President Donald Trump is gloating over the reported death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This week on Intercepted: Amid the grandstanding and partisan bickering, no one wants to talk about the decades of U.S. policy that helped give rise to ISIS and al-Qaeda. Jeremy Scahill discusses how U.S. policy opened a Pandora’s box in Iraq and Syria. Islamic studies scholar Amanda Rogers discusses the actual founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and how ISIS adopted tactics from the U.S. war on terror. War reporter Mike Giglio talks about his time on the ground covering ISIS. He documents the experience in his new book, “Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate.”
Newscaster: Let’s go now to President Trump from the White House.
Donald J. Trump: Hello, this is your president. Last night was a great night and we watched a movie. I got to watch it along with Vice President Pence, others in the Situation Room. I got to watch much of it.
[“Old Yeller” plays.]
Dorothy McGuire as Katie Coates: There’s no hope for him now, Travis. He’s suffering. You know we’ve got to do it.
Tommy Kirk as Travis Coates: I know, mama. He was my dog. I’ll do it.
DJT: He was a sick and depraved canine as they call, I call him, dog. He was an animal. And he was a gutless animal and violent. And he died in a vicious and violent way, shot and killed, dead. Thank you all very much. I appreciate it.
[“Old Yeller” plays.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 105 of Intercepted.
DJT: Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.
JS: In light of the reported death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, I wanted to share a personal story from almost twenty years ago. It was February of 2003 and I was in Baghdad, Iraq. The Bush administration was gearing up for its invasion of the country, which would begin the following month with the so-called shock and awe bombing. By that point I’d spent four years traveling in and out of Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power. I saw the brutality of that regime and the fear that people lived in. I also saw the fast disintegrating remnants of a once secular society that had modern hospitals and excellent schools. All of that was crumbling to pieces in the years since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War, the brutal economic sanctions that intensified from George H. W. Bush through Bill Clinton and had punished and killed Iraqi civilians mercilessly and in large numbers.
And on the eve of the U.S. invasion, there was this sense of inevitability in Iraq, that everything was about to change, and no one knew what was going to come next. Saddam Hussein had proven to be a cunning survivor who managed to stay in power the last time a Bush had waged war against Iraq. But on the ground at that time in February of 2003, the regime’s propaganda rang hollow, as did the notion that Saddam would somehow emerge from whatever was to come and still be the head of state of Iraq. The Bush-Cheney administration had told fantastical lies to justify the war and they were supported by many leading Democrats, including Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
Gwen Ifill: The president captured the Senate by solidifying Republican support and winning over key opposition.
JS: Bush’s government intentionally fabricated links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, along with a litany of lies about Iraq’s decimated WMD program.
George W. Bush: I take the fact that he develops weapons of mass destruction very seriously.
Donald Rumsfeld: We know they have weapons of mass destruction. We know they have active programs. There isn’t any debate about it.
Dick Cheney: The objective has to be disarmament, to compel Iraqi compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions that call for the complete destruction of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
JS: Looking back on that time, perhaps one of the greatest historical ironies of the decision to invade and topple Saddam Hussein was that it was precisely Saddam’s brutality and his secular regime that kept the very kinds of forces that would later make up al-Qaeda or ISIS locked in chains. Bin Laden and Saddam were not allies. They weren’t friends. Previous U.S. administrations knew this about Saddam Hussein. He was an atrocious dictator, a human rights abuser, a mass murderer. But he could be used in a marriage of convenience to keep order for the United States to make its oil money and to justify its militaristic buildup in the Middle East.
As an aside note, it’s important to realize that one of the major inciting incidents in making Osama bin Laden what he would ultimately become was the decision by George W. Bush’s father to deploy troops to Saudi Arabia for the 1991 Gulf War.
George H.W. Bush: In my direction, elements of the 82nd air-born division as well as key units of the United States Air Force are arriving today to take up defensive positions in Saudi Arabia.
JS: That decision and the permanent wars that were to follow was the most solid link between Saddam’s Iraq and al-Qaeda and it was entirely the product of U.S. policy and war. After 9/11, the Bush administration counted amongst its ranks radical ideologues who came to power wanting regime change in Iraq at any cost.
DC: Ladies and gentlemen, each and every one of these findings confirms a material breach by the former Iraqi regime of the U.N. Security Council resolution 1441. Taken together, they constitute a massive breach of that unanimously passed resolution and provide a compelling case for the use of force against Saddam Hussein.
JS: They came to power emboldened by Bill Clinton’s signing of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which made regime change official U.S. policy.
Bill Clinton: Over the past year, we have deepened our engagement with the forces of change in Iraq.
JS: By the way, many Democrats voted for that bill, which was largely written by neoconservative lobbyists. Among those who supported it was actually Bernie Sanders. I often wonder if any of these people who supported that bill or who shaped the policy under George W. Bush actually bothered to really examine what the potential consequences of overthrowing Saddam would look like, especially in the new reality of the post-9/11 world.
But back to February 2003. I was in Baghdad and a little more than a month before the invasion began, I met with one of the most important figures in Saddam Hussein’s regime, the internationally known diplomat, deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz.
Tariq Aziz: Who’s preventing the Iraqi people from living normally? It’s he and his government with the support of the British government. So, when we speak about compliance it’s the United States which is not complying with the United Nations’ resolution.
JS: He had been with Saddam for decades. They knew each other going back to the 1950s and he often served as the public face of the Iraqi regime, appearing on international television, holding press conferences, shuttling to and from the United Nations or international conferences. Aziz himself was a Christian and one of Saddam’s most loyal and prominent comrades. He was well-educated, well-read and he knew the U.S. position on Iraq better than many of the American diplomats he had to deal with over the years.
I had met with him many times over the years I was traveling in and out of Iraq and he would often weave between remarkably realistic assessments of the situation in Iraq and canned lines about the power of the Ba’ath Party and the glory of Saddam Hussein. But the last time I met Tariq Aziz in February 2003, he shared something that I had never heard from him before. Sitting in his office, with his large I don’t know RUN DMC-type glasses, he smoked a cigar. He was wearing house slippers at the bottom of his olive trademark military uniform. And he knew that what was coming was the end. He admitted that the U.S. could in fact, topple Saddam Hussein — a comment that in different times would have resulted in Tariq Aziz’s imprisonment or possibly, execution. And he issued a warning. He told me the U.S. can overthrow Saddam Hussein, the U.S. can obliterate the Ba’ath Party, the U.S. can destroy any semblance of secularism in Iraq. But, he said, it will come at a high price. “America will open a Pandora’s box that it will never be able to close.” He mentioned bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and he said that it will be forces like these that are going fill the void and take advantage of the removal of the strongman Saddam Hussein.
I’ve often thought about that meeting with Tariq Aziz and how prophetic it actually was. He saw what was coming. When the U.S. invaded, Tariq Aziz was the eight of clubs on the deck of cards the U.S. military used to identify its high-value targets. He was ultimately captured held in a makeshift prison at the Baghdad airport and forced at times to dig a hole so he could use the bathroom. Tariq Aziz died in custody of a heart attack in June of 2015. He lived long enough to see unfold exactly what he had envisioned.
I thought about all of this this week as I watched Donald Trump proudly gloat over the reported killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and then the typical ahistorical punditry that flooded the airwaves and internet in the aftermath. The partisan bickering and comparisons with the bin Laden raid and who did the better killing, Obama or Trump. It’s part of this sick American sport that is played by Democrats and Republicans alike. And, as always, it necessitates ignoring all history and context.
Now, we can talk about who Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was and his legacy of atrocities and the crimes of ISIS. We should discuss all of that. But at what point will we, as a country, have the courage to reckon with the monsters that we create? Would Iraq and Syria be on fire today had the U.S. not waged its many, many offensive wars in the Middle East or supported dictators and strongmen at their most brutal points in history? Would millions of the people who have been killed still be alive? Would there have been an al-Qaeda capable of spectacular attacks or an ISIS that was able to conquer territory the size of Great Britain?
We don’t know what alternative history would have unfolded, but it is hard to imagine the hellscape that has emerged happening in the absence of decades of that U.S. policy I talked about. A nation that was actually interested in preventing the bin Ladens or Baghdadis of the world from rising up or the ISISs and al-Qaedas would want to actually study these issues, confront this history and make plans for it to never repeat. If the discourse currently underway, in the aftermath of Baghdadi’s killing is any sort of foreshadowing, then the reality is no, this country is perfectly content to continue its pattern in the Middle East and more fires are yet to come and to burn on and on.
Islamic Studies Scholar Amanda Rogers on the Rise of ISIS
JS: Today on the show, we are going to be looking at the role of U.S. policy in the Middle East—in Iraq and Syria—and to go through some of the history and context that is almost entirely omitted in the discussion in this country when we talk about ISIS or al-Qaeda. We are going to be talking to war reporter Mike Giglio, who has a new book out about his time on the ground covering ISIS. It’s called “Shatter the Nations.” But first, we begin with Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies scholar Amanda Rogers of Colgate University. She has focused for years on the way ISIS propaganda has evolved and was deeply involved in trying to help win the freedom of several prisoners held by ISIS, including the journalist James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both of whom were beheaded by ISIS. Dr. Amanda Rogers, thank you for joining us on Intercepted.
Amanda Rogers: Thank you for having me.
JS: Right off the bat, your immediate response to Trump’s lengthy, verbose press conference, which he revealed many, many, many details that may or may not be true.
AR: Oh my god, OK. My immediate response of which part, I would say, the third sentence — I’m surprised it wasn’t the first actually. But the third sentence he says —
DJT: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. He was the founder and leader of ISIS.
AR: Not in fact, correct. Baghdadi was not the founder of ISIS by any stretch of the imagination, but that fundamental error, I think speaks to a much, much larger problem with the absolute erasure of any geo-political historical context that gave birth to ISIS in the first place. But one thing that really set me off was his characterization of the entire war against ISIS as what I would definitely describe in Trump’s language as a war against Islam. And I say that for a couple reasons. Number one, he repeatedly referred to ISIS as targeting of Yazidis and Christians and Shiite communities as genocides and yeah, they in fact, constitute genocidal campaigns. There’s absolutely no question about that.
DJT: The execution of Christians in Libya and Egypt, as well as the genocidal mass murder of Yazidis rank ISIS among the most depraved organizations.
AR: However, you know, the vast majority of Daesh’s victims, as you know, anyone that knows anything about this organization can tell you are Muslim, including Sunni Muslims. I really have a problem with the weaponization of minority discourse on this issue, particularly when someone like Trump invokes it because it’s already come into play with the prioritization of Christian Syrian refugees. You know, that’s not to say that they don’t deserve protection. Of course, they do. But what it ends up doing is essentially serving as a force multiplier for ISIS’s own talking points. So that’s one thing that really set me off.
JS: Contrast the way in which the Obama administration handled, announcing the death of Osama bin Laden with the way that Trump and his administration have handled the killing of Baghdadi.
AR: Everybody knows that Trump has this huge fetish for being the anti-Obama, right? And when I was listening to that press conference — I don’t know how to describe it — it almost seemed like he had scripted them in his head along a parallel from how Obama failed to disclose details of the bin Laden raid. And what I mean by that is every last detail of you know, “Oh, he —
DJT: — Was whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.
AR: It seemed like those were almost flourishes that he had improvised, if you know what I’m saying.
JS: Yeah, I mean, I do think that there’s some validity to that. In the much broader picture, the fact is that both Osama bin Laden and Baghdadi are in many ways, products or responses to U.S. and Israeli policy. And in the case of Baghdadi, we’re talking about al-Qaeda in Iraq largely being nonexistent prior to 9/11 and prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, with the exception of some small patches in the north of Iraq. And then you have, you know, the nice little breath mint guy, painter George W. Bush who invades and Baghdadi himself spends time in Iraq in a U.S. prison at Camp Bucca. Talk about the ways in which post-9/11 U.S. policy gave rise to the very forces that now Trump is celebrating killing the head of.
AR: We have to step back because there’s a missing link here too. And that link is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. So, you know, for listeners who are not familiar with this particular figure, Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the case for the war on Iraq in February of 2003. During his presentation, he made an allegation that this Jordanian named Zarqawi was in fact the critical link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Colin Powell: But what I want to bring to your attention today is the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, a Nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder. Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants.
AR: This is not the case. You know, Saddam was beloved by the U.S. for being a strong man that that could keep the “them” at bay. At any case the effect of Colin Powell speech, obviously laid the groundwork for the war to occur right and definitely in the public consciousness gave justification that was seen as credible. But the problem is that A, Zarqawi was not in fact that big of a figure at the time. And so essentially, Colin Powell managed to make a jihadi rockstar out of this man Zarqawi that didn’t previously exist.
JS: Saddam Hussein’s forces while he was in power, often had battles with al-Qaeda or Ansar al-Islam forces in the north of Iraq, in an area that Saddam’s forces did not control they were under the “protection” of U.S. no-fly zones.
AR: Exactly. But so, essentially what I’m getting at, right, is that after the U.S. invasion, and the creation of this jihadi rockstar, basically Zarqawi has all of this social capital that he ends up being able to leverage into a relationship with al-Qaeda HQ. And at this point in time, the central leadership of al-Qaeda had been sidelined by the Afghanistan invasion, meaning that Osama bin Laden was in hiding and he’d been by and large marginalized. So a figure like Zarqawi who starts to really take off as far as the famous number two most wanted person in the states ends up merging, so to speak with al-Qaeda in a marriage of convenience, but it bears repeating and emphasizing that Zarqawi and bin Laden never got along. This was merely a marriage of convenience, right.
JS: Also, Ayman al-Zawahiri who at the time was the number two in al-Qaeda when Osama bin Laden was still alive, there’s a series of letters that were couriered between Zawahiri and Zarqawi where Zawahiri was basically saying “Whoa, you know, bin Laden and the gang are not so enthusiastic about your tactics here.” He was even too kind of wild for them.
AR: Bin Laden and al-Qaeda object to Zarqawi targeting Shiite number one, and number two being so graphic and brazen in the brutality of his televised executions. And in both of these central attributes of Zarqawi’s strategy, we see the seeds of the group that would later become the so-called Islamic State. Barring the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the creation of Zarqawi himself as such a fundamental figure, you would not have had Iraq become the battleground that it became. Essentially this is where the birth of so-called Islamic State I think really begins but that’s massively erased from the record and public discourse surrounding things like the death of Baghdadi.
JS: And at the same time, you have the U.S. occupation forces when they initially went into Iraq. In March, April of 2003, General J. Garner was going to be the administrator and he basically had a theory that we should just decapitate the regime but keep all of Saddam’s infrastructure in place. He’s only there several months. And then, a political ideologue who cut his teeth working for Henry Kissinger comes in L. Paul Bremer —
Paul Bremer: We will be in the process of discussing with appropriate people in Iraq the transition to a Iraqi government at a timeline that still has to be determined.
JS: He comes in and the first thing that L. Paul Bremer does is to fire —
AR: The CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] dissolution —
JS: Right, exactly is to fire, everyone who had any links to the Ba’ath party.
AR: But not take their weapons.
JS: Right, not take their weapons. So, they immediately fire more than 150,000 Iraqi soldiers, many of them from heavily Sunni areas of Iraq. Talk about how the United States in the de-Ba’ath-ification, in firing all of these — and it wasn’t just soldiers — it was teachers and others working in civil society. Many of them end up getting folded into some form of what was viewed at the time as the resistance against American occupation. It wasn’t everyone wanted to hold up the banner of al-Qaeda. It was well our aims happen to be the same as theirs right now.
AR: It’s a harder to find a more crystal-clear plan for fuck shit up disaster than what Bremer and the CPA did because they didn’t just de-Ba’ath-ify, as you mentioned, the military. right? Anyone who belong to the Ba’ath Party was stripped of their professional capacity, this meant teachers, this meant everyday functionaries. On top of which those who were purged from the military did not have their weapons taken, and no subsequent options for employment were available. So, you can understand why a massive, massive number of people without jobs, without arms, living under military occupation, for a completely illegitimate war might want to fight back.
But back to your point about precisely what the U.S. was doing in Iraq that helped to turn general angst into an insurgency in the first place, which is the issue of indefinite detention, random sweeps and arrests of anybody in the area of “fighting age,” detention in facilities like Camp Bucca. So, one thing that gets missed here is in terms of the historical erasure — I think this is absolutely key — Trump kept mentioning the orange jumpsuits.
DJT: The orange suits prior to so many beheadings.
AR: And I wish that a fraction of this country had any sort of historical memory because so much of so-called Islamic State’s symbolic “fuck yous” in the propaganda videos, as well as in their structure, as well as in their messaging is a direct political mimesis of the war on terror. One crystal clear example related to that the British captive John Cantlie, who as far as I know, might still be alive, I hope so. He is labeled in one particular series of propaganda films as John Cantlie, a British detainee in an orange jumpsuit, that wording is not incidental. So, we have to think about how much of ISIS’s own political language and structure is not just incidentally rooted in the war on terror, but deliberately so.
JS: People may remember the case of Nicholas Berg, who was a contractor from the United States who was in Iraq working on radio towers as the United States started to build all these cell phone systems when all the contractors were flooding into Iraq, and he was captured by Zarqawi’s forces, and he was beheaded and they released this propaganda video precisely what you’re describing. And this was really the first time that many people saw this tactic on display, and it was in 2004, in Iraq by the guy who actually contrary to what Trump said, founded the Islamic State.
AR: The Nicholas Berg execution is a seminal moment, right? So, Nicholas Berg was captured. And his execution follows the standard jihadi snuff film format, which is to say there’s normally like five guys behind the captive — the captive is on his knees in a jumpsuit. This is Zarqawi-era like, Jeremy just pointed out. And at that point, the detainee or the captive is meant to say his name and where he’s from. That’s it. That’s the only line he gets. Then an executioner steps forward reads a list of charges. The kangaroo court finds the person guilty of espionage or whatever they charged him with, and then the execution commences.
However, when we look at the execution videos of Jimmy, of Steven, of David, of Allan, of Abdulrahman what happens with the first four is a one-on-one situation where jihadi John, the executioner stands with the victim in front of him in an orange jumpsuit, and the victim is never, ever, ever charged with a crime. And that is a radical departure from previous jihadi executions that Zarqawi himself pioneered. So, they’ve typecast themselves to be this ultimate villain. When they execute Jim Foley. They allow him to have a voice and instead of dehumanizing him the way that we saw Nicholas Berg being treated, they absolutely deify Jim.
JS: To what extent do you think that the CIA black site program, the torture program — you know, they call it extraordinary rendition, but let’s use real terms here — that the kidnapping program that the CIA and also the military were running, and the prisons in Iraq and the impact that had on the rise of ISIS.
AR: I don’t think that it can be overstated. I really don’t think that it can be overstated. For those who followed the case of the hostages before their executions were made public, hostage takers and guards explicitly dreamed of building their own Guantanamo Bay facility for American and British captives. The captors that are known as the Beatles that guarded Jim and Steven and the rest of them, they explicitly spoke about this to the hostages, and they enacted these policies on the hostages before they killed them. They waterboarded everyone. And they waterboarded Jim Foley the most. This was because Jim was the person that basically kept everyone’s morale high while they were detained. So, no, they were quite explicit about it. The guards themselves, it wasn’t just a fantasy of people who had been in these American prisons. It was also people who had heard about the practices that went on within them, right. So, it wasn’t just the direct experience, but the knowledge that it occurred at all.
JS: How significant is it that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead? What does it mean?
AR: I would like to be optimistic and say, “OK, well, you know, they’ve fragmented the whole organization and you know, the end of ISIS is nigh,” but I’m not optimistic about that at all. Now, given that Baghdadi is the figurehead right in the so-called Caliph, I would be shocked if they had not already located a potential successor with that, you know, lineage. So, that’s one issue. But secondarily, the bigger issue that people are just not paying attention to, ISIS learned from the mistakes of al-Qaeda and back to your fundamental point about the erasure of history.
Unlike al-Qaeda, the leaders of ISIS and the predecessor organizations always had the figurehead in the background, always because one of al-Qaeda’s fundamental missteps was having attention hungry bin Laden always out in the public sphere, right. So, after every report of death, he would release an audio visual proof of life. And he was always hungry for media attention, even before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and I think he took the reins what in 2010, if I’m not mistaken? But even before him, the leadership of the group that would later become Islamic State or so-called Islamic State, treated its fundamental key leadership as a background leader, I guess you could say. They were always sort of cloaked in mystery.
So, ever since basically the seeds of ISIS began, there had been an awareness that al-Qaeda fucked up by letting bin Laden have such a key prominent role out front. So much so that Baghdadi himself was known as the ghost. Not very many people had direct contact with him he pretty much surfaced visually only in the announcement of the caliph, or so-called caliph at the mosque.
JS: When all the focus was on his Rolex?
AR: Yes, absolutely. And he was reenacting the whole Abasid era but had like that cheap shitty back-of-the-trunk Rolex. I don’t know. I don’t know my watches. It could’ve been real. Actually, you know, what’s fascinating about that, that incidentally really pisses me off? People were fixated on the damn watch like, “how can these barbaric backwards medieval animals have technology”? Well, if you want to go ahead and write them off as medieval backwards barbarians that are too stupid to use technology, guess what? You don’t see them coming because they’re anything but stupid and adverse to technology as I hope more people know now.
JS: I don’t know if there’s anyone else I could think of that could make any part of this funny except you, Dr. Amanda Rogers, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
AR: Thank you, Jeremy, happy anytime.
JS: Amanda Rogers is a Middle East scholar. She teaches at Colgate University and has spent years studying the media and propaganda operations of ISIS. She is on Twitter at @MsEntropy.
Mike Giglio on His New Book, “Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate”
JS: We go now to journalist Mike Giglio. He’s a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine where he focuses on intelligence and national security. He embedded with Iraqi Special Operations Forces during the battle for Mosul and was detained in Egypt during the Rabaa massacre in 2013. He has a new book out about his experiences in the region. It’s called “Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate.” Mike, welcome to Intercepted.
Mike Giglio: Thank you for having me.
JS: Is it significant that Baghdadi appears to be dead according to the White House, like how significant is this in the broader battle against ISIS?
MG: It is because of what he stood for. You know, he’s the guy that declared the caliphate and declared himself Caliph.
[Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi speaking Arabic.]
MG: Which is a travesty for Muslims around the world and he represented the group for so long. But on an operational level, I don’t think anyone tracking ISIS closely believed that he had operational control of the group for years now — he had ceded it — because he was in hiding. You know, if you compare him to like Osama bin Laden, you know, bin Laden was like really a front man. Baghdadi is a shadow operator. He was always more in the background. You know, as far as like how the group survives and continues long term. I’m not sure how much it affects them.
JS: What do you make of where they found Baghdadi, and what that says about the state of his leadership of ISIS at that moment?
MG: It’s right near the Turkish border. It’s not in ISIS territory. It’s in al-Qaeda territory. Those two groups are enemies. You know, on the one hand, he is right next to some of the most effective smuggling networks that ISIS has. And so, maybe he was at some point planning to utilize them. On the other, it really raises questions for Turkey that he was so close to Turkish military outposts, and in territory that is generally seen as a Turkish protectorate.
JS: It is reminiscent of Osama bin Laden then being in Abbottabad, Pakistan and he was, you know, a stone’s throw from the equivalent of the West Point Military Academy and like right under the nose of the Pakistani military, and that raises all sorts of other questions. But it’s just, the point I’m making it’s just interesting to see where these figures choose to kind of hide out as they await almost certain death.
MG: Maybe the simple answer is that he didn’t feel safe in ISIS’s former territory anymore because that’s where, you know U.S. special forces and their Kurdish allies were strongest. So maybe he just felt getting away from them to the extent he could was the right move. Like I mentioned earlier, the fact that he just didn’t have the power and the operational control of the group that he once did.
JS: How central has Baghdadi been to the growth of ISIS as an individual, as a man?
MG: I think it’s one thing I wish people understood a little bit better about ISIS is that, to a large degree, its strength was its decentralization. So, when you think about bin Laden’s signature terrorist attacks, for example, with al-Qaeda, it’s the Twin Towers right, a really high profile, well-executed operation. With ISIS, their signature attacks were mass casualty shootings, like in Paris, and suicide attacks, but also just kind of embracing the random acts of violence — drive your truck into a crowd, knife a passer-by — that were sort of designed to just sow like a general fear and unease that I think really actually managed to embed itself into his moment in the world. It’s part of Baghdadi’s legacy that ISIS was able to sort of weaponize decentralization to this extent.
JS: I sort of think of ISIS as being a kind of pyramid scheme of terrorism. You know, it’s like a multi-level marketing operation compared to like the very centralized al-Qaeda, where you could just simply declare your allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and you became part of the sales force that was selling, you know, international terrorism and fear.
MG: It’s not that ISIS wasn’t able to, at one point, centrally organize and direct high-profile attacks. They did do that. But to your point, let’s think about like the Orlando nightclub shooter. He declared allegiance to ISIS.
Omar Mateen: I want to let you know, I’m in Orlando. And I did the shooting.
Operator: What’s your name?
OM: My name is a pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State.
MG: He would have declared allegiance to any terrorist group that was big at the moment, at one point, he had expressed sympathy for Hezbollah. And so, it really made anyone who wanted to be into an extension of his brand. What ISIS understood is that politicians in the West would help do the work of spreading fear around attacks like this. So rather than painting the nightclub shooter as a deranged person who probably would have carried that attack out anyway, and just said he was loyal to any terror group of the moment, it became, look how powerful ISIS is, look how dangerous Muslims are, and by extension refugees. And I think ISIS saw that coming.
DJT: We cannot continue to allow thousands upon thousands of people to pour into our country, many of whom have the same thought process as this savage killer. If we want to protect the quality of life for all Americans, women and children, gay and straight, Jews and Christians and all people, then we need to tell the truth about radical Islam and we need to do it now.
JS: You know, one of the things I think is most valuable about the work that you’ve produced here in your book is, I mean, you have lots of stories about individual people and there’s some really fascinating characters in your book. But it also covers a large swath of historical territory that I think often gets fast forwarded over and I wanted to back up a bit with you and go back in time to 2011 and the rise of what became known as the Arab Spring. And just kind of have you walk us through some of what you think are the key points to understanding how we got to where we are in Syria right now but beginning back in 2011.
MG: If you remember the Arab Spring protests in 2011, in the backdrop of this is Obama promising to end the Iraq war and ultimately doing so and pulling troops out of the country.
Barack Obama: So today, I can report that as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.
MG: And so America was searching for a new way to engage with the Middle East and in the Arab Spring in Egypt and in Syria, especially, you had protesters all of a sudden pouring into the streets in these traditionally really repressive countries and chanting for democracy, freedom, social justice that a lot of Americans consider to be our own ideals. And the U.S. was broadly backing them with rhetoric and with news coverage. And it was just really unique moment that I think kind of captured a feeling of, you know, Barack Obama’s first term that there is this new way for America to influence the world.
And if you remember the way the protests played out, it wasn’t just that they were organizing in this improbable way, they were doing it with the tools of the new American capitalism — Facebook, Twitter, Androids, iPhones. And people in America, even myself were following them like not just on the news, but on Facebook and Twitter and liking their posts and actually interacting with then. And when I was in the region and speaking to the people who were involved in these protests, you know, they really felt that connection, backed by what the U.S. government was saying at the time, Assad must step down in Syria, pushing Mubarak to step down in Egypt, the two dictators in those countries. And they felt like this was a moment of connection.
And there was this really euphoric hope that you probably remember at the time, I don’t think you can understand the darkness that came after this in ISIS if you don’t understand what the top of the wave felt like. And not to say that this is the sole motivation at all, or the sole reason for what happened with ISIS and the really horrific bloodshed in Syria and the instability in Iraq, all played into it, but I did meet people across the war in the years that followed, that really always did seem to be looking back in some way or another to this moment, maybe like a justification for the path they had taken that they had been betrayed, you know. Because at some point, America and the West, sort of lost interest in the Arab Spring once Civil War started in Syria and counter revolution took hold in Egypt and just sort of severed the connection and tried to look away. And some of the darkest moments came after that.
JS: Right, and you’re citing some of the public projection that was coming from Washington. But at the same time, you had very powerful elements within the U.S. national security establishment that were holding onto Mubarak for dear life and fearing that sort of what could come next is a sweeping to power of, you know, a very radical Islamist movement. And in fact, we saw in the waning days of the Obama administration, Obama embracing the kind of Mubarak after Mubarak in the form of General Sisi, and then in Syria, as you’re describing, a lot of the Syrians who took to the streets thought for sure the United States is going to step in and support us in toppling Assad. But as we know, that didn’t happen, how did that impact people’s views of their lives and what was to come?
MG: It didn’t just impact their views of their lives, it impacted their actions. So when I first arrived in southern Turkey, which was the gateway to the civil war in Syria in the summer of 2012, when the rebellion had just entered the commercial capital of Aleppo and was making inroads in Damascus, and was all of a sudden seen as this shocking movement that might actually topple the dictatorship. Rebels thought because of the Obama administration’s comments, that it might be their Benghazi. That the U.S. might intervene to protect them, if only they could seize enough territory to make it worth America’s attention.
And it’s really important to remember, CIA officers at the exact same time in the summer of 2012 were meeting with rebel commanders in hotels all around southern Turkey. And they were asking them what kind of weapons they needed and making these intimations that U.S. support was coming. And so they took encouragement from that, you know, the Obama administration has always made this argument that I think is a bit of a straw man saying, “Well, we could have invaded Syria or military intervened, but instead, we chose to do nothing and that was the better option,” but they didn’t do nothing.
They were involved in supporting the opposition throughout. They were channeling non-lethal aid to opposition areas throughout. They were setting up an opposition government in exile throughout. And at the same time, they were wary of what would happen if their own allies were to win and the chaos that might follow. So, they were always worried about giving the rebels who eventually did get CIA backing, for example, too much support. And so, what does that end up promoting in the end, but just really a continuation of civil war? Not even resolving it in one way or another, which I think is a really problematic policy and I think America has to grapple with its own share of the blame for what happened because of that.
JS: You know, one of the interesting asides in your book is the discussion of how U.S. special operations forces were much more involved on the ground fighting during this period than the Obama administration publicly acknowledged.
MG: The most important way to understand what the war on ISIS became for America is that local troops were the ones who fought it so that the U.S. didn’t have to send an invading force again to the region. But in the background, were always special forces and special operations forces working as a force multiplier in the shadows. So, doing what the Green Berets do, which is training local forces, but also doing what the Delta Force and other special operations units do, which is go on high value target raids, sometimes working with these local partner forces. And that’s what we saw in the Baghdadi raid, for example, but they were doing that in Iraq.
But what the Obama administration did, and what I think is tempting now, for every government, including, you know, the Trump administration, is to really not acknowledge the level of involvement of U.S. special forces and special operations forces. They justify that because the missions they do are classified, but I think that secrecy is actually very politically convenient. So, if you think about it from Obama’s perspective, he was the guy who came to office promising to end U.S. military engagements in the Middle East. He never wanted to look like he had to use the phrase boots on the ground so many times that there are no boots on the ground.
BO: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan.
MG: And the administration was able to make that claim while simultaneously having boots on the ground in these special forces’ units, because they don’t need to talk about them from their perspective because they’re secret and I think that’s a real problem. Because we never had a realistic discussion in America of what actually is the U.S. role in this war.
JS: How did this evolve when Trump takes power? What did you see? Was there any shift in strategy in terms of on the ground operations?
MG: By the time Trump took office, the battle of Mosul, which was the seminal battle for the ISIS, so-called Caliphate, it was the most important city that they held. It’s a city in northern Iraq that had about two million people at the time of the start of the battle, still trapped in it. When Trump took office in January 2017, that battle was almost over so half of the city had been taken by Iraqi forces backed by U.S. Special operations and airstrikes. Trump really sort of followed the blueprint that the Obama administration set out for him.
The signature change that I think people need to keep in mind with Trump is that he loosened rules and restrictions that had been intended to prevent civilian casualties. And for that reason and other reasons, including the fact that western Mosul is a much denser terrain, and that it always was going to be a more difficult fight because it had traditionally been more of a stronghold for ISIS and for al-Qaeda, in western Mosul, it was a hellscape. They were pulling the bodies out of the rubble for months and months after victory had been declared. And the rebuilding efforts there have been much more halting. And so, I think when we look at Trump’s imprint on the war, to me the most obvious one is just the level of destruction that came with it.
JS: Just briefly, I wanted you to talk about some of your on the ground investigations into civilian deaths and injuries at the hands of U.S. operations.
MG: I just want to kind of explain I think the framework that the U.S. government sort of put forward for the American people for understanding this war against ISIS, which is, we are at war with ISIS but you don’t need to worry about it. U.S. troops are there, but they’re not. And when it comes to civilian casualties, it was to sort of ignore the problem. And so, the Obama administration and the military under the Obama administration for so long, especially in Syria, where reporters really had a hard time accessing sites, was just denying that their strikes were killing civilians, were saying that it was happening only to a minuscule degree and they were doing the same in Iraq.
And one investigation I did, I think sort of shows the extent to which they were just not making any effort to come clean about how many civilians were dying in their strikes. I mentioned eastern Mosul was freed from ISIS first. Shortly after that, I decided I wanted to go into some of these neighborhoods without an embed, and do my own investigation of strikes that have killed civilians, and we drove into eastern Mosul and we literally just went into neighborhoods and would stop at like the local deli or fruit stand and ask if there had been cases where civilians were killed in airstrikes. And so, someone would say, sure, and lead us down the block. And they point to a house that was destroyed and say that one had ISIS in it. But this one had a family.
And inevitably, someone, a relative, or someone who survived the strike was living somewhere nearby, and they would call him on his cell phone, and he would come and give us the account of what happened. And we can only stay in the sites for 25 minutes, because we were worried that if we made our presence known for too long, and you know, an ISIS cell might surface and try to kidnap us or attack us. So, we only had 25 minutes, but we were able to take phone numbers, witness accounts, pictures, and then I would take GPS coordinates of the location. Just by doing that over a few days, I got the U.S. to admit to 36 civilian deaths by sending them the information. And what really strikes me from that is that they weren’t making any effort to do this kind of just basic research on their own. So, if I can go into neighborhoods like that at random and do this investigation to get them to admit that many deaths, I mean, imagine if they had actually done their own assessment of strikes like they had done during the Iraq war. And we would have seen a much different picture.
JS: And in fact, we published secret documents that showed this from the high value targeting campaign of the United States during the Obama era. But basically, it boiled down to everyone we kill is going to be presumed to be an enemy killed in action unless they are posthumously proven to have been a civilian. And what you’re describing in getting them to admit to these 36 deaths is unfortunately what the new American model of confirming civilian deaths looks like.
MG: Obviously, I think people are well aware that this is a major problem for long-term stability in these areas, right? When I got the admissions for example, of the 36 civilian deaths, I actually called back all the people I interviewed, you know, whose family members have been killed. And I asked them if they were aware of the U.S. admission and they were not. The U.S. made no effort to contact these families. There are actually congressional funds put aside to offer condolence payments as a gesture. That’s actually appreciated in Iraq and Syria when this happens. It wasn’t used at all. The only result of my reporting and these admissions was that it was like a line on the obscure website that the U.S.-led coalition has saying, “On this date, after media reports, we determined that we killed this many people,” and that was really it.
I can tell you a story that I think about probably every day. When I was in eastern Mosul, going to various sites and civilian casualties, there was one where there was a family of a man, woman and their three daughters. And the man had gone to get gas for his generator one morning, and an airstrike hit right after he left and killed his wife and daughters. The neighbors told me that, you know, I asked where the man was now. And they told me that he was living nearby, and they would see him come back, you know, a few times a week to the site. And just dig through the rubble with his hands, and then sit down and weep, and then go home. And I eventually got in touch with him and I asked him what was happening, and he told me that he was trying to find the remains of one of his daughters. So, he had collected body parts which had been strewn everywhere of the rest of his family and buried them. But he was still missing part of one of his daughters. And he was trying to find those pieces so he could bury her, and then leave the city and he wouldn’t leave until he did. And he just kept repeating “Everything happened before my eyes.” And that was one of the strikes that the U.S. military eventually admitted had caused civilian casualties. And I just thought it was striking that, you know, this man never really got closure for himself, I don’t think or from the government, which never contacted him to express anything afterward.
JS: I wanted to ask you about something that is something I’ve thought about a lot as a journalist who’s covered war on the ground and the whole process of embedding and you write a lot about the embeds that you did with the Iraqi counterterrorism force. And in one scene, you describe a Humvee that you’re in coming under fire and you actually helped feed the gunner belts of ammo. To me, this would be one of my worst nightmares as a journalist to be in a position where people I don’t care who they are, human beings, would be killed as a result of me being protected as a journalist or that I then get involved in the fighting. Talk about what happened there and how you’ve processed that and your assessment of what happened that day.
MG: I have never gotten over it that I participated even to that extent. You know, one of the reasons I put it in the book is because it felt dishonest to ignore that it happened. But you know, in that situation, you know, a photographer and myself were in the first Humvee that was pushing into western Mosul and all of a sudden a vehicle beside us was hit by an anti-tank rocket and exploded and killed all the soldiers inside of it. And there was just this frantic period of fighting where the gunner started running out of bullets.
I’m sitting there torn like, I don’t want to do anything except sit here, which is what my role is, but also really painfully aware of the fact that there should have been two more soldiers in the Humvee. And that kind of grappling with maybe I’m going to get these guys killed just by being here, which is something that you have to grapple with always as an embedded reporter. And so what happened was for, just, you know, that brief period of the battle, I start grabbing the ammo boxes and handing them to the photographer who was ripping them open and handing them up to the gunner so that he could keep up the pressure on the person with the anti-tank rocket launcher, who, you know, was pointing at us at one point.
JS: What ultimately happened that day?
MG: So what had sparked that whole frantic exchange was the, I guess, I mentioned the Humvee exploding and then everyone looking around for where the fire was of that weapon and he stepped out from cover from behind a building with the rocket launcher resting on his shoulder. You know, actually, to sort of illustrate your point about how fraught this is for a journalist, I actually saw him step out, he was wearing green and I saw the rocket launcher before anyone else in the Humvee. And I went to say something like to scream. And I didn’t because I sort of caught myself like me yelling equals this person possibly getting killed, right?
It was just a split second, and then the gunner saw him and started firing. And then I, you know, came to the scene that you mentioned. But you know, there was that kind of tortured negotiation in my own head throughout. What happened in the end was while the guy was in hiding, a U.S. airstrike hit and collapsed the building that he was hiding behind, and then one behind it, that also has stuck with me. And you know, there were so many airstrikes that probably saved my life and the units life while I was covering this battle.
And you have to remember that there, you know, there may have been civilian casualties from that as well. And I think you know while I’m writing about civilian casualties, I did try to always keep in mind, you know, maybe one of these airstrikes also saved my life. The book closes actually, with a chapter on civilian casualties and my efforts to get back to that building later and try and investigate what had happened but unfortunately, we got stopped by Shia militia.
JS: Any journalist who’s been in that situation where you know that that’s a possibility has to grapple with it and I’ve never seen someone willing to just openly and honestly take that on. So, I think you really deserve a lot of credit for raising this and clearly it had a very deep impact on you.
MG: No, I appreciate that and thanks also, for bringing it up.
JS: Well, Mike Giglio, I want to thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted and congrats on the book.
MG: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
JS: Mike Giglio is author of “Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate.” He is a staff writer for The Atlantic and is on Twitter @Mike_Giglio.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted. You can also check us out on Instagram @Interceptedpodcast. If you like what we do on this program you can support our show by going to theintercept.com/join to become a sustaining member. We’ve got a lot of great thank you gifts in return for your support of this program.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.