Today marks the beginning of what I hope will be many opportunities to introduce true practitioners in the world of spying and killing to Phase Zero readers. Our first guest is Malcolm Nance, a 34-year veteran intelligence officer who has worked the Iraq mission since 1987, fighting in all of our Middle East wars since 1983. He has lived in and out of Iraq since 2003.
The death of former Saddam General Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri last week provides an opportunity to ask Nance about who the insurgent commander was, how he evaded capture or death for so many years, and what the hell is really going on in Iraq. In addition to his time on the ground, Nance has written defense intelligence textbooks on the subject—books that are occasionally dense but “are exhaustively detailed for a reason,” he says. “I am not here to entertain, but to share hard intelligence, won by the blood of dead soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and intelligence officers and explain the deep history of these groups which leads you to ISIS.”
He is not shy about the why of knowing: So that “we kill the right people with what we learned.” Nance runs his own analytical organization, TAPSTRI, the Terror Asymmetrics Project and is author of, most recently, The Terrorists of Iraq: Inside the Strategy and Tactics of the Iraq Insurgency, 2003-2014.
Nance will be in comments—his actual, swear-to-god Kinja user name is “kingpindaddyhoho”—at noon eastern to answer your questions.
On Friday, Iraqi television announced that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was killed in Iraq. A blip in the news, but obviously a man who you think was a shadow leader of ISIL. Who was he?
General Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was the Dick Cheney of Iraq. He was a close personal confidant of Saddam Hussein and blood member of the Saddam clan by marrying his daughter to Saddam’s son, Uday. He was a powerbroker in the Iraqi Baath party during Saddam’s rule and commanded all Iraq forces in northern Iraq, where ISIS would later invade so successfully. In the 1960s, he worked alongside Saddam when the Baath were underground, and he planned the details of the 1968 coup d’état that brought Saddam to power. He was one of the key decision-makers to plan and wage war against Iran, and he led the Revolutionary Command Council in the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. After Desert Storm, he led the cleansing of the southern Iraq marsh Arabs. His strategy was simply to kill most of them, drain the marshes, and thereby wipe the rebellion out.
During the Anfal campaign of genocide in northern Iraq, he killed and displaced tens of thousands more Kurds. With such a stellar record of mass murder, he was the one to order his cousin Al-Hassan al-Majid—a.k.a. “Chemical Ali”—to use Mustard, VX, and Sarin nerve gas to kill over 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in Halabjah.
This man, designated the “King of Clubs” by U.S. intelligence, was arguably the most sinister of the entire pack of trading card characters. Being naturally red-headed and freckled, a childhood of teasing may have led him to be as ruthless as he was easy to identify.
One thing about al-Douri that was important—crucial—is that he was a devout Muslim in the Sufi Naqishbandi sect. He even formed his own insurgent group called the Men of the Naqishbandi Army (Jaysh al-Rijjal al-Naqishbandi, or JRTN). This is interesting because al-Qaeda and ISIS loathe these Sufi Muslim sects.
How the fuck did he evade capture or being killed from March 2003 to the present? Where was he during the U.S. occupation?
One of the enduring myths of the 2003 Iraq war was that we were fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq and a few ex-Baathist Former Regime loyalists (FRLs). The opposite was true. We were fighting the entire ex-Baath infrastructure. I was there when Paul Bremer disbanded the army, and it was clear to everyone that many of these 500,000 functionaries and soldiers were going to go into the insurgency; as many as 88,000 did so.
What we didn’t know until 2006 was that Saddam knew he would be defeated and used al-Douri to organize an armed insurgency led by the Saddam Fedayeen to recreate the Great Arab Revolution of 1920, where the British were kicked out of southern Iraq after a multi-year insurgency.
Al-Douri and the Revolutionary Command Council also had deep relations with Hafez al-Assad and the Syrian Baath party. At al-Douri’s urging, Saddam opened oil pipelines to Syria and built a cash relationship with the al-Assad family.
In the run-up to the U.S. invasion in 2003, Saddam and al-Douri “Islamicised” the coming insurgency, allowing foreign terrorists into the country. Syria became the pipeline for al-Qaeda foreign fighters and al-Assad happily let them cross the border, using his intelligence agencies to distribute weapons and facilitate travel.
One key group to arrive was that of Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his men of Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War). They hated the Baathists but could not move freely through Iraq without their assistance. A partnership was formed, and they worked symbiotically. Soon afterwards, Zarqawi’s group became al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Meanwhile, al-Douri and the Revolutionary Command Council set up an intelligence command center in Damascus and called it the National Command of the Islamic Resistance (NCIR). By 2006, the AQI leadership shifted from foreign fighter commanders (Zarqawi) to a joint Iraqi-Foreign command (Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Umar al-Baghdadi) with the name of the Islamic State of Iraq. That then transformed into an Iraqi-only command (under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) with the Syrian civil war offering a secure base.
However, this entire time, the 88,000 Iraqi Sunni ex-Baathist insurgents were integrating with ISIS via various joint command like the Unified Mujahideen Command (2003), the General Command of the Islamic Resistance of Iraq (2004), the Mujahideen Shura Council (2005), and the Coalition of Nobility (2006). The Islamic Emirate of Iraq (IEI) (2005) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) (2006) became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—ISIS (2011).
Pretty much from 2003-2008, from inside Syria, al-Douri and NCIR coordinated all major combat activities, including supporting all Iraqi and foreign resistance groups with targets, intelligence, and access to weapons caches and technical support. AQI from 2003-2005 received hundreds of suicide car bombs built by the ex-Baaathists, and were given the choice targets. Al-Douri enjoyed living in Syria. In 2013 he released a video of him with the NCIR commanders in Baath party military uniforms from Damascus. He appears to have returned to Tikrit in 2014, thinking that his Men of the Naqshbandi had an understanding with ISIS (and they most likely did). As long as he was alive, the ex-Baathists would support ISIS. That’s how fast the North and West of Iraq fell—the Baathists coopted the Sunnah community for them, ISIS just drove through and raised flags.
Got any thoughts why, if the United States knew that he and other Saddam big-wigs were in Syria, that drone strikes were never used to kill them? I mean didn’t the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) spend four years going after the likes of Zarqawi, working with and crossing the border into Jordan?
These guys lived in Syria proper. No one was going to run a strike in Damascus. They ran around in public and enjoyed support of al-Assad. JSOC did not do deep penetration missions further than Dayr al-Zawr. There were border raids. The entire Syrian regime was in their faces and had to be considered. I suspect we thought history would get al-Douri, but he was a slick old bastard and a survivor. In the end, history did catch up with him.
Ansar al Sunnah, AQI, ISIL, ISIS: can you explain the differences here?
The Iraq insurgency had 3 wings:
- FRLs: Former Regime Loyalists, the ex-Baath party and intelligence apparatus. They formed the Jaysh al-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed) and later merged with Ansar al-Sunnah.
- IREs: Iraqi Religious Extremists, these were al-Qaeda inspired Iraqis who fought in the name of God. These included both Sunni (AAS and Islamic Army in Iraq, IAI) and Shiite (Jaysh al-Mahdi) groups. The largest of these was the Ansar al-Sunnah. They were taken over by the FRL Jaysh al-Muhammed in 2005-2006.
- AQI: Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the official branch of al-Qaeda and were neo-Salafist extremists who were fighting to establish a Caliphate in Iraq, bring about a clash of civilizations which would in turn bring the return of the Mahdi, the End of Times and the Prophet Jesus to defeat the Anti-Christ. AQI lived by the ideology created by Osama Bin laden in 1988. AQI merged dozens of small IREs into their fold. By 2009 most groups that did not join the so-called “Anbar Awakening” merged with AQI, now called ISI. ISI, in 2011, deployed a brigade of Syrian and foreign fighters to Syria. They called them the Jebhat al-Nusra (JAN-The Victorious Front). That group’s leader became so popular that they received separate al-Qaeda authority to branch off into a Syrian-only organization. The leader of ISI, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, became enraged and tried to kill the group off. He then declared that ISI would include Syria and changed the name to ISIS and fight apart from JAN. He also declared that Al-Qaeda central, under Zawahiri, could not order him to do anything. Although he broke from AQ command he still carries out Bin Laden’s ideology. So to say ISIS is no longer Al-Qaeda really means in name only and not in philosophy. ISIL is just the literal translation of ISIS—Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (includes Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) instead of “Iraq and al-Sham/Syria”. They are also called by the Arabic initials Daesh.
Bottom line: The ex-Baath veterans under al-Douri started the insurgency in 2003, many stopped fighting with the Anbar Awakening in 2007 and then all wings of the insurgency joined ISIS in 2011, all the while covertly steering it towards Iraqi-only leadership that invaded both Syria and Iraq in 2014. So ISIS is all three wings of the insurgency combined into one lethal AQ-inspired ideology, with an Iraqi ex-Baathist chain of command.
Got any thoughts on how we could have spent gazillions on training and arming the Iraqi Army (and the Kurdish Peshmerga) and they have been so incompetent in defending their own country, even their own interests? Does that mean that ISIL is as powerful as the U.S. government says?
Good Question. Last year I told Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo the following: The Kurdish Peshmerga were always considered great fighters, but that was based principally on a myth of invincibility that arose during the 1991-2003 American no-fly zone operations. U.S. airpower combined with a unified Kurdish population, mountainous terrain and a very cautious Saddam Hussein led repeated defeat of Iraqi forces sent to the north. The assumed fighting prowess of the Peshmerga was also bolstered in 2003 when Army Rangers and the 173rd airborne troops parachuted into Kurdistan and linked up with special operations/CIA-backed Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Popular Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This was Operation Viking Hammer, which quickly defeated the Kurdish Islamic extremist group the Supporters of Islam Ansar al-Islam (AAI) in the mountains near Biyarah and Halabja. The fact that they fought well, knew the terrain, and did not run at the first shot was enough to seal the belief that they were fierce fighters. Which they were, when the Americans had their back. But it’s also important to note that the AAI had defeated both the KDP and PUK militia groups in major clashes the year before the American invasion.
Why is ISIS so successful? Simply put, they attack using simple combined arms but they hold two force multipliers: suicide bombers and a psychological force multiplier called Terror Shock Value. TSV is the projected belief (or reality) that the terror force that you are opposing will do anything to defeat you, and once defeated will do the same to your family, friends, and countrymen. TSV for ISIS is the belief that they will blow themselves up, they will capture and decapitate you and desecrate your body because they are invincible with what the Pakistanis call Jusbah E Jihad—“Blood Lust for Jihad”.
You have some criticism of other books on the subject (e.g., Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan’s ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, and Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s ISIS: State of Terror). What’s wrong with them?
They are good mass-market books, but the whole concept that an expert (Jessica Stein and Hassan Hassan) can’t publish a book without a journalist (Michael Weiss, J.M. Berger) tells a lot about the state of publishing. My book is an intelligence practitioner’s history. It was published months before ISIS: State of Terror and ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Great names! I take the strategic view, and lay out the data (which is called intelligence) down to the nuts and bolts, revealing the thought, movement, and lethality behind each strategy, each tactic, and each personality.
In my opinion, both books are great reads but have short memories. I do like that Hassan Hassan, who lived a few blocks from me in Abu Dhabi, interviewed ISIS members. But street level intelligence he collected is not the plan, it’s regurgitation of daily briefings as understood by the fighters. My organization TAPSTRI has hundreds, if not a thousand, videos from 2003-2014 where the same proclamations are said over and over. One doesn’t have to interview ISIS to learn what it wants, just watch their videos and consequent actions.
However, Weiss and Hassan are just plain wrong about what they think are the origins of ISIS. Both books lack all memory of how and why Abu Mussab al Zarqawi became an AQI leader. Al-Zarqawi did not create ISIS’s brutal ideology based on reading a manual called Management of Savagery. Also, the claim that al-Qaeda and ISIS are two distinctly separate entities both organizationally and ideologically—that’s ludicrous. All of these groups, no matter what the name, follow the same ideology that crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and blew up subways and tried to blow up 12 airliners over the Pacific. Everything about ISIS starts in Peshawar 1988 with bin Laden’s ideology at the inauguration of Al-Qaeda. You can see it everywhere: It’s the global jihad movement. ISIS is but a player in that stage, reading from the same script.
An Islamic Caliphate led by ISIS, really?
It is unrealistic to think that this will survive past it symbolic period, mostly because they evoke so much regional hatred that they will eventually be destroyed. How is the big question. The Islamic caliphate from Morocco to the Philippines was part of a strategic plan designed by Osama Bin laden himself back in 1988. He developed the global jihad movement to create mini-ISISes everywhere. This was successful, as you have AQAP (Yemen), Boko Haram (Nigeria), al-Shabaab (Somalia), AQIM (Libya), the Taliban, and dozens of other small groups across the globe. They all believe this bin Laden ideology. I have written in my second book, An End to al-Qaeda, that it’s a cult. A Cult of Jihad.
However, the regional and tribal areas in Iraq are led by ex-Baathists. It always was and always will be. ISIS is not stupid. I told Newsweek last year that 2014 was Year Zero for all of these old ex-Baathists. They will need to be eliminated, and it appears many of the oldest ones who could form a resistance have been. But many others just folded quietly into ISIS. The Caliphate will fall apart as they lose land. It’s already happening. The question is who will clear Syria.
Do you have a bias against Islam? Against the 2003 U.S. war and subsequent occupation? Against the U.S. withdrawal? Against current U.S. strategy?
I come from an African-American family that is predominantly Muslim. I have had to covertly operate in parts of the Middle East and Africa. I’ve lived a Muslim life and prayed in Mosques, Husseiniyahs and shrines where needed. One must respect Islam to understand Islam. I’ve read the Quran through and through a half dozen times. I am forced to consult it almost daily as part of my counterideology work. As a professional Arabist, if I have a bias, it is in the other direction. I have read everything from Sir Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence to Sheik Zayed al-Nahyan, Rumi and Sayyed Qutb.
The 2003 war in Iraq may be considered the greatest error in American policy since the Civil War. Its ramifications are earth-shattering and will impact us and our safety for generations. It may completely unravel the entire Middle East forever. Depose Saddam perhaps, but after 2003, the Iraqis did not want us there. They had sectarian grudges to settle and even if we had begged, we would still have been embroiled in heavy combat and with well over 10,000 dead soldiers and Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban. Current strategy is too timid, especially with regards to synthesizing a global campaign. We are at heart in a war with an ideology. A cult ideology, and tactical moves cannot address it. We need a global ideological war. We ceded the battlefield of the mind 26 years ago and no one wants to take on the jihadi belief system, directly. It’s an astounding miscalculation of biblical import.
What should we do? Precisely.
1. Launch an integrated global counterideology war against ISIS/Al-Qaeda: I call it Counter Ideology Operations and Warfare (CIDOW). We need to confront the belief system head on. The global jihad movement ideology is a destructive religious cult. It is so un-Islamic that it is virtually anti-Islamic. Soon enough, ISIS will do something that enrages the entire Muslim world and it will force them to act. Burning the Jordanian pilot came close, but we shall see what lifts the veil from their eyes.
2. In Iraq, Go Commando: We are relying too much on massed army units in Iraq to bring overwhelming power to defeat small units. ISIS won by using 20 guys in Toyotas and taking key points. The Iraqis should be using small units with high mobility to get all over the ISIS rear and U.S. airpower to kill anyone that comes near them.
3. The Gulf Cooperation Council needs to invade Yemen with ground forces, like, yesterday: The Saudis are fighting the wrong war right now with the Houthis in Yemen. They are allowing AQAP to take South Yemen and all of their weapons. So we now have a well-armed and funded al-Qaeda caliphate rising on the Arabian Peninsula, thanks to the Saudi Iranian obsession. They view the Iranians as a sabre at arm’s length, and it makes them blind to the ISIS/AQ dagger at their throat. Solve it all by coming down through Oman, land troops in Aden and take control of the country. Someone has to, and soon.
4. The Pan-Arab war to Stop ISIS/AQ is coming: The Jordanians, Saudis, and Turks must invade Syria. Soon enough, ISIS will kill someone prominent in the Muslim world or carry out an act so barbarous (like in Mecca or Istanbul) that Riyadh or Ankara will be forced to do something.
5. Encourage Syrian army units to defect and make Assad leave power with assurances that Alawites, Christians, and Druze will be protected. This will wedge ISIS from North, South and East and it will be defeated. It’s a bloody option but it is their problem in the end.
6. Egypt will eventually have to invade Libya. The country is essentially Beirut 1982 with competing factions. The Benghazi government with General Heftar in command is trying to bring unity, but now ISIS-Libya has appeared and the vacuum requires a major force to fill it. After massacring the Egyptian workers in Libya, the Egyptians have cause and should back up a Libyan spearhead. Establish a proper army, pay off the tribes, eliminate ISIS and then leave.
7. Israel should focus on preventing ISIS, not screwing around with Hamas. Israel will need Hamas soon enough if the ISIS/AQ ideological virus infects Palestine. The Israelis won’t have to worry about hundreds of rockets they will have to worry about thousands of suicide bombers. They’ll be getting attacked like the Jerusalem scene from World War Z.
8. Conclude the Iran Nuclear Weapons Deal: Iran wants BMWs, Red Bull, and Gucci. There are no military options for Iran. Attack them and they will destroy the Gulf States oil industries, rain hundreds of missiles onto Israel, close the Arabian Gulf, and shoot oil prices to $300 per barrel, which could cause our own economic downfall. I have fought Iran twice in the Persian Gulf, they are not the Iran of 1988. They are the global terror A-Team and now they want peace. Give it to them.
9. Enjoy the end of Boko Haram in Nigeria: That group will cease to exist in less than a month. The Nigerian, Chadian, Burkina-French coalition just finally did to Boko what the Arabs need to do to ISIS. Full court press, all sides and eliminate them. I will be glad to see the end of this group and their leader Abu Bakr Shakau. They truly are cult monsters. Kenya and Ethiopia may have to take note.
None of my recommendations are optimal, and each is fraught with possible failure, but right now doing nothing is failing spectacularly. But the Muslim world needs to tackle the ISIS/AQ problem, because if they don’t, the existential threat to both Israel and Arab World won’t be Iran.
Update (2:00 pm): We’re done taking questions. Big thank you to Malcolm Nance for taking the time to do this, and to you, for stopping by with your thoughtful questions.
[Photo and book cover courtesy of author. Art by Jim Cooke.]