HH: Joined now by Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast, author, along with Hassan Hassan, of ISIS: Inside The Terror Machine. Michael, welcome to the program. I’ve been very impressed watching you on CNN over the last few weeks. You know of which you speak, and great to have you on. I hope this is the first of many times that you join me. Thanks for coming on.
MW: It’s a pleasure, Hugh, thanks for having me on.
HH: I have been reading your book, ISIS, and I make it a point to recommend to everyone The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright and The Great War Of Our Time by Michael Morell. And now I’m going to have to add ISIS, because you spend a lot of time explaining this. Will you do the ABC’s of where Baghdadi came from, because there’s a lot of confusion about who he is, and there’s a lot of hubris in the West about how could he possibly be a threat to us. He looks funny, and he talks like a 7th Century fanatic.
MW: Yeah, well, so he is sort of an unlikely comer to lead an organization like ISIS. He grew up in the town of, or the city of Samarra in Iraq, was known not to be necessarily all that pious, much less an Islamist or a jihadist in orientation. At some point, he seems to have cast his lot with Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups in Iraq. He had joined the insurgency, which is to say the anti-American insurgency when we occupied the country some point in the early days, but wasn’t considered a very high level or high target capture. What had happened was they were going after somebody else, I mean, the Americans, and they rounded him up in a dragnet. They didn’t know who he was at the time, and they didn’t know that he was sort of rising in prominence. He was interned at Camp Bucca, which was the main theater of internment for all jihadi or AQI, which is to say al Qaeda in Iraq operatives. He spent a year there, and that was in 2004. There’s been a lot of chatter and rumors that he was there in 2009, in that period. That’s not true. He only did a year at Bucca. But while he was at Bucca, he was known to be a very charismatic and very sort of amenable character. In fact, the American authorities saw him as a conflict resolution guru, believe it or not. So if you had squabbling jihadis, Baghdadi was your man to sort of sort them out. Now of course, this is almost out of central casting, because a lot of these characters, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, the same thing happened. Prison was their sort of debut, their coming into their own, if you like.
HH: And Zawahiri, actually, right?
MW: What’s that?
HH: Wouldn’t that go back to, and Zawahiri back in the days of the Sadat trial?
MW: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, he was imprisoned as well. And you know, this is the maker of men, these prisons in the Middle East, and it doesn’t matter who they’re run by. It could be us, it could be Assad or the Iraqi government or Saddam. This is where if you have a natural proclivity to strong men or you know, sort of Machiavellian characteristics, this is where it’s going to come out, because this is where you have to really show. One thing that distinguishes Baghdadi from a lot of these other guys, though, and I have to emphasize this, he does have a proper clerical upbringing or education. He has a PhD in Islamic studies from a university, a very elite university in Iraq. Now the supposition is, and you know, I’ve written a lot about the fact that a lot of the upper echelons of ISIS are populated by former members of the Saddam regime.
MW: Either the Mukhabarat intelligence services, or the Iraqi Army. Baghadi, there’s no evidence that was involved with the regime in that respect, but his family must have been, because to get into that university, the Islamic University in Samarra, required some kind of party connection. So that’s an interesting fact.
HH: Michael, can I stop and ask you a question that no one ever asks you when you bring this up? At that university…
HH: Are they as anti-Shiia as some Sunni fundamentalist are? Do they breed in the bone the hatred for the Shiia that some places do?
MW: Well, you know, it’s interesting, Hugh, under Saddam, Saddam, you know, during the Iran-Iraq war, and during also the suppression of the Shiia at the end of the First Gulf War, Iraqi Army tanks used to roll in with these fanatical anti-Shiia slogans. That said, Saddam himself had Shiia in the high reaches of the Baath party. He wasn’t as genocidal as al Qaeda in Iraq and the Zarqawists were. And I didn’t, I’m not privy to the curriculum that was being taught at Islamic University when Baghdadi was involved there. I can only imagine, though, there was some immersion in the teachings of, given to me and some of the kind of clerics from the medieval period who have, essentially were the godfathers of ISIS ideology. I mean, it certainly is one that comes up multiple…
HH: So putting this bluntly…
HH: Putting the question bluntly, if you lined up a Christian, a Jew and a Shiia, who would Baghdadi kill first?
MW: A Shiia, and believe it or not, Zarqawi around, I think, 2005, maybe a little earlier, had put out this fatwa or communique saying that our number one enemy in Iraq are the Shiia.
MW: Forget about the Jews, forget about the Christians, the Kurds we can convert, because most of them are Sunni. The Shiia, that we have a project to exterminate, and the reason being, apart from, again, dipping into these sort of Salafi currents that wafted over from centuries ago, he had a political plan for the country. How do you win back a country for a minority sect when the majority is now enfranchised as the vote, and obviously is in control of all these ministries in the government? The answer is you go after them, you blow, you behead them publicly, you blow up their mosque, their hussainiyas, their cultural centers. You wage this genocidal project against them, forcing them to further radicalize, forcing Iran to come to their aid and create these death squads and these militia groups. And that will in turn make the Shiia come after the Sunnis. And when the Sunnis feel embattled, guess who they’re going to cast their lot with? With us. We are their custodians. We are the last line of defense for them. That’s the same thing that ISIS is doing today. They’re, for instance, now this war in Iraq, you know, the U.S. does not have a military presence, as we all know, at least not in a combat role. So there is no credible intercessory force if you have your choice of different sectarian actors. If you’re a Sunni Arab living in al Anbar Province, believe it or not, you often see ISIS as a better bet than the Badr Corps, or…
HH: Michael Weiss is my guest. He’s the author, Michael is the author of ISIS, a book you’ve got to read along with Hassan Hassan, and Michael, before we go to break, Carly Fiorina was just on, and she said the private sector’s four generations ahead of the Patriot Act in terms of technology. So are the terrorists. She added the terrorists are putting up online help desks for jihadis. Is she right?
MW: Yeah, no, the ISIS guys are very, I interviewed a U.S. military intelligence officer by the name of Derek Harvey, the guy who anatomized the insurgency. He said look, in the early days, the guys we killed or captured on the battlefield, we were basically doing al Qaeda in Iraq a favor, because this was thinning the herd. These were the idiots who were stupid enough to use cell phones and talk to each other where we could intercept signals intelligence, geo-locate their position and then swoop down with Special Forces and either thrown them in the clink or kill them. The guys who hung in there are the ones who understood communications security, Op-Sec, the guys who knew to put their cell phones in a lead-lined box, or who used prepaid cell phone cards that couldn’t be traced, these kinds of things. So Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, officially the spokesman of ISIS, but in fact the commander, really, of all of Syria, he’s been there since the beginning with Zarqawi. He’s hung in there. What does that tell you about his operational capability and his tradecraft? He’s a lot smarter than the average bear, certainly than these 18 year olds coming over from Tunisia who are going to be blown up in suicide bombing campaigns.
HH: Yeah, same thing as…The same thing with Zawahiri, who has survived forever in the hills of Afghanistan. He must have operational security off the charts.
HH: I’ll be right back, if I can keep him, with Michael Weiss. Get his book called ISIS, which he’s co-authored with Hassan Hassan.
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HH: Michael, I want to play for you something the President said in his speech about the terrorist attack in San Bernardino earlier this week.
BO: And as groups like ISIL grew stronger amidst the chaos of war in Iraq and then Syria, and as the internet erases the distance between countries, we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers.
HH: Okay, let’s stop right there. What he’s trying to say, Michael, is that ISIS grew out of the original invasion. And I understand the argument, but there is this moment in 2011 where the administration pronounced Iraq stable. Was that a strategic error?
MW: Well look, by 2009, when the U.S. was basically done with major combat operations in Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq was what I would call strategically defeated. Now that is not to say that it had been completely extirpated and that there weren’t operatives running around, including those, by the way, that were led out of places like Camp Bucca and that returned, you know, in a recidivist manner to the insurgency. But there were two big problems. Number one, the military withdrawal. Now we can debate until the cows come home about the status of forces agreement. Vice President Joe Biden is on record saying Nouri al-Maliki is going to sign the SOFA agreement. I’ll bet my vice presidency on it. Well, he didn’t sign it, and as you can tell, Joe Biden is still vice president.
MW: He also said, by the way, that Nouri al-Maliki hates the goddamn Sunnis, but backed him in 2010 when Maliki did not win the election. His State Of Law bloc did not command enough seats in Parliament to be able to form a government right off the bat. What they ended up doing is violating the Iraqi Constitution, which we helped draft for them, or advised on the drafting of, in order to have him return to Baghdad. And there’s all kinds of politicking and sort of stuff that went on behind the scenes. But the real problem, Hugh, and this has been explained to me very well by Col. Rick Welch, who is the chief military liaison for the tribes, both Sunni and Shiia in Iraq. The real problem was as of 2010-11, the U.S. State Department, the guys in the Green Zone, had politically disengaged from the country. The line that was being used was this is a sovereign nation now, you sort it out, you have the democratic means. And these tribal leaders, whether they were Sunni or Shiia, looked at whoever was doing the talking, particularly the guys in the embassy under Chris Hill, an ambassador who should never have been named ambassador, by the way, they looked at them like they had three heads. They said excuse me, you came in here, you toppled Saddam, you invaded the country, you occupied it, you unleashed this hell, you put sort of Humpty Dumpty back together again in a manner, and you’re telling us we have to sort it out, this is a sovereign country? The president just told Mubarak step down. The President just sent a no-fly zone, imposed on in Libya, and essentially oversaw the lynching of Muammar Qaddafi. He just told Bashar al-Assad to step down. Now let’s not pretend that the U.S. doesn’t interfere in the affairs of sovereign countries. So a lot of the tribal leaders, the sons of Iraq, the people, the very core constituents we need to defeat a group like ISIS, and who did defeat al Qaeda in Iraq, we hung them out to dry. They were supposed to be…
HH: Where was, where was the Secretary of State at this point, Michael? I’m genuinely curious what did Hillary Clinton think was going to happen?
MW: Well, to be honest, again, Biden was the one tasked with the Iraq file, you know? This was the guy who in 2003, I think, or whenever it was, wrote the essays, famously, that we should balkanize the country, it should be split into a confederation, or essentially three different countries – Kurdistan, Sunnistan, Shiiastan. The irony here, or the unintended consequence is, through policies inaugurated and enacted by this administration, that’s where we are today. But we have no oversight or supervision of that process. I mean, I keep saying there is no state of Iraq.
HH: So Hillary had nothing to do with…
MW: What’s that?
HH: Hillary had nothing to do with this?
MW: She wasn’t the main point person on Iraq. She was implementing policy, and yeah, I mean, she made trips. You know, she acted in her role as America’s top diplomat, but it was Biden and a core group inside the National Security Council that were making these decisions. I’ll give you another anecdote.
HH: Well, let me ask you a question, because we’re short on time.
HH: She did have the Libya portfolio, and now I had on David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times yesterday who tells me that Libya is the fallback base if Raqqa gets rocked.
MW: Yeah, well, you know, these so-called wilayahs, these provinces that ISIS is establishing outside of its caliphate zone, this is where we have to look now, because they’ve always had an internationalist strategy. They’ve always had a foreign expeditionary wing. But since the loss of Kabani, they have increased or amplified that strategy. And now, they’re establishing affiliates and fiefs all over the world. I mean, a major insurgency group in the north Caucuses, the Russian Federation, pledged allegiance to ISIS. So that’s thousands upon thousands of fighters that with the stroke of the pen just joined the world’s leading terrorist organization. Boko Haram, when they pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and their allegiance was accepted, ISIS gained 20,000 square miles of territory in West Africa. Yemen, Algeria, you know, Afghanistan, the Sanai Peninsula, all over the world. Now the difference is they’re not able, they don’t have the kind of command and control in those places, and they certainly don’t have the capability to hold terrain as well as they do in Syria and Iraq. Eastern Syria and Western Iraq…
HH: But we’ve got to…
MW: This is what I call the briar patch for ISIS. This is the heartland.
HH: And we’ve got to, Michael, we’re out of time, but come back and continue to sound the alarm on this, because you do it as eloquently as anyone on TV, and I appreciate you taking the time with us on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
End of interview.