionals are watching closely to see how it is handled.”
Correction: September 24, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the year that President Obama officially ended the Iraq war. It was 2011, not 2009.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.
By MARK MAZZETTI and MATT APUZZOSEPT. 23, 2015
A version of this article appears in print on September 24, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Military Analyst Again Raises Red Flags on Progress in Iraq. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe
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Officials: Islamic State arose from US support for al-Qaeda in Iraq
August 26, 2015
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.
Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, former Director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), in a lengthy interview with Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan
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 Minister Roland 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.”
Former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas on French national television confirming information received from UK Foreign Office officials in 2009 regarding operations in 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 oil exported 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.
A Free Syrian Army fighter rests inside a cave at a rebel camp in Idlib, Syria on 17th September 2013. As of April 2015, moderate FSA rebels in Idlib have been supplanted by a US-backed rebel coalition led by Jabhut al-Nusra, al-Qaeda in Syria
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.
by Nafeez Ahmed
Find this story at 13 August 2015
Despite bombing, Islamic State is no weaker than a year ago
August 26, 2015
WASHINGTON (AP) — After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded.
U.S. military commanders on the ground aren’t disputing the assessment, but they point to an upcoming effort to clear the important Sunni city of Ramadi, which fell to the militants in May, as a crucial milestone.
The battle for Ramadi, expected over the next few months, “promises to test the mettle” of Iraq’s security forces, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea, who is helping run the U.S.-led coalition effort in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon in a video briefing from the region.
The U.S.-led military campaign has put the Islamic State group on defense, Killea said, adding, “There is progress.” Witnesses on the ground say the airstrikes and Kurdish ground actions are squeezing the militants in northern Syria, particularly in their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa.
But U.S. intelligence agencies see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.
The assessments by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others appear to contradict the optimistic line taken by the Obama administration’s special envoy, retired Gen. John Allen, who told a forum in Aspen, Colorado, last week that “ISIS is losing” in Iraq and Syria. The intelligence was described by officials who would not be named because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
“We’ve seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers,” a defense official said, citing intelligence estimates that put the group’s total strength at between 20,000 and 30,000, the same estimate as last August, when the airstrikes began.
The Islamic State’s staying power raises questions about the administration’s approach to the threat that the group poses to the U.S. and its allies. Although officials do not believe it is planning complex attacks on the West from its territory, the group’s call to Western Muslims to kill at home has become a serious problem, FBI Director James Comey and other officials say.
Yet under the Obama administration’s campaign of bombing and training, which prohibits American troops from accompanying fighters into combat or directing airstrikes from the ground, it could take a decade or more to drive the Islamic State from its safe havens, analysts say. The administration is adamant that it will commit no U.S. ground troops to the fight despite calls from some in Congress to do so.
The U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian and Kurdish allies have made some inroads. The Islamic State has lost 9.4 percent of its territory in the first six months of 2015, according to an analysis by the conflict monitoring group IHS.
A Delta Force raid in Syria that killed Islamic State financier Abu Sayyaf in May also has resulted in a well of intelligence about the group’s structure and finances, U.S. officials say. His wife, held in Iraq, has been cooperating with interrogators.
Syrian Kurdish fighters and their allies have wrested most of the northern Syria border from the Islamic State group, and the plan announced this week for a U.S.-Turkish “safe zone” is expected to cement those gains.
In Raqqa, U.S. coalition bombs pound the group’s positions and target its leaders with increasing regularity. The militants’ movements have been hampered by strikes against bridges, and some fighters are sending their families away to safer ground.
But American intelligence officials and other experts say the Islamic State is in no danger of being defeated any time soon.
“The pressure on Raqqa is significant … but looking at the overall picture, ISIS is mostly in the same place,” said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.
Although U.S. officials have said it is crucial that the government in Baghdad win back disaffected Sunnis, there is little sign of that happening. American-led efforts to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State have produced a grand total of 60 vetted fighters.
The militants have adjusted their tactics to thwart a U.S. bombing campaign that tries assiduously to avoid civilian casualties, officials say. Fighters no longer move around in easily targeted armored columns; they embed themselves among women and children, and they communicate through couriers to thwart eavesdropping and geolocation, the defense official said.
Oil continues to be a major revenue source. By one estimate, the Islamic State is clearing $500 million per year from oil sales, said Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. That’s on top of as much as $1 billion in cash the group seized from banks in its territory.
Although the U.S. has been bombing oil infrastructure, the militants have been adept at rebuilding oil refining, drilling and trading capacity, the defense official said.
The stalemate makes the battle for Ramadi all the more important.
Iraqi security forces, including 500 Sunni fighters, have begun preparing to retake the Sunni city, Killea said, and there have been 100 coalition airstrikes designed to support the effort. But he cautioned it will take time.
“Momentum,” he said, “is a better indicator of success than speed.”
Karam and Mroue reported from Beirut.
By KEN DILANIAN, ZEINA KARAM and BASSEM MROUE
Jul. 31, 2015 1:36 PM EDT
Find this story at 31 July 2015
© 2015 Associated Press
C.I.A. Cash Ended Up in Coffers of Al Qaeda
August 26, 2015
WASHINGTON — In the spring of 2010, Afghan officials struck a deal to free an Afghan diplomat held hostage by Al Qaeda. But the price was steep — $5 million — and senior security officials were scrambling to come up with the money.
They first turned to a secret fund that the Central Intelligence Agency bankrolled with monthly cash deliveries to the presidential palace in Kabul, according to several Afghan officials involved in the episode. The Afghan government, they said, had already squirreled away about $1 million from that fund.
Within weeks, that money and $4 million more provided from other countries was handed over to Al Qaeda, replenishing its coffers after a relentless C.I.A. campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan had decimated the militant network’s upper ranks.
“God blessed us with a good amount of money this month,” Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the group’s general manager, wrote in a letter to Osama bin Laden in June 2010, noting that the cash would be used for weapons and other operational needs.
Abdul Khaliq Farahi, who was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in 2008. Credit Michael Kamber for The New York Times
Bin Laden urged caution, fearing the Americans knew about the payment and had laced the cash with radiation or poison, or were tracking it. “There is a possibility — not a very strong one — that the Americans are aware of the money delivery,” he wrote back, “and that they accepted the arrangement of the payment on the basis that the money will be moving under air surveillance.”
The C.I.A.’s contribution to Qaeda’s bottom line, though, was no well-laid trap. It was just another in a long list of examples of how the United States, largely because of poor oversight and loose financial controls, has sometimes inadvertently financed the very militants it is fighting.
While refusing to pay ransoms for Americans kidnapped by Al Qaeda, the Taliban or, more recently, the Islamic State, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the last decade at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of which has been siphoned off to enemy fighters.
The letters about the 2010 ransom were included in correspondence between Bin Laden and Mr. Rahman that was submitted as evidence by federal prosecutors at the Brooklyn trial of Abid Naseer, a Pakistani Qaeda operative who was convicted this month of supporting terrorism and conspiring to bomb a British shopping center.
The letters were unearthed from the cache of computers and documents seized by Navy SEALs during the 2011 raid in which Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and had been classified until introduced as evidence at the trial.
Details of the C.I.A.’s previously unreported contribution to the ransom demanded by Al Qaeda were drawn from the letters and from interviews with Afghan and Western officials speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The C.I.A. declined to comment.
The diplomat freed in exchange for the cash, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, was serving as the Afghan consul general in Peshawar, Pakistan, when he was kidnapped in September 2008 as he drove to work. He had been weeks away from taking up his new job as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan.
Afghan and Pakistani insurgents had grabbed Mr. Farahi, but within days they turned him over to Qaeda members. He was held for more than two years.
The Afghan government had no direct contact with Al Qaeda, stymieing negotiations until the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent faction with close ties to Al Qaeda, stepped in to mediate.
Qaeda leaders wanted some captive militants released, and from the letters it appeared that they calibrated their offer, asking only for men held by Afghan authorities, not those imprisoned by the Americans, who would refuse the demand as a matter of policy. But the Afghans refused to release any prisoners, “so we decided to proceed with a financial exchange,” Mr. Rahman wrote in the June 2010 letter. “The amount we agreed on in the deal was $5 million.”
A 2009 surveillance video image of Abid Naseer, right, who was convicted this month in a bombing plot. Credit U.S. Attorney’s Office, via Associated Press
The first $2 million was delivered shortly before that letter was written. In it, Mr. Rahman asked Bin Laden if he needed money, and said “we have also designated a fair amount to strengthen the organization militarily by stockpiling good weapons.” (The Qaeda leaders named in the letters were identified by aliases. Bin Laden, for instance, signed his letters Zamray; Mr. Rahman, who was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in August 2011, went by the alias Mahmud.)
The cash would also be used to aid the families of Qaeda fighters held prisoner in Afghanistan, and some was given to Ayman al-Zawahri, who would succeed Bin Laden as the Qaeda leader and was identified in the letters under the alias Abu-Muhammad, Mr. Rahman said.
Other militant groups had already heard about the ransom payment and had their hands out, Mr. Rahman reported. “As you know, you cannot control the news,” he wrote. “They are asking us to give them money, may God help us.”
But Bin Laden was clearly worried that the payout was an American ruse intended to reveal the locations of senior Qaeda leaders. “It seems a bit strange somewhat because in a country like Afghanistan, usually they would not pay this kind of money to free one of their men,” he wrote.
“Is any of his relatives a big official?” he continued, referring to Mr. Farahi, the diplomat. It was a prescient question: Mr. Farahi was the son-in-law of a man who had served as a mentor to then-President Hamid Karzai.
Advocating caution, Bin Laden advised Mr. Rahman to change the money into a different currency at one bank, and then go to another and exchange the money again into whatever currency was preferred. “The reason for doing that is to be on the safe side in case harmful substances or radiation is put on paper money,” Bin Laden wrote.
Neither of the two men appeared to have known where the money actually came from. Aside from the C.I.A. money, Afghan officials said that Pakistan contributed nearly half the ransom in an effort to end what it viewed as a disruptive sideshow in its relations with Afghanistan. The remainder came from Iran and Persian Gulf states, which had also contributed to the Afghan president’s secret fund.
In a letter dated Nov. 23, 2010, Mr. Rahman reported to Bin Laden that the remaining $3 million had been received and that Mr. Farahi had been released.
The C.I.A., meanwhile, continued dropping off bags of cash — ranging each time from a few hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million — at the presidential palace every month until last year, when Mr. Karzai stepped down.
The money was used to buy the loyalty of warlords, legislators and other prominent — and potentially troublesome — Afghans, helping the palace finance a vast patronage network that secured Mr. Karzai’s power base. It was also used to cover expenses that needed to be kept off the books, such as clandestine diplomatic trips, and for more mundane costs, including rent payments for the guesthouses where some senior officials lived.
The cash flow has slowed since a new president, Ashraf Ghani, assumed office in September, Afghan officials said, refusing to elaborate. But they added that cash was still coming in, and that it was not clear how robust any current American constraints on it are.
“It’s cash,” said a former Afghan security official. “Once it’s at the palace, they can’t do a thing about how it gets spent.”
By MATTHEW ROSENBERGMARCH 14, 2015
Find this story 14 March 2015
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ISIS fighter was trained by State Department
August 26, 2015
Washington (CNN) An ISIS fighter who calls for jihad in a new online video was trained in counterterrorism tactics on American soil, in a program run by the United States, officials tell CNN.
The video features a former police commander from Tajikistan named Col. Gulmurod Khalimov. He appears in black ISIS garb with a sniper rifle and a bandolier of ammunition. He says in the video that he participated in programs on U.S. soil three times, at least one of which was in Louisiana.
The State Department has confirmed this claim.
“From 2003-2014 Colonel Khalimov participated in five counterterrorism training courses in the United States and in Tajikistan, through the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security/Anti-Terrorism Assistance program,” said spokeswoman Pooja Jhunjhunwala.
The program is intended to train candidates from participating countries in the latest counterterrorism tactics, so they can fight the very kind of militants that Khalimov has now joined.
A State Department official said Khalimov was trained in crisis response, tactical management of special events, tactical leadership training and related issues.
In the video, Khalimov says that what he saw during his training sessions turned him against his sponsors.
“Listen, you American pigs: I’ve been to America three times. I saw how you train soldiers to kill Muslims,” he says in Russian. “You taught your soldiers how to surround and attack, in order to exterminate Islam and Muslims.”
Then, in the most chilling part of the 10-minute video, he looks directly into the camera and says, “God willing, we will find your towns, we will come to your homes, and we will kill you.”
He then demonstrates his dexterity with a sniper rifle by blowing apart a tomato from a distance of perhaps 25 yards. The scene is played in slow motion.
Who are the women of ISIS?
The American program in which Khalimov participated is designed to teach tactics used by police and military units against terrorists by countries that cooperate with the United States on security matters. But now experts are concerned that this defector has brought ISIS not only a propaganda victory, but also an insider’s knowledge of the playbook the United States is using in the fight against ISIS.
“That is a dangerous capability,” said former Army intelligence officer Michael Breen. “It’s never a good thing to have senior counterterrorism people become terrorists.”
“It sounds like he was involved in defending sensitive people and sensitive targets,” said Breen, who is now with the Truman Project in Washington. “He knows how to plan counterterrorism operations. So he knows how the people who protect a high-value target will be thinking; he knows how people who protect an embassy would be thinking.”
Former Army sniper Paul Scharre, now with the Center for a New American Security, said Khalimov could not only help train other ISIS fighters in tactics, but also serve as a recruiter for the group.
“They’re obviously trying to draw in recruits” with the video, he said.
War against ISIS: Successes and failures
Khalimov was an officer of the primary counterterrorism unit which responds to terrorist threats in Tajikistan, a State Department official said, so he and other members of his unit were recommended for the program by the Tajik government.
“All appropriate Leahy vetting was undertaken in advance of this training,” said spokeswoman Jhunjhunwala.
Scharre, who has served as a trainer of Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan, says there is always a risk that a trainee will turn against their American instructors.
But Breen, who has also participated in training sessions overseas, said building counterterrorism partners requires a necessary leap of faith. “There’s absolutely no way to beat an opponent like the Islamic State, without training a lot of people,” he said. “That’s a core of our strategy.”
By Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd, CNN
Updated 1804 GMT (0104 HKT) May 30, 2015 | Video Source: CNN
Find this story at 30 May 2015
© 2015 Cable News Network.
Inquiry Weighs Whether ISIS Analysis Was Distorted
August 26, 2015
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating allegations that military officials have skewed intelligence assessments about the United States-led campaign in Iraq against the Islamic State to provide a more optimistic account of progress, according to several officials familiar with the inquiry.
The investigation began after at least one civilian Defense Intelligence Agency analyst told the authorities that he had evidence that officials at United States Central Command — the military headquarters overseeing the American bombing campaign and other efforts against the Islamic State — were improperly reworking the conclusions of intelligence assessments prepared for policy makers, including President Obama, the government officials said.
Fuller details of the claims were not available, including when the assessments were said to have been altered and who at Central Command, or Centcom, the analyst said was responsible. The officials, speaking only on the condition of anonymity about classified matters, said that the recently opened investigation focused on whether military officials had changed the conclusions of draft intelligence assessments during a review process and then passed them on.
Iraqi Army recruits in Taji in April with U.S. Army trainers. About 3,400 American troops are advising Iraqi forces. Credit John Moore/Getty Images
The prospect of skewed intelligence raises new questions about the direction of the government’s war with the Islamic State, and could help explain why pronouncements about the progress of the campaign have varied widely.
Legitimate differences of opinion are common and encouraged among national security officials, so the inspector general’s investigation is an unusual move and suggests that the allegations go beyond typical intelligence disputes. Government rules state that intelligence assessments “must not be distorted” by agency agendas or policy views. Analysts are required to cite the sources that back up their conclusions and to acknowledge differing viewpoints.
Under federal law, intelligence officials can bring claims of wrongdoing to the intelligence community’s inspector general, a position created in 2011. If officials find the claims credible, they are required to advise the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. That occurred in the past several weeks, the officials said, and the Pentagon’s inspector general decided to open an investigation into the matter.
Spokeswomen for both inspectors general declined to comment for this article. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the White House also declined to comment.
Col. Patrick Ryder, a Centcom spokesman, said he could not comment on a continuing inspector general investigation but said “the I.G. has a responsibility to investigate all allegations made, and we welcome and support their independent oversight.”
Numerous agencies produce intelligence assessments related to the Iraq war, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and others. Colonel Ryder said it was customary for them to make suggestions on one another’s drafts. But he said each agency had the final say on whether to incorporate those suggestions. “Further, the multisource nature of our assessment process purposely guards against any single report or opinion unduly influencing leaders and decision makers,” he said.
It is not clear how that review process changes when Defense Intelligence Agency analysts are assigned to work at Centcom — which has headquarters both in Tampa, Fla., and Qatar — as was the case of at least one of the analysts who have spoken to the inspector general. In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Pentagon has relocated more Defense Intelligence Agency analysts from the agency’s Washington headquarters to military commands around the globe, so they can work more closely with the generals and admirals in charge of the military campaigns.
Mr. Obama last summer authorized a bombing campaign against the Islamic State, and approximately 3,400 American troops are currently in Iraq advising and training Iraqi forces. The White House has been reluctant, though, to recommit large numbers of ground troops to Iraq after announcing an “end” to the Iraq war in 2009.
The bombing campaign over the past year has had some success in allowing Iraqi forces to reclaim parts of the country formerly under the group’s control, but important cities like Mosul and Ramadi remain under Islamic State’s control. There has been very little progress in wresting the group’s hold over large parts of Syria, where the United States has done limited bombing.
Some senior American officials in recent weeks have provided largely positive public assessments about the progress of the military campaign against the Islamic State, a Sunni terrorist organization that began as an offshoot of Al Qaeda but has since severed ties and claimed governance of a huge stretch of land across Iraq and Syria. The group is also called ISIS or ISIL.
Continue reading the main story
Obama’s Evolution on ISIS
Some of President Obama’s statements about the American strategy to confront ISIS and its effectiveness.
In late July, retired Gen. John Allen — who is Mr. Obama’s top envoy working with other nations to fight the Islamic State — told the Aspen Security Forum that the terror group’s momentum had been “checked strategically, operationally, and by and large, tactically.”
“ISIS is losing,” he said, even as he acknowledged that the campaign faced numerous challenges — from blunting the Islamic State’s message to improving the quality of Iraqi forces.
During a news briefing last week, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was more measured. He called the war “difficult” and said “it’s going to take some time.” But, he added, “I’m confident that we will succeed in defeating ISIL and that we have the right strategy.”
But recent intelligence assessments, including some by Defense Intelligence Agency, paint a sober picture about how little the Islamic State has been weakened over the past year, according to officials with access to the classified assessments. They said the documents conclude that the yearlong campaign has done little to diminish the ranks of the Islamic State’s committed fighters, and that the group over the last year has expanded its reach into North Africa and Central Asia.
Critics of the Obama administration’s strategy have argued that a bombing campaign alone — without a significant infusion of American ground troops — is unlikely to ever significantly weaken the terror group. But it is not clear whether Defense Intelligence Agency analysts concluded that more American troops would make an appreciable difference.
In testimony on Capitol Hill this year, Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, the agency’s director, said sending ground troops back into Iraq risked transforming the conflict into one between the West and ISIS, which would be “the best propaganda victory that we could give.”
“It’s both expected and helpful if there are dissenting viewpoints about conflicts in foreign countries,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a forthcoming book, “Red Team,” that includes an examination of alternative analysis within American intelligence agencies. What is problematic, he said, “is when a dissenting opinion is not given to policy makers.”
The Defense Intelligence Agency was created in 1961, in part to avoid what Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense at the time, called “service bias.” During the 1950s, the United States grossly overestimated the size of the Soviet missile arsenal, a miscalculation that was fueled in part by the Air Force, which wanted more money for its own missile systems.
During the Vietnam War, the Defense Intelligence Agency repeatedly warned that even a sustained military campaign was unlikely to defeat the North Vietnamese forces. But according to an internal history of the agency, its conclusions were repeatedly overruled by commanders who were certain that the United States was winning, and that victory was just a matter of applying more force.
“There’s a built-in tension for the people who work at D.I.A., between dispassionate analysis and what command wants,” said Paul R. Pillar, a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst who years ago accused the Bush administration of distorting intelligence assessments about Iraq’s weapons programs before the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003.
“You’re part of a large structure that does have a vested interest in portraying the overall mission as going well,” he said.
By MARK MAZZETTI and MATT APUZZOAUG. 25, 2015
Find this story at 25 August 2015
© 2015 The New York Times Company
Ex-CIA head: Other terror groups more dangerous than ISIS
August 26, 2015
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) does not pose the biggest threat to the U.S., according to a former leader of the CIA.
It isn’t even in the top three.
“Despite that significant threat from ISIS, it is not the most significant threat to the homeland today,” former CIA deputy and acting Director Michael Morell said on Monday. “The most significant threat to the homeland today still comes from al Qaeda and three al Qaeda groups in particular.”
Those three al Qaeda subgroups — including the “core” al Qaeda branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as affiliates in Yemen and Syria — have shown more willingness to confront the U.S. on its home soil, Morell said.
Of those, the most dangerous is the Yemen branch, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
“The last three attempted attacks to the United States were by al Qaeda in Yemen,” Morell said. He was referring to the failed 2009 “underwear bomber” plot on Christmas Day, as well as a scuttled 2010 plan to insert bombs into printer ink cartridges and the 2012 discovery of a plan to destroy a plane with a non-metallic suicide vest.
“They have the ability to bring down an airliner in the United States of America tomorrow,” Morell said during remarks at the National Press Club.
The two other groups posing a significant threat to the U.S., he added, were the Syria-based Khorasan Group and the original senior leadership of al Qaeda, including head Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The remarks come after dramatic new gains by ISIS in Iraq. Over the weekend, the extremist group captured the city of Ramadi, a critical regional capital, in a major setback for the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.
On Monday, Morell appeared unfazed by that development.
“There’s going to be ups and downs in this war,” he said. “There’s going to be battles won and battles lost. This is a battle lost.”
“I do think that, when you look at the broader context, taking back 25 percent of the territory that they took in their blitzkrieg, it looks pretty good,” Morell added. “And I have confidence that the strategy that we have in place is eventually going to win back Iraq.”
Morell, who retired from the CIA in 2013, is promoting a new book he wrote about the fight against al Qaeda, called The Great War of Our Time.
By Julian Hattem – 05/18/15 11:26 AM EDT
Find this story at 18 May 2015
©2015 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp
Secret Intel Reports on Syria & Iraq Revealed
August 26, 2015
Almost three years ago the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) of the U.S. Dept of Defense accurately characterized the conflict in Syria and predicted the emergence of the Islamic State. This stunning revelation has emerged as a result of a Freedom of Information Act law suit filed by Judicial Watch in connection with the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
The heavily redacted August 2012 seven page intelligence report reveals the following:
1. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) confirmed the sectarian core of the Syrian insurgency. It says
“EVENTS ARE TAKING A CLEAR SECTARIAN DIRECTION. THE SALAFIST, THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI ARE THE MAJOR FORCES DRIVING THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA.” (capitalization in the report; AQI = Al Queda in Iraq)
This analysis is in sharp contrast with western media and political elite which has characterized the “Syrian revolution” as being driven by protestors in a quest for “democracy and freedom”.
2. DIA confirmed the close connection between Syrian opposition and Al Queda. The report says
“AQI SUPPORTED THE SYRIAN OPPOSITION FROM THE BEGINNING, BOTH IDEOLOGICALLY AND THROUGH THE MEDIA….. AQI CONDUCTED A NUMBER OF OPERATIONS IN SEVERAL SYRIAN CITIES UNDER THE NAME JAISH AL NUSRAH (VICTORIOUS ARMY)”
3. DIA confirmed that the Syrian insurgency was enabling the renewal of Al Queda in Iraq and Syria. The report says,
“THERE WAS A REGRESSION OF AQI IN THE WESTERN PROVINCES OF IRAQ DURING THE YEARS OF 2009 AND 2010; HOWEVER, AFTER THE RISE OF THE INSURGENCY IN SYRIA, THE RELIGIOUS AND TRIBAL POWERS IN THE REGIONS BEGAN TO SYMPATHIZE WITH THE SECTARIAN UPRISING. THIS SYMPATHY APPEARED IN FRIDAY PRAYER SERMONS, WHICH CALLED FOR VOLUNTEERS TO SUPPORT THE SUNNIS IN SYRIA.”
4. DIA predicted the Syria government will survive but foreign powers and the opposition will try to break off territory to establish an opposition ‘capital’ as was done in Libya. The report says,
“THE REGIME WILL SURVIVE AND HAVE CONTROL OVER SYRIAN TERRITORY…… OPPOSITION FORCES ARE TRYING TO CONTROL THE EASTERN AREAS ADJACENT TO THE WESTERN IRAQI PROVINCES (MOSUL AND ANBAR), IN ADDITION TO NEIGHBORING TURKISH BORDERS. WESTERN COUNTRIES, THE GULF STATES AND TURKEY ARE SUPPORTING THESE EFFORTS. THIS HYPOTHESIS IS MOST LIKELY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE DATA FROM RECENT EVENTS, WHICH WILL HELP PREPARE SAFE HAVENS UNDER INTERNATIONAL SHELTERING, SIMILAR TO WHAT TRANSPIRED IN LIBYA WHEN BENGHAZI WAS CHOSEN AS THE COMMAND CENTER OF THE TEMPORARY GOVERNMENT.”
5. DIA predicted the expansion of Al Queda and declaration of “Islamic State” (two years before it happened). The report says
“IF THE SITUATION UNRAVELS THERE IS THE POSSIBILITY OF ESTABLISHING A DECLARED OR UNDECLARED SALAFIST PRINCIPALITY IN EASTERN SYRIA AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT THE SUPPORTING POWERS TO THE OPPOSITION WANT, IN ORDER TO ISOLATE THE SYRIAN REGIME WHICH IS CONSIDERED THE STRATEGIC DEPTH OF THE SHIA EXPANSION (IRAQ AND IRAN). THE DETERIORATION OF THE SITUATION HAS DIRE CONSEQUENCES ON THE IRAQI SITUATION…… THIS CREATES THE IDEAL ATMOSPHERE FOR AQI TO RETURN TO ITS OLD POCKETS IN MOSUL AND RAMADI, AND WILL PROVIDE A RENEWED MOMENTUM UNDER THE PRESUMPTION OF UNIFYING THE JIHAD AMONG SUNNI IRAQ AND SYRIA AND THE REST OF THE SUNNIS IN THE ARAB WORLD AGAINST WHAT IT CONSIDERS ONE ENEMY, THE DISSENTERS. ISI COULD ALSO DECLARE AN ISLAMIC STATE THROUGH ITS UNION WITH OTHER TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA, WHICH WILL CREATE GRAVE DANGER IN REGARDS TO UNIFYING IRAQ AND THE PROTECTION OF ITS TERRITORY.”
The last prediction (in summer 2012) is especially remarkable since it predates the actual declaration of the “Islamic State” by two years.
The August and September 2012 secret reports were sent to the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, State Department, Department of Defense and U.S. Central Command.
Conclusions and Questions
The Defense intelligence report accurately characterized the sectarian core of the Syrian opposition and predicted the renewal and growth of ISIS leading to the declaration of an “Islamic State”.
The consequence has been widespread death and destruction. Today much of the world looks on in horror as ISIS military forces murder and behead Palmyra soldiers and government supporters and threaten the destruction of one of humanity’s greatest archaeological treasures.
Knowing what was in this report raises the following questions:
* Why did the U.S. Government not change their policy?
* Why did the U.S. Government continue to demonize the secular Assad government and actively support a Syrian insurgency where “THE SALAFIST, MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, AND AQI ARE THE MAJOR FORCE”?
* Why did the U.S. Government prevent mainstream media from seeing and reporting on this intelligence in 2012? (It might have quieted the barking hounds of war.)
* Why did the U.S. Government continue to allow the shipping of weapons to the Syrian opposition, as documented in another secret report from September 2012?
* Is the destruction and mayhem the result of a mistake or is it intentional?
Intentional or not, aren’t the U.S. government and Gulf/NATO/Turkey allies significantly responsible for the mayhem, death and destruction we are seeing in Iraq and Syria today?
Rick Sterling is a founding member of Syrian Solidarity Movement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted By Rick Sterling On May 22, 2015 @ 8:55 am In articles 2014 onward | Comments Disabled
Find this story at 22 May 2015
After Iraq-Syria Takeover, the Inside Story of How ISIL Destroyed Al-Qaeda from Within
August 26, 2015
A year ago this month, fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State declared they had established a caliphate in the territories they controlled in Iraq and Syria. Since then, the Islamic State has continued to grow, building affiliates from Afghanistan to West Africa while recruiting new members from across the globe. In response, President Obama has sent thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq. The deployment of another 450 troops was announced on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State has reshaped the jihadist movement in the region, essentially bringing al-Qaeda to the brink of collapse. According to a new investigation by The Guardian, the Islamic State has successfully launched “a coup” against al-Qaeda to destroy it from within. The Islamic State began as al-Qaeda’s branch in the heart of the Middle East but was excommunicated in 2014 after disobeying commands from al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. While the Islamic State has since flourished, The Guardian reports al-Zawahiri is now largely cut off from his commanders and keeping the group afloat through little more than appeals to loyalty. We are joined by Guardian reporter Shiv Malik.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: A year ago this month, fighters from the Islamic State declared they had established a caliphate in the territories they controlled in Iraq and Syria. Since then, the Islamic State has continued to grow, building affiliates from Afghanistan to West Africa while recruiting new members from across the globe. In response, President Obama has sent thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq. The deployment of another 450 troops was announced on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State has reshaped the jihadist movement in the region, essentially bringing al-Qaeda to the brink of collapse.
AMY GOODMAN: According to a new investigation by The Guardian, the Islamic State has successfully launched a coup against al-Qaeda to destroy it from within. The Islamic State began as al-Qaeda’s branch in the heart of the Middle East but was excommunicated in 2014 after disobeying commands from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. While the Islamic State has since flourished, The Guardian reports al-Zawahiri is now largely cut off from his commanders and keeping the group afloat through little more than appeals to loyalty. The Guardian also reports the United States has been slow to grasp the implications of al-Qaeda’s decline and possible collapse.
Joining us now from London is Shiv Malik, lead author on The Guardian investigation headlined “How Isis Crippled al-Qaida.” Shiv, if you can talk about, well, just how ISIS crippled al-Qaeda and your meeting in Jordan with the leading al-Qaeda theorists?
SHIV MALIK: Yeah. So, this has been going on for a while now, for a couple of years at least. And, you know, from the outside, we get little pictures. You hear these skirmishes that have been going on. You hear that sort of ISIS has killed a few other members of al-Qaeda, the sort of Syrian branch of al-Qaeda called Jabhat al-Nusra. There was a big conflagration in January last year, in 2014, in which thousands died.
But the real inside story of this comes from just actually a few players, really. And thankfully, we were able to interview Muhammad al-Maqdisi and another guy called Abu Qatada. To British people, he’s quite famous because he lived here for many years, and the home secretary here—actually, various home secretaries tried to deport him over a process of almost 10 years to Jordan to face terrorism charges. He was acquitted of those eventually. But he’s been described as kind of al-Qaeda’s spiritual—or Bin Laden’s spiritual ambassador in Europe. And Maqdisi, who is actually little known in the West, is actually even more senior than Qatada in regards to al-Qaeda.
And what they’ve been doing is, actually, behind the scenes, kind of negotiating between al-Qaeda and ISIS, trying to bring these people back to the table. And they finally gave up about sort of, you know, six months ago or thereabouts, because they all used to be one family. It used to be, if you want, the al-Qaeda family. So, that’s the story that we’ve got from them, which is this process, as I said, of about over two years of how ISIS has sort of risen to take the mantle of the leadership of the sort of global jihad, if you want, from al-Qaeda.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Shiv Malik, could you explain how you came to research this story? And you went to Jordan to speak to these two figures. Could you talk a little about that?
SHIV MALIK: Yeah. So, Maqdisi and Qatada kind of, for obvious reasons, both have—well, Maqdisi also has sort of terrorism convictions, but they’re in and out of prison all the time, as you can imagine—Maqdisi often without charge. He’s just sort of taken by Jordanian security services and sort of locked up. But he was released in February again, and so we went to visit him then, sort of soon afterwards. And then we carried on interviewing him. We’ve got—you know, there’s a big team of investigators that were on this piece, and so we continued to interview him and ask him questions.
And actually, when you meet him, you know, you sort of—you don’t really know what you’re going to get. This guy is the spiritual godfather of al-Qaeda, and Zawahiri counts him as a personal friend. He’s been mentor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He mentored him, and Zarqawi is the founder of ISIS, if you want. He mentored him for five years in prison, and Zarqawi then went on to, of course, create absolute havoc in Iraq in 2003, beheading people, massacring Shias by the thousands. And so, you don’t know what to expect. But when you meet him, he’s sort of—he’s this very interesting guy. I mean, he’s completely energetic, enthusiastic. He’s almost childlike in his enthusiasm for talking about almost anything. His hands flail all over the place. He’s rake thin. And he’s got a real sense of humor, which, you know, sort of throws you, and you don’t really know what to do.
Qatada, on the other hand, is this very large, lumbering man, and he’s very tall, and physically, in that sense, quite intimidating. It’s quite hard to grasp just how big this guy is from sort of the pictures that we have. And he speaks very quietly, and he almost sounds like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, you know, but sort of slightly higher-pitched. So it’s this sort of—and he pauses a lot. So they kind of make an odd pair, if you want.
But we went to speak to them, and they were both very upset. They’ve spent—their life’s work has basically been bringing jihadis under one banner. And for that, that was al-Qaeda. So al-Qaeda is not just an organization, which we know has been incredibly ruthless and bloody and plotting away at terrorism events around the globe; they’re also an idea. And the idea is sort of twofold. First, it’s—and we often look at this from a Western perspective, but, you know, of course, these guys have their own agency. So, the first part of this is that al-Qaeda was created as a kind of a failure, a response to the failures of kind of localist jihadist issues going back to the ’80s and ’90s, and Algeria, for example, being a failure, and Afghanistan. So the idea was that they would all come together under one banner, and they would attack, and they would put their focus on America, because they said this is—the theory was that, look, attack the snake’s head, if you want. And so that’s what they did. And they planned against that, obviously, culminating most visciously in September the 11th. And these scholars then—this was their idea there.
But the second part of this is they’re also a vanguard for a revolutionary idea of setting up the caliphate. And those who are au fait with kind of what happened with the communist movements will know about vanguardist organization, but the idea is that they educate the people to accepting the notion of an Islamic state, and then they eventually, one day, set it up. So this is what al-Qaeda has meant for these two scholars.
And ISIS have been quietly bubbling away. They’ve alway been—they’ve been a branch of—they’ve been al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq. That’s the best way to think of them. And they had been, for a very long time, the most troublesome branch, as well—kind of don’t listen to orders, don’t take criticism very well, won’t listen to anyone. And bin Laden had problems with them, and we know that from the Abbottabad documents that have sort of come out, the sort of tranche of documents that were seized when Americans went in and killed bin Laden in 2011 in May. But we also know this from, then, subsequently, what’s happened and what Zawahiri has said publicly. So they’ve been very troublesome.
And at one point, the sort of the peace was broken, if you want, when ISIS sent—when the Syrian civil war started, they sent some people into Syria, and they said, “You know, we’ll grab some turf. We’ll start a branch there.” And the people who then went on to lead that, sort of bunch of rebels fighting against Assad, went on to become incredibly powerful. And ISIS in Iraq say, “Ah, we’re a bit threatened by this. I’ll tell you what. We’ll just create a merger.” And it’s that point that—it was basically a bit of a power play over territory and patches of land and who would control what. Zawahiri steps in and says, “Actually, let’s just put things back to where they were.” Baghdadi steps up and says, “No way. You know what? We’re not going to do this. We don’t need you, old man in Waziristan, anymore. And if you tell us otherwise, we’re just not going to listen to you.”
So, that’s what starts a giant civil war, basically, and eventually it gets to the point where, as I said, in January 2014 just all hell breaks loose. And jihadis just keep killing jihadis, and veterans from al-Qaeda are killed, and people in ISIS are killed, and it’s incredibly messy. And it’s almost impossible to keep track of. And we spent a very long time trying to piece together, bit by bit, which villages ISIS were taking over, who was getting killed when, who was saying what. And at one point, they even killed—ISIS ended up killing Zawahiri’s emissary, which he had sent over to make peace. They killed him, too. So it was incredibly vicious and incredibly bloody. In step with scholars, which is—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, very soon, Shiv Malik—
SHIV MALIK: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Very soon after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, there was already a split, a falling out between Maqdisi, whom you spoke to, and al-Zarqawi, who was initial leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the so-called—the precursor to ISIS. So could you talk about what the ideological divisions are between these two groups and, in particular, focus on what their position came to be on the recruitment of former Baath leaders within this movement, the position of ISIS versus the position of al-Qaeda, what it had been and what it became?
SHIV MALIK: So, I mean, in terms of ideological divisions, the big division came when ISIS set up this caliphate. They declared this caliphate. And I said, you know, al-Qaeda is supposed to be the vanguardist organization. And there they are, ISIS, setting up a caliphate and saying, “You know, the revolution is complete. We’ve done it. We set up the caliphate. We’ve got there finally.” And that has also made, in that sense, al-Qaeda a bit redundant. They managed, ISIS, to hold onto this caliphate for a whole year now, or almost—we’re coming up to the anniversary in a couple of weeks—which is remarkable. So that’s certainly one ideological difference. And with that, they’ve been able to—ISIS have been able to capture the imagination of young radicals, who would already be susceptible to this, and also the funders. So the money and the men, the prestige is all going to ISIS at this point in time. And al-Qaeda therefore is being drained of all of that, of that pool. So they’ve been really left on the back foot.
Now, these scholars are saying—Maqdisi and Qatada, that we spoke to, have said, “Look, actually, these guys aren’t the real deal.” And that’s why they sort of stepped in. They said, “Look, we’re the elite scholarship. You know, if you’re more than gangsters, and you’re ideologues, then you’ve got to listen to us, because we’re the people who wrote the books.” So, they stepped in, and ISIS basically completely—there was a long period of time when they thought maybe there can be some reconciliation. Baghdadi actually wrote a letter to Maqdisi and said, “Please, come join us in the caliphate. Come see what it’s like. Judge for yourself.” And there was some suggestion from these two, when we interviewed them, that if they went, they’d never come back: They might get killed. So they’re obviously frightened, as well. And there was a situation, as well, a security situation in Jordan, where, again, these two might get bumped off because they’d been so critical of ISIS. You know, someone might just appear masked and gun them down. So, there’s been that, as I said, that fraticide, but ultimately, they want the same thing in the end, and these are, to Western observers certainly, very petty ideological differences.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Shiv Malik, this may sound like a far-out question, but could you see any scenario in which the U.S. would side with al-Qaeda against ISIS?
SHIV MALIK: Not really. And they shouldn’t. I mean, you know, it’s not like al-Qaeda are friends of America by any means. In fact, they’re still very much focused on attacking America. And that’s how they—you know, this is where they find their niche now. If their marketplace has been closed down for them by ISIS, some of it anyway, then they—again, they reformulate themselves on doubling what they did before, if you want, which is to attack the West and gain, if you want, prestige from that, to appeal to their own base. And that should be very worrying for the West.
Now, that doesn’t mean that America should simply carry on focusing on al-Qaeda and not regear its intelligence machine, its military machine towards ISIS. You know, if you were wondering what’s a greater threat, ISIS certainly is. And the reason is, is because, as I mentioned before, they have a patch of land. It’s actually a very sizable territory with a massive city of a couple million people, in Mosul, in Iraq, which they’re in charge of. And this is very worrying, because this idea is now real. They’ve managed to say to the world, “Actually, we’ve held it for a year. We’ve even expanded it by taking Ramadi, which is another major city in Iraq. And look, you know, clearly God’s on our side.” You know, these people are, in that sense, sort of people of faith and religion. And if the caliphate carries on existing, it must be that we’re on the winning side. So, America should regear. And what they’ve announced already, or what seems to have been reported, was, you know, they’re going to send a few other thousand people over to Iraq, or a couple hundred other extra advisers to advise the Iraqi army. I’m not sure if that will be enough, but we’ll see.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And before we conclude, Shiv Malik, could you talk about the significance of the civil war in Syria in precipitating the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s rise and the collapse or near collapse of al-Qaeda?
SHIV MALIK: Yeah, I mean, the civil war has allowed for chaos, and in that sense, you know, these people are sort of like gangsters or sort of drug dealers. They need turf, and they need turf so they can get money and, as I said, recruits. And it’s like a business in that sense. It has to keep itself going. And Syria provided that field. Once the revolution broke out, Assad then brutally put people down and killed them and slaughtered them. And then people decided to arm themselves, and that created the chaos. Then, in stepped—as I said, you know, in stepped ISIS, who were over the border, or ISI, as they were known then, and sent people over to sort of take advantage of all of this. So, in that sense, they have taken advantage completely of what’s been going on, but that’s not to say that people shouldn’t want to resist Assad. They should, you know? He’s been using chemical weapons and certainly chlorine bombs on his population. He’s a despicable dictator. So the question—you know, it’s a complete mess. And someone at some point is going to have to step in, whether it’s European and American forces or something else, and sort that out. But until then, as I said, ISIS will certainly take advantage of it. And they’re doing very well out of it financially.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Shiv Malik, for joining us, investigative reporter at The Guardian, lead author of the new in-depth report, “How Isis Crippled al-Qaida: The Inside Story of the Coup That Has Brought the World’s Most Feared Terrorist Network to the Brink of Collapse.” Shiv was speaking to us in London. We’ll link to that piece at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Texas. Major anti-choice actions are taking place there. Stay with us.
THURSDAY, JUNE 11, 2015
Find this story at 11 June 2015
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In a propaganda war against ISIS, the U.S. tried to play by the enemy’s rules
August 26, 2015
CONFRONTING THE ‘CALIPHATE’ | This is part of an occasional series about the rise of the Islamic State militant group, its implications for the Middle East, and efforts by the U.S. government and others to undermine it.
Hear from the man responsible for one of the most controversial counter-messaging videos produced by the U.S. State Department. EDITOR’S NOTE: The Washington Post has blurred the graphic images from the State Department video. (The Washington Post)
As fighters surged into Syria last summer, a video surfaced online with the grisly imagery and sneering tone of a propaganda release from the Islamic State.
“Run, do not walk, to ISIS Land,” read the opening line of a script that promised new arrivals would learn “useful new skills” such as “crucifying and executing Muslims.” The words were juxtaposed with images of the terrorist group’s atrocities: kneeling prisoners shot point-blank; severed heads positioned next to a propped-up corpse; limp bodies left hanging from crosses in public squares.
The source of the video was revealed only in its closing frame: the U.S. Department of State.
“Welcome to ISIS Land” was in some ways a breakthrough for the U.S. government after years of futility in attempting to compete with the propaganda of al-Qaeda and its offshoots. The video became a viral phenomenon — viewed more than 844,000 times on YouTube — and a cause of significant irritation to its target.
But the minute-long recording also became a flash point in a much broader debate over how far the United States should go in engaging with a barbaric adversary online.
The clip was assembled by a special unit at the State Department charged with finding ways to contain the spread of militant Islamist ideology. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, or CSCC, had direct backing from President Obama, help from the CIA, and teams of Arabic, Urdu and Somali speakers who were thrust into the fray on Twitter and other social-media platforms.
The center was to function “like a war room in a political campaign — shake things up, attack ads, opposition research,” said Alberto Fernandez, a veteran U.S. diplomat who was put in charge of the group. The video targeting the Islamic State, which is also known by the abbreviations ISIS and ISIL, was emblematic of that edgy approach, using the enemy’s own horrific footage to subvert the idea that recruits were “going off to Syria for a worthy cause,” Fernandez said, “and to send a message that this is actually a squalid, worthless, dirty thing.”
The propaganda wars since 9/11 VIEW GRAPHIC
In seeking to change minds overseas, however, the CSCC also turned heads in Washington. Experts denounced the group’s efforts as “embarrassing” and even helpful to the enemy. Critics at the State Department and White House saw the use of graphic images as a disturbing embrace of the adversary’s playbook. And for all the viral success of “ISIS Land,” even the center’s defenders could never determine whether it had accomplished its main objective: discouraging would-be militants from traveling to Syria.
The fallout has put the U.S. government in a frustratingly familiar position — searching yet again for a messaging strategy that might resonate with aggrieved Muslims and stem the spread of Islamist militancy.
It is a problem that has proved more difficult to solve than almost any other for counterterrorism officials. In the 14 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has degraded al-Qaeda, tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden and protected the country from any mass-casualty follow-up attacks.
Al-Qaeda’s brand of militant ideology, however, has only spread.
Previous U.S. efforts have ranged from covert CIA propaganda programs to a Walt Disney-produced film. Their ineffectiveness has hindered attempts to rebalance U.S. counterterrorism policy, leaving the government heavily dependent on armed drones, commando teams and other instruments of lethal force.
With less than two years to go in Obama’s second term, his administration is trying yet another approach. Fernandez, 57, has been replaced, and the unit he led has been instructed to stop taunting the Islamic State. The State Department recently launched a new entity, the Information Coordination Cell, which plans to enlist U.S. embassies, military leaders and regional allies in a global messaging campaign to discredit groups such as the Islamic State.
The plan is to be “more factual and testimonial,” said Rashad Hussain, 36, a former White House adviser brought in to lead the effort. It will seek to highlight Islamic State hypocrisy, emphasize accounts of its defectors, and document its losses on the battlefield — without recirculating its gruesome images or matching its snide tone. “When amplified properly, we believe the facts speak for themselves,” Hussain said.
‘What I’ve been asking for’
The CSCC began with more going for it than any of its predecessors, but it also faced major obstacles.
It was always vastly outnumbered by its online adversaries, had a minuscule budget by Washington standards, and was saddled with what some regard as the insurmountable burden of having to affix the U.S. government label to messages aimed at a skeptical Muslim audience.
The center was conceived by senior officials at the State Department, including its counterterrorism chief, Daniel Benjamin, who was among a group of administration insiders who worried that the White House had become more focused on killing terrorists than preventing the recruitment of new ones.
It also became a priority for then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wrote in a memo that the unit should be modeled on a campaign “war room,” equipped to monitor every utterance by the adversary and respond rapidly.
[From hip-hop to jihad, how the Islamic State became a magnet for converts]
Even with Clinton’s backing, however, a 2010 meeting at the White House offered an early indication of how contentious the plan would be. The CIA’s drone war in Pakistan was at full throttle when Benjamin pitched the idea for the center to Obama and key players on his national security team, including Clinton, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and senior aide Denis McDonough.
As Benjamin wrapped up, Obama erupted.
“This is what I’ve been asking for — why haven’t we been doing this already?” the president demanded, according to a former senior U.S. official who attended the meeting and did not represent the State Department.
“There was irritation” in Obama’s voice, the former official said, aimed at aides he had been pressing for options to keep al-Qaeda’s ideology from spreading. “Everybody on his counterterrorism team had a little bit of egg on their face at that point,” said the former official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the meeting and requested anonymity.
McDonough, Brennan and others seemed angered to have been upstaged, former officials said, and would continue to be seen as obstacles to the plan.
“The whole thing got off on a bad foot bureaucratically,” the former official said. “The antibodies were out to kill it from the beginning.”
The proposal languished long after Obama’s flash of frustration. In her memoir, Clinton said that “despite the president’s pointed comments in July 2010, it took more than a year for the White House to issue an executive order” establishing the center.
That order, which was finally signed just two days shy of the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11. attacks, outlined the center’s mission in broad terms and made Obama’s backing explicit. But its most important provision to State was language requiring the CIA, Pentagon and Justice Department to contribute employees and resources to the CSCC.
‘Happy Muslim’ campaign
The authority seemed to mark a turning point for the State Department after years of being powerless to compel cooperation from other departments, and an opportunity to break from approaches tried in a string of earlier, ill-fated initiatives.
Among them were videos commissioned in 2002 by former Madison Avenue advertising executive Charlotte Beers, who was appointed to the public diplomacy post one month after the Sept. 11 attacks. The $15 million campaign, called “Shared Values,” profiled Muslims living contentedly in the United States, including a baker in Ohio and a fire department medic in Brooklyn.
Some in the State Department derisively labeled it the “Happy Muslim” campaign. It was quickly shelved, and Beers left the administration in 2003.
As the Iraq war raged in 2005, President George W. Bush turned to his longtime communications adviser, Karen Hughes, to reverse the plunging global opinion of the United States. As the new head of public diplomacy, she created a unit named the Digital Outreach Team to defend U.S. policies in online chat rooms that seethed with hostility toward the United States. She also persuaded Disney to produce a feel-good “Portraits of America” film that was shown in airports and U.S. embassies.
As U.S. efforts faltered, al-Qaeda was learning to take advantage of a rapidly changing media landscape.
The group’s early attempts at messaging had often been amateurish, consisting mainly of stilted videos that showed bin Laden staring into the camera, lecturing followers and referring to world events that had occurred weeks or months earlier — a reflection of how long it took to smuggle out the recordings.
Osama bin Laden speaks in this image made from an undated video broadcast on Friday, Oct. 29, 2004 by Arab television station Al-Jazeera. In the statement, bin Laden directly admitted for the first time that he carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, and said “the best way to avoid another Manhattan” was to stop threatening Muslims’ security. ((Al-Jazeera via AP))
In this Monday, Nov. 8, 2010 file photo taken from video and released by SITE Intelligence Group, Anwar al-Awlaki speaks in a video message posted on radical Web sites. ((SITE/AP))
But al-Qaeda understood the importance of messaging from the outset. It had established a media wing known as As-Sahab, or “The Cloud,” to manage its propaganda efforts. The unit began turning out dozens of films a year and was led by an American convert, Adam Gadahn, who helped produce the group’s Western-aimed propaganda until he was killed in January in a CIA drone strike.
By 2009, al-Qaeda had found a compelling voice for the Internet age in Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who joined the terrorist group’s affiliate in Yemen, known as AQAP. Awlaki’s English-language sermons attracted a global following, and his calls for violence were seen as a catalyst in a series of attacks, including a 2009 shooting at Fort Hood in Texas that killed 13 people.
A year later, that same Yemen-based franchise began releasing an English-language online magazine called Inspire with bomb recipes and articles encouraging lone wolf attacks. The first issue arrived the same month as the White House meeting in which Obama endorsed the CSCC plan.
[The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein’s.]
As the center finally began to take shape at the State Department, there was a sense that significant ground had already been lost.
When Richard LeBaron, a career U.S. diplomat, was asked to be the center’s first director, he described the job offer to his wife. Noting that it had been nine years since the Sept. 11 attacks, she reacted with disbelief.
“You’re doing this now?” she asked.
LeBaron spent much of his first year securing resources and assembling staff. As the group’s work got underway, he steered away from the mass audience approaches of Beers and Hughes, campaigns that he thought had only convinced Muslims that “the United States perceived them as a problem,” he said. He believed that al-Qaeda’s ideology appealed to a tiny fraction of that population and that any effort to divert recruits had to be “fought in a very, very narrow trench.”
Under LeBaron, the group produced its first online video mocking al-Qaeda. The video alternated footage of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declaring that only violence would bring change to the Middle East with scenes of what were then the largely peaceful uprisings of the Arab Spring.
GoPro cameras and fanboys
The center’s appetite for barbed attacks intensified when LeBaron retired in early 2012 and was replaced by Fernandez.
A Middle East expert and one of the State Department’s best Arabic speakers, Fernandez had studied al-Qaeda’s ideology and propaganda strategy with the mind-set of a scholar. But he also had a penchant for bluntness that sometimes rankled his bosses. In 2006, he was forced to apologize for remarks during an interview on Al Jazeera television in which he said the United States had been guilty of “arrogance and stupidity” in Iraq.
As head of the center, Fernandez sought to sharpen a campaign that some in the State Department already saw as uncomfortably edgy. He pushed the team to take a more combative stance against al-Qaeda online. But his arrival coincided with the emergence of a new adversary with its own impulse to escalate.
The Islamic State began as an Iraq-based franchise of al-Qaeda, but it severed those ties and transformed itself into the most potent militant force in Syria with a mix of daring assaults on major cities and public displays of gruesome violence, including videotaped beheadings of Western prisoners.
The group’s power in Syria accounts for much of its appeal. But the danger it poses beyond the Middle East is based largely on the global following it has amassed by exploiting Twitter and other social media in ways that al-Qaeda never envisioned.
Compared with the Islamic State, “al-Qaeda is your parents’ Internet,” Fernandez said. “It’s AOL.com or MySpace.”
Over the past four years, more than 20,000 foreign fighters have flocked to Syria and Iraq, including at least 3,400 from Western countries. The migration has eclipsed the flow of militants into Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the Islamic State has been the main draw.
Map: Flow of foreign fighters to Syria VIEW GRAPHIC
The Islamic State’s media wing employs a virtual production line, turning battle footage captured on GoPro cameras into polished propaganda films, including an hour-long documentary called “Flames of War,” that are disseminated by an army of followers and “fanboys.” The group has produced unsettlingly authentic “news” reports with the coerced cooperation of one of its prisoners, British television correspondent John Cantlie. Through exchanges on Twitter, it has also enticed Western women to travel to Syria to become “ISIS brides.”
U.S. officials have described the Islamic State’s propaganda as remarkably slick and sophisticated, characterizations that LeBaron called “borderline racist.” “The notion behind that is how could these Arabs be so smart? How could these terrorists be so skilled?” he said. “Why wouldn’t they be? They’re growing up with the same exposure to social media.”
[Islamic State appears to be fraying from within]
By mid-2013, the Islamic State had eclipsed al-Qaeda as the CSCC’s top priority. The team produced dozens of videos and banners depicting ISIS as a menace to Muslims in Syria, and it tried to trade blows with the group on Twitter, even though State Department posts were often drowned out by the volume of Islamic State messages.
As the center’s campaign intensified, the Islamic State showed flashes of irritation. The group launched a Twitter account, @Al-Bttar, specifically to engage in running arguments with the State Department team.
It also orchestrated campaigns aimed at getting the team kicked off Twitter and YouTube by bombarding those companies with waves of complaints accusing the CSCC of violating their terms of service. At times, Fernandez said, the effort forced State Department officials to appeal to the companies to get their accounts restored.
There were also death threats. Most were vague vows by Islamic State followers to track down the center’s employees. But in one case, ISIS managed to identify one of the center’s contract workers by name and singled him out as a target. The threat was traced to a militant in Spain who was subsequently arrested, U.S. officials said.
Inspired by Monty Python
The center occupies a cramped second-floor office at the State Department that officials said is the only space in the department’s Public Diplomacy Bureau equipped with the locks, alarms and other systems needed to serve a classified facility. Inside, employees track terrorist propaganda and devise responses at computers that are equipped with access to reports from the CIA’s Open Source Center and other channels. Most of the front-line work on social media is carried out by contractors in a separate building nearby.
Since its inception, the center had purposely avoided posting any material in English. It did so in part to avoid running afoul of rules barring the State Department from attempts to influence American citizens. But officials also cited another concern: venturing into English would expose the center’s efforts to more scrutiny in Washington.
At times the constraint seemed absurd. In September 2013, gunmen from al-Shabab staged an assault on a shopping mall in Nairobi while supporters of the Somali terrorist group touted the unfolding carnage on Twitter. Although the al-Shabab tweets were in English, the State Department team could respond only in Somali or Arabic.
As the Islamic State expanded its efforts to attract Western recruits — largely through English-language propaganda — the State Department scrapped its policy.
In late 2013, the center unveiled an English-language campaign dubbed “Think Again Turn Away” aimed at the Islamic State. In a typical skirmish last year, the terrorist group launched a barrage of messages on Twitter under the hashtag #CalamityWillBefallUS. The center tried to disrupt the stream with caustic replies. One showed a feeble-looking bin Laden watching television in the compound where he was killed and warned Islamic State followers: “I want to remind you what happens to terrorists who target us.”
At first, the messages caused only small ripples of reaction outside these narrow channels on social media. But Fernandez soon began scribbling out a script for a new video that would draw a much bigger audience.
The idea for “ISIS Land” emerged in the summer of 2014, while the Islamic State was rapidly expanding. The group had stormed into Iraq and seized Mosul, a city of 2 million, with virtually no resistance from the American-trained Iraqi army. The organization changed its name from ISIL to the Islamic State as it formally declared itself ruler of a restored caliphate — a highly symbolic move that harked back to the historic empires of Islam.
Simultaneously, the Islamic State unleashed a barrage of new videos in English. Among them were segments dubbed “five-star jihad” that depicted life for Islamic State fighters as lavish, with access to hillside mansions, gleaming SUVs and swimming pools overlooking the group’s conquered terrain.
Fernandez, who had served in Syria, wanted to counter that message with a video that would both mock and mimic the Islamic State’s preening style. Fernandez drew inspiration from Monty Python spoofs of the Crusades, and he asked his team to gather some of the most brutal footage of the Islamic State available online.
“Welcome to ISIS Land” sat largely unnoticed on the center’s YouTube channel after it was posted on July 23, 2014. It was part of a much larger collection that included nearly 300 other clips, including more than 200 in Arabic.
Then, like so many online phenomena, “ISIS Land” was propelled into the mainstream by seemingly inexplicable forces.
Alberto M. Fernandez is the State Department’s Coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
A reporter for a British newspaper, the Guardian, posted a link to the video on his Twitter feed. CNN aired an arched-eyebrow segment. HBO comedian John Oliver lambasted the video on his mock news show. And Islamic State followers responded with a parody of their own called “Run Do Not Walk to U.S. Terrorist State.”
Critics blasted not only the video, but also the broader “Think Again Turn Away” campaign. Rita Katz, whose SITE Intelligence Group tracks the online communications of terrorist groups, began cataloguing what she considered to be the center’s most embarrassing materials and said the campaign was playing into the Islamic State’s hands by bolstering its reputation for cruelty and expanding its audience.
“It’s better to not do anything than to do what they’re doing at the State Department,” Katz said.
Others bridled at what they considered the unseemly spectacle of a U.S. government entity behaving like a social-media punk. “They’re trying to reach these kids, but it’s backfiring,” said Patrick M. Skinner, a former CIA agent who works as a counterterrorism consultant. “It’s like the grandparents yelling to the children, ‘Get off my lawn.’ ”
Underfunded, falling short
Fernandez had made sure that the “ISIS Land” video was approved in advance by officials from the White House, the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department. But the public reaction emboldened insiders who were already skeptical of the center’s work.
Amid the rash of negative coverage, Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, began urging that the CSCC be reined in. In an e-mail to White House communications adviser Ben Rhodes and others, she said that she was “supremely uncomfortable” with the graphic images that were “going out under the State Department seal.”
The center’s ability to fend off the criticism was hampered by the difficulty of measuring the effectiveness of its work. The group could point to the size of its following on Twitter and argued that all the death threats and efforts to shut down its accounts were evidence that the center had gotten under the Islamic State’s skin.
But the claims were seen by many as irrelevant or unconvincing.
“The consensus has been that this has been ineffective,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has oversight of the State Department and its operations. “If we can’t measure the impact of what we’re doing, how do we prove that it’s effective?”
“Welcome to ISIS Land” went on to be viewed in numbers never approached by any of the center’s other films. But even now it is not clear that any of those viewers were ever at risk of joining the Islamic State, let alone diverted from that path.
To Fernandez, the center has been subjected to an impossible standard.
“How do you prove a negative?” he asked. “Unless some guy comes out with his hands up and says, ‘I was going to become a terrorist. I saw your video. I loved it. I changed my mind.’ You’re never going to get that.”
The fallout weakened the center’s already wobbly footing in Washington.
Since its creation, the center’s budget had hovered between $5 million and $6 million per year, a range that barely registers on Washington’s spending scale.
The Pentagon, by comparison, spends about $150 million each year to influence public opinion and win “hearts and minds.” The CIA has spent more than $250 million to monitor social media and other “open” sources of intelligence, according to documents obtained by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, with millions more spent on covert propaganda efforts.
At the State Department, the stagnant funding became a major source of frustration, at times spilling into public view. When an ABC News story described the administration’s media strategy against militant Islam as underfunded and falling short, Rhodes, the Obama adviser, fired off an e-mail to Fernandez saying that he had backed the group’s work. He also told Fernandez that he thought criticism of the White House was unfair.
Fernandez replied in an e-mail that he hadn’t been a source for the story, but he agreed with its contents, according to several officials familiar with the exchange. Fernandez declined to comment on the matter.
The center’s troubles were compounded as its supporters in the administration dwindled. Benjamin, who had pushed to create the group, left the State Department at the end of 2012 for an academic position at Dartmouth College. Clinton resigned as secretary of state weeks later and was replaced by John F. Kerry, who overhauled the department’s public diplomacy ranks.
Even so, Fernandez pressed ahead late last year with an ambitious proposal to double the center’s budget. He made his case in a memo that detailed how badly the center was overmatched. Because of budget constraints, the outreach team could be online only five days a week, rarely during hours that corresponded with peak Internet activity in the Middle East. The proposal cited the poor production quality of its videos as proof that even its equipment was inferior to that of the Islamic State.
But in a broader sense, Fernandez saw the budget struggle as a test of U.S. resolve after years of waiting for moderate Muslim leaders to take on the religion’s most radical strains.
“It is about contesting a space that had been ceded to the adversary,” Fernandez said. “Even if you’re outnumbered, even if you’re shouted down, there is value in showing up.”
‘The backfire effect’
The new leadership at the State Department eventually decided that more resources were needed, but that they would go to a new entity, and that it was time for Fernandez to retire.
Richard Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine hired by Kerry as head of public diplomacy, had concerns about the center’s “snarky tone.” He pushed an approach he had employed at Time: “Curate more and create less.”
“The kind of content we were creating wasn’t resonating in ways I would have hoped,” Stengel said in an interview. Going forward, messages would be more fact-based. “You say the caliphate is heaven on earth? We’re going to show you pictures where sewers don’t work. You’re winning on the battlefield? Here’s a satellite picture of you guys retreating.”
Scores of hostages, including Westerners, have been killed by the Islamic State since 2014. Here are some of the major incidents where the Islamic State killed the hostages. VIEW GRAPHIC
As foreign officials gathered in Washington in February for a White House-sponsored summit on countering violent extremism, the State Department announced the creation of the Information Coordination Cell.
In part, Stengel said the new direction was driven by resource realities. There is no way for the department to match the volume of output on social media from the Islamic State, and therefore it should enlist other departments and allies. One of the cell’s main initiatives is to distribute a “talking points” memo each day to U.S. embassies and allied governments, urging them to emphasize a common set of themes or news items about the Islamic State.
But Stengel also acknowledged that the changes reflect competing points of view in a philosophical debate.
Fernandez was convinced that the Islamic State’s appeal was largely emotional, casting itself as an antidote to feelings of victimhood and powerlessness among alienated Muslims. Undermining that appeal required using — and hopefully subverting — the graphic images and themes that resonated with the group’s recruits.
Skeptical, Stengel cited what he said researchers have called “the backfire effect: when you try to disabuse somebody who has a strongly held belief, more often than not it makes their belief even stronger.”
In February, Fernandez was replaced by Hussain, the Obama adviser who served as special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and was a close associate of Rhodes at the White House.
The center has not produced a new English-language video in several months. The “Think Again Turn Away” campaign is being shelved in favor of a new tag line: “Terror Facts.” And the CSCC is expected to be combined with the Information Coordination Cell as part of an unnamed new entity.
The center’s creators see the changes as a retreat from the war room they envisioned.
[The Islamic State’s war against history]
“The fate of the CSCC just underscores the difficulty of experimentation in government — there is zero tolerance for risk and no willingness to let a program evolve,” Benjamin said.“It’s easier to do the same stuff over and over and wring your hands instead of investing resources and having patience.”
In interviews, Hussain and Stengel described ambitious plans to build on the work of the center and help other nations set up messaging operations modeled on the one at State. The first of these was recently established in the United Arab Emirates, although officials said its messaging work remains in “beta mode” and has not yet surfaced online.
The department also appears to be revisiting some pages of the Bush administration’s propaganda playbook.
Late last year, Stengel reached out to Hollywood, asking for help to counter the messages of both the Islamic State and Russia. On Oct. 14, he met with Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment, according to company e-mails obtained by hackers and released by WikiLeaks in April.
“Michael: It was great to see you yesterday. As you could see, we have plenty of challenges in countering ISIL narratives in the Middle East,” Stengel wrote the next day. “I’d love to convene a group of media executives who can help us think about better ways to respond.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.
Greg Miller covers the intelligence beat for The Washington Post.
Scott Higham is reporter assigned to The Post’s investigative unit.
By Greg Miller and Scott Higham May 8
Find this story at 8 May 2015
© 1996-2015 The Washington Post
Iraqi officer under Saddam masterminded rise of Islamic State
August 26, 2015
A former intelligence officer for the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was the mastermind behind Islamic State’s takeover of northern Syria, according to a report by Der Spiegel that is based on documents uncovered by the German magazine.
Spiegel, in a lengthy story published at the weekend and entitled “Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State”, says it gained access to 31 pages of handwritten charts, lists and schedules which amount to a blueprint for the establishment of a caliphate in Syria.
The documents were the work of a man identified by the magazine as Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force, who went by the pseudonym Haji Bakr.
Spiegel says the files suggest that the takeover of northern Syria was part of a meticulous plan overseen by Haji Bakr using techniques — including surveillance, espionage, murder and kidnapping — honed in the security apparatus of Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi national was reportedly killed in a firefight with Syrian rebels in January 2014, but not before he had helped secure swathes of Syria, which in turn strengthened Islamic State’s position in neighboring Iraq.
“What Bakr put on paper, page by page, with carefully outlined boxes for individual responsibilities, was nothing less than a blueprint for a takeover,” the story by Spiegel reporter Christoph Reuter says.
“It was not a manifesto of faith, but a technically precise plan for an ‘Islamic Intelligence State’ — a caliphate run by an organization that resembled East Germany’s notorious Stasi domestic intelligence agency.”
The story describes Bakr as being “bitter and unemployed” after U.S. authorities in Iraq disbanded the army by decree in 2003. Between 2006 to 2008 he was reportedly in U.S. detention facilities, including Abu Ghraib prison.
In 2010 however, it was Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers who made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the official leader of Islamic State, with the goal of giving the group a “religious face”, the story says.
Two years later, the magazine says, Bakr traveled to northern Syria to oversee his takeover plan, choosing to launch it with a collection of foreign fighters that included novice militants from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Europe alongside battle-tested Chechens and Uzbeks.
Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, whose cousin served with Bakr, describes the former officer as a nationalist rather than an Islamist. The story argues that the secret to Islamic State’s success lies in its combination of opposites – the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of another, led by Bakr.
Spiegel said it had obtained the papers after lengthy negotiations with rebels in the Syrian city of Aleppo, who had seized them when Islamic State was forced to abandon its headquarters there in early 2014.
(Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Crispian Balmer)
World | Sun Apr 19, 2015 12:42pm EDT Related: WORLD, SYRIA, IRAQ
Find this story at 19 April 2015
Terror-Mastermind Haji Bakr<< oudere artikelen
August 26, 2015
Der Spitzel-Führer des “Islamischen Staates”
Er entwarf den Masterplan zur Machtübernahme in Syrien, baute ein Spitzelnetz auf, installierte den selbst ernannten Kalifen: Haji Bakr war der wichtigste IS-Stratege, die Religion nutzte er nur als Mittel zum Zweck. Der SPIEGEL hat seine Geheimdokumente ausgewertet.
Die meisten kannten ihn als den Mann mit dem weißen Bart, manche als den mit dem schwarzen Bart. Der örtliche Rebellenkommandeur erinnerte sich an ihn unter dem Namen “Schweib”, zuständig für die Waffenbeschaffung. Einer der örtlichen politischen Köpfe kannte ihn als “Abu Bakr al-Iraqi”, als den Verantwortlichen für religiöse Belange in der Kleinstadt Tal Rifaat in der umkämpften Ebene Nordsyriens.
Erst nachdem ein kleines Rebellenkommando ihn erschossen hatte, Anfang 2014, wurde allen klar: Es war stets derselbe Mann. Ein Mann, der darauf bedacht war, möglichst keine Spuren zu hinterlassen.
Die Rebellen wussten im ersten Moment nicht, wen sie da im Feuergefecht erschossen hatten. Aber sie wunderten sich: Warum brachte der “Islamische Staat” eine regelrechte Streitmacht von Süden heran, um die Stadt zu stürmen? Warum rückten sie mit mehr als einem Dutzend Pick-ups mit aufmontierten Maschinengewehren an? Warum schickten sie einen Selbstmordattentäter vor, der sich am Stadtrand in die Luft sprengte?
Sie hatten den Trupp frühzeitig entdeckt, erwartet und zurückgeschlagen. Aber keiner wusste zunächst, welches Ziel so wertvoll war, dass der IS mit solcher Wucht angriff. Die Leiche des Erschossenen verstauten die Rebellen in einer Kühltruhe.
Bakr steuerte anderthalb Jahre lang die Eroberung Nordsyriens
So endet die Geschichte von Haji Bakr, wie der Mann innerhalb der IS-Miliz hieß. Es ist die Geschichte des wohl einflussreichsten Terror-Strategen der jüngeren Vergangenheit – dem Architekten der Organisation, die in den vergangenen Jahren weite Teile Syriens und des Iraks unter ihre Kontrolle und Terror über viele Tausend Menschen gebracht hat. Es ist die Geschichte des Kopfes hinter dem “Islamischen Staat”.
Die Rebellen holten den Leichnam erst wieder hervor, als ein Anführer aus einer anderen Stadt sie alarmierte. Sie legten den leblosen Körper auf eine orangefarbene Wolldecke im tiefgrünen Wintergras – jeder sollte ihn sehen können; jeder sollte sich von seinem Tod überzeugen. Dann verscharrten sie ihn, den Mann mit den vielen Namen, in einem namenlosen Grab.
Sein richtiger Name lautet Samir Abed al-Mohammed al-Khleifawi, einst Oberst im irakischen Militärgeheimdienst mit dem erhöhten Rang einer Generalstabsverwendung. Mehr als zwei Jahrzehnte lang hatte er im Herzen von Saddam Husseins Geheimdienststaat gelernt, wie man mit einem System aus flächendeckender Überwachung und feindosiertem Schrecken eine Bevölkerung im Griff hält.
Wie sehr er seine Lektionen verinnerlicht, wie geschickt und penibel er geplant hatte, das wurde den Rebellen erst klar, als sie das unscheinbare Haus durchsuchten, in dem Haji Bakr gelebt und von dem aus er anderthalb Jahre lang die Eroberung Nordsyriens gesteuert hatte.
Im Haus fanden sie die Pläne, die die Strategie des IS offenbarten – und anhand derer sich das Vorgehen der Terrororganisation in den vergangenen Jahren en détail rekonstruieren lässt: Wie eine Handvoll aus dem Irak eingesickerter erfahrener Machtübernahme-Profis unter Bakrs Anleitung ihren schleichenden Eroberungszug begonnen und wie der IS zur wichtigsten Terrororganisation der Gegenwart wurde.
Die Papiere liegen dem SPIEGEL vor (hier finden Sie die Dokumente in der aktuellen Ausgabe). Es sind komplexe handschriftliche Aufrisse, manche so umfangreich, dass sie auf mehrere zusammengeklebte Blätter gezeichnet worden waren. “So etwas hatten wir noch nie gesehen”, sagte Radwan Qarandel, der örtliche Rebellenführer.
In dem Konvolut findet sich unter anderem Folgendes:
der detaillierte Plan für den Einstieg: Spionagezellen, als islamische Missionsbüros getarnt, sollen in allen Dörfern und Städten etabliert werden
Ablaufpläne dafür, wie Orte “geöffnet” werden sollten
Organigramme für konkurrierende Geheimdienste
der Entwurf für separate Abteilungen, die geheime Morde und Entführungen planen und durchführen, als Vorstufen zur anschließenden Machtübernahme.
“Hochintelligent, entschlossen, exzellenter Logistiker”
Die Geschichte Haji Bakrs ist weniger die Geschichte eines Ideologen als die eines kühlen Strategen. Er war “absolut kein Islamist”, erinnert sich der irakische Journalist und Kenner der Radikalenszene, Hischam al-Haschimi, an den früheren Karriereoffizier, der gemeinsam mit Haschimis Cousin auf der Luftwaffenbasis Habbaniya stationiert gewesen war. “Oberst Samir”, wie er ihn nennt, “war hochintelligent, entschlossen und ein exzellenter Logistiker.” Aber als Paul Bremer, der US-Statthalter nach Saddams Sturz in Bagdad, “im Mai 2003 einfach per Dekret die gesamte Armee auflöste, war er arbeitslos und verbittert”.
Es begann der lange Weg des nüchternen Geheimdienstprofis, der nichts dem Zufall und schon gar nicht dem Glauben überließ, an die Spitze der schon damals brutalsten Dschihadistengruppe, die als al-Qaida im Irak bekannt wurde. Im Untergrund traf Haji Bakr, wie er sich nun nannte, Abu Mussab al-Sarkawi, den weltweit berüchtigten Drahtzieher zahlloser Selbstmordanschläge auf amerikanische Soldaten, das Uno-Hauptquartier in Bagdad, aber ebenso auf schiitische Heiligtümer und Geistliche.
Für zwei Jahre saß Haji Bakr im amerikanischen Gefangenenlager Camp Bucca und im Gefängnis von Abu Ghuraib, wo viele der späteren Terrorkontakte erst geknüpft wurden. Die US-Besatzer im Irak hatten ein tragisches Talent dafür, sich erst mit der Auflösung der gesamten Armee und dann mit oft wahllosen Massenverhaftungen ihre intelligentesten Feinde selbst zu schaffen und zu vereinen.
Die Intrige um al-Baghdadi
Es dauerte Jahre, bis die kühlen Strategen aus Saddams Geheimdiensten und die islamistischen Fanatiker zusammenkamen. Erst als 2010 der aus al-Qaida im Irak hervorgegangene “Islamische Staat” fast seine gesamte Führungsspitze verlor, war dies der goldene Moment für Haji Bakr: Stets die graue Eminenz im Hintergrund intrigierte er den heutigen “Kalifen” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi an die Spitze des IS.
Er erzählte den versteckten Anführern je einzeln, dass die anderen schon einverstanden seien. Wer trotzdem noch dagegen war, würde in den folgenden Monaten spurlos verschwinden. So wie ab 2013 im anarchischen Nordsyrien die von Haji Bakrs Spitzel-Kohorten ausgemachten Gegner einer nach dem anderen verschleppt und ermordet würden.
In seinen Plänen, die akribisch umgesetzt wurden und den IS bis 2014 zum Herrscher über ungefähr ein Drittel Syriens machten, tauchte der Islam, außer in den Eingangsfloskeln, gar nicht auf. Scharia, islamische Gerichtsbarkeit, verordnete Frömmelei – alles war nur Mittel zum Zweck, unterworfen einem einzigen Ziel: die neu gewonnenen Untertanen zum Gehorsam zu zwingen und die enorme Zugkraft des Dschihad, die zu Tausenden aus aller Welt strömenden Radikalen, benutzen zu können.
Selbst für die zwangsweise Bekehrung zum Islam, in seinem Verständnis die sklavische Unterwerfung, verwendet Haji Bakr keinen religiösen, sondern einen technischen Begriff: “Takwin”. Er bezeichnet die Implementierung. Ein nüchternes Wort, das sonst in der Geologie oder Bauwissenschaft verwendet wird.
Vor 1200 Jahren allerdings war es schon einmal auf eigentümliche Art berühmt geworden: bei schiitischen Alchemisten als Bezeichnung für die Schaffung künstlichen Lebens. In seinem “Buch der Steine” hatte der Perser Jabir Ibn Hayyan im 9. Jahrhundert von der Erschaffung eines Homunkulus, eines künstlichen Menschen, geschrieben, in Geheimschrift und Codes: “Das Ziel ist es, alle zu täuschen, bis auf jene, die Gott liebt.”
Ob Haji Bakr von dieser lang versunkenen Bedeutung seines Wortes für die Schaffung der Gläubigen wusste? Wahrscheinlich nicht. Aber die alten Geheimdienstler an der Spitze des IS agieren wie Alchemisten der Gegenwart, die aus der Angst der anderen und ihrem nüchternen Machtkalkül den künstlichen Gottesstaat erschaffen wollten.
19. April 2015, 13:17 Uhr
Von Christoph Reuter
Find this story at 9 April 2015
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