Nada Bakos: How Zarqawi Went From “Thug” To ISIS Founder
What if the rise of ISIS could have been prevented — with just one airstrike?
That’s a question that Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst, has had to grapple with ever since the terror group’s brutal rise to power.
In the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bakos worked as an analyst on a CIA team responsible for evaluating whether Al Qaeda had conspired with Iraq to stage 9/11. Her task: Find out whether the man who’d go on to become the founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was part of Al Qaeda.
As the U.S. inched closer to invasion, Zarqawi made his way from Afghanistan to a terrorist camp in northern Iraq. The move set off alarm bells at the CIA, which fast-tracked a plan to the White House to strike the camp.
“This seemed like the perfect moment,” Bakos told FRONTLINE. “We know where they are … We know what they’re up to. This seemed like the right time to target them.”
But at the time the Bush administration was preparing for potential war in Iraq and the president was told that hitting Zarqawi could cause a problem. A U.S. airstrike would eventually kill the terrorist in 2006, but by then, the damage had been done. Determined to establish an Islamic state, Zarqawi had spent years fomenting sectarian warfare in Iraq, laying the groundwork for a strategy that would allow his followers to seize territory in Iraq and Syria and proclaim a self-declared caliphate in 2014.
In the below interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk, Bakos talks about Zarqawi’s rise, and why she believes “we would not be where we’re at today” had the U.S. acted sooner.
“Zarqawi would not have been able to build a jihadist organization,” Bakos says, while his successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “would not have picked up his playbook and then taken it from there.”
What was your job at the CIA?
I was an analyst working on the team that was charged with evaluating whether or not Al Qaeda and Iraq had conspired together to conduct 9/11 attacks.
And your job as it related to [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi?
On the team, as an analyst, the big question was whether or not Zarqawi was part of Al Qaeda at the time, and we found that he was not. He had not sworn bay’ah [oath of allegiance] to bin Laden. He was working separately. Even though he had trained in Afghanistan and Herat in the ’90s, near bin Laden’s camp, he was focused on his own agenda at the time.
Who is Zarqawi? Walk me through the details of his life.
Zarqawi grew up in Zarqa, Jordan, which is also near a Palestinian refugee camp. He grew up in a neighborhood that was not middle class. It was lower income. He was a thug. He was in and out of prison. He was a petty criminal. It was rumored that he had worked as a pimp. He led a very different life initially growing up, as a teenager, as a young 20-something, than he ended up in at his death.
They tell me he was covered with tattoos and his nickname was “the green man.”
Yes, he was covered with tattoos. He started out in a rough neighborhood with very little direction and didn’t have a chance for a college education, employment; possibly wasn’t smart enough to be able to achieve some of those things that other individuals were able to to get out of that neighborhood. He ended up being radicalized when he was in prison in Jordan.
Tell me about how he gets arrested and taken to that prison. Something to do with Israeli checkpoints?
Right, yep. His initial focus was being empathetic for the Palestinian cause. When he was initially arrested, he was plotting to blow up some checkpoints in Jordan that were Israeli checkpoints. He ended up going to prison initially for that. …
When he’s in prison, to my astonishment, because it’s a tough prison, they sort of segregate the prisoners so that religious people are all there with each other, and he gets religion in the cellblock.
He does. He ends up eventually being in a cellblock with [Abu Muhammad al-]Maqdisi, who ends up being his spiritual leader, his guidance. That’s when he first started to become radicalized.
… He removes the tattoos or has them removed. How? Do you remember?
It was brutal. He had them actually, the skin taken off.
A guy smuggles him one of those razor blades.
Yes, that’s right. He did it himself. … That’s the story.
… What does that tell you about him?
I think that alone was the first initial indicator that he started to really adhere to some type of fundamentalist ideology.
He was disavowing his previous life. He was giving up the life of a criminal and had in his mind found religion and found Allah, and decided that this was a path; this is his destiny.
So what was that guy like who went in to prison, and what was the guy who came out like?
When he first went in, he was still this wandering criminal that was from the streets of Zarqa. When he came out, he was a radicalized religious leader who was looking to sow his own agenda against the kingdom of Jordan and the Israeli population.
He was a jihadist when he came out.
Why does he go to Afghanistan as far as you can tell? What happens when he gets there?
He is connected ideologically to the global jihadist movement at the time in the ’90s. He ends up in Herat, Afghanistan. That was known training area for a lot of jihadists, including Al Qaeda. Bin Laden had his own camp set up there.
But Zarqawi was independent and separate from Al Qaeda. He had his own training camp. He was developing his own network. A lot of the jihadists he was pulling from the Sahel and the Levant. This was the area that he knew. This is the network that he was starting to cultivate, in addition to the Caucuses.
He had his own sort of ragtag group of fundamentalists that were working with him, that were not the same caliber as the Al Qaeda fighters. They weren’t religious scholars. They weren’t engineers and doctors and people that bin Laden thought he could put in different positions to develop the sophisticated covert network that he wanted. Zarqawi was really looking at a much smaller agenda. He was looking at the kingdom of Jordan. He wanted to attack the Jordanian infrastructure so that he could make some type of movement against what he felt was an oppression for the Palestinian people, in addition to people that he grew up with that were living in places like Zarqa.
The way they tell the story, he goes to Kandahar, and he tries to meet with bin Laden. Bin Laden doesn’t want to have anything to do with him for a while. What’s up with that?
When he does go to Kandahar to try to meet with bin Laden, he’s rejected. At this point, Zarqawi is so low on the totem pole when it comes to people he’s meeting with and focusing on. As we know now, bin Laden had a much bigger agenda, and he was much more focused on the United States. He saw Zarqawi’s mission and just sort of his bunch of extremists as something that was just beneath him and not up to par for what he needed.
Does that piss Zarqawi off?
I can imagine he was probably, he felt rejected, felt like he was not, what’s the word —
Yeah, he wasn’t valued. This isn’t confirming his position within the global jihadist movement.
Ambitious even at that stage.
Absolutely, yeah. If you even look back at his criminal background, he was ambitious even when he was a criminal. He was always trying to find a way for funding, inspiring others to work with him. I think he’s always been ambitious, and this just directed his ambition to a different arena.
9/11 happens. The Americans roll into Afghanistan. Zarqawi gets hurt in a bombing. He works his way to [the Islamic Kurdish separatist group] Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq. What’s he doing over there? And why does he go to Iraq?
… He had spent some time in Iran. He eventually ended up inside of Iraq when the rumblings of the United States invading Iraq started. So he’s now thinking ahead, strategically. Not only is this a safe haven for him to work alongside of Ansar al-Islam, because they’re not under the rule of Saddam Hussein, he can function there. He can set up his own, what he considered — it was a crude bioweapons lab.
He’s got the ability then to either wait and work toward attacking the United States if they do invade Iraq, in addition to having a safe haven to launch attacks into Jordan. That was still part of his focus.
So he’s there, but that’s not Saddam’s territory. That’s a no-fly zone. That’s a no-man’s land.
Yes. Where Ansar al-Islam is located, it is a no-fly zone, so Zarqawi actually has a lot of ability at that time to do what he wanted to do, to recruit people, to train, to build a crude weapons lab. This was his safe haven after Afghanistan.
One of the guys we talked to was [CIA operations officer] Sam Faddis. … Sam tells the story of being sent there as part of some super-advance team, really in advance of the invasion, looking for who can they spot, what’s going on. He has sources who start reporting back that there’s some guys playing with ricin and some clinical stuff in this small factory. He never puts eyes on Zarqawi, but headquarters is saying, there’s guys we’re looking for, and one of them is Zarqawi. You may be the headquarters person saying —
Probably. Yeah, it was my team, absolutely. That was my team driving that.
Tell me what Sam was doing there from your point of view.
The CIA has a team, a forward-deploy team, before the invasion. Sam and his sources are looking at this crude bioweapons lab. At the time we want to see, eyes on, what are they actually developing? Is it something that can be deployed in a weapon? Is it something that can be widespread? How sophisticated are they? Are they advanced enough that they’ve actually caught up to Al Qaeda’s playbook?
We were skeptical that Zarqawi was actually able to pull off anything that would be too sophisticated, other than maybe a one-off type of attack.
Faddis says that he says to headquarters, he’s probably there — that is Zarqawi — but others are there. There’s a lot of guys hanging out there, and you ought to hit these guys while the getting’s good.
Yes. I wondered if he brought that up. Yeah. You know, here we are looking for a possible connection to Al Qaeda. We haven’t found that. We have a known jihadist group, including Zarqawi, along with Ansar al-Islam, that is working on a crude bioweapons factory. Regardless of their level of sophistication at the time, this seemed like the perfect moment. We know where they are; we know what they’re up to. This seemed like the right time to target them and to go after them.
He says he sends that request in to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC).
Do you see it?
Yes. But I don’t have any decision-making —
What did it say?
It was typical cable language. Sam was pretty clear about what he thought we needed to do, next step, before the invasion. These guys are going to scatter once they figure that we are going to invade. We know where they are. This is a prime opportunity.
It didn’t matter if I agreed or not.
But you did.
And it fast-tracks over to the White House.
[Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld says hit him. … [Secretary of State Colin] Powell says don’t hit him.
Is it Powell that says, “Don’t hit him”? I never knew.
Yeah, Powell says don’t hit him because a, you don’t want to declare war. You do this, you’re declaring war; it’s in advance of declaring war. And b, I’m going to give a speech about this. Don’t hit those guys yet.
Is it really? Does he say that? Does Powell say it was him? Oh, God. Oh, OK.
Why is that amazing to you?
I figured it was [Undersecretary of Defense Douglas] Feith and Rumsfeld. I figured that this was still part and parcel why they could justify the invasion. So I’m surprised.
How would it have helped them justify the invasion?
Because they were still using Zarqawi as a reason and excuse. If they killed him prior to the invasion, part of their justification is gone.
… When did they start using Zarqawi?
Very early on. In early 2002 they were questioning Zarqawi’s connections to Al Qaeda, which of course drew them to Iraq; whether or not there was collaboration between Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein.
… OK, so Sam says go. White House says no. Sam says he couldn’t believe it.
I couldn’t believe it either, that they weren’t willing to take the opportunity. Here we are, hunting for bin Laden after 9/11. We can’t find him, but we have a prime opportunity to take out a jihadist that we know poses a threat to our allies, in addition to American forces once they invade. I was very frustrated that they were not using this opportunity to target Zarqawi and his organization.
… There is a real imperative it feels like to find an Al Qaeda-Saddam connection. [Vice President Dick] Cheney has come out at least once to the Central Intelligence Agency. … What does he come out there looking for?
Initially the vice president, when he starts meeting with the analytical team that I was on, he’s frustrated, because the CIA initially, early 2002/late 2001, didn’t have a lot of intelligence collection on Iraq and the capabilities and the terrorist connections. He’s justifiably so frustrated. He’s questioning how come we can’t seem to get our stories straight. There’s an initial paper put out, referred to as the “Murky Paper.”
… What does that mean?
Murky. It’s in the title: “murky relationship” that Iraq has with terrorist organizations.” [EDITOR’S NOTE: The title of the paper, published by the CIA on June 21, 2002, was “Iraq and al-Qaida: Interpreting a Murky Relationship.”] That paper does not make it clear what our analysis is, so the vice president is frustrated. His questions are all about Zarqawi, his connection to Saddam, and whether or not they had discussed 9/11, if Saddam had participated.
One side of the table is the vice president and his team. The other side of the table are the sort of —
You guys. You’re one row back, behind somebody, and you’re quoted as saying he was looking over his glasses sort of skeptically all the time at what was going on.
Right. Within the context of that meeting, we were lined up on one side of the table. The Vice president and [his chief of staff] Scooter Libby were on the other side. They walked in with a lot of questions and being very skeptical as to the intelligence that we had been gathering up till that point.
We had more answers for them at this time. We had defined the relationship Zarqawi had with Al Qaeda, that he was not a member. But there was a lot of skepticism around that, and the distinction to them didn’t matter, whether or not he had joined Al Qaeda, whether or not he was aligned with them. But we tried to explain over and over again that it does make a difference operationally. If he’s not a member of Al Qaeda, he was not brought into the fold; he wasn’t briefed on 9/11. He wouldn’t have known about it, and he wouldn’t have been operating on it, so it would be impossible for him logically to be working as an interlocutor with Saddam.
How did the vice president respond to that?
The response to that was met with skepticism, lots of questions, and a lot more frustration.
How intense was it?
It was pretty intense. But our team chief had been Scooter Libby’s briefer. She had us overly prepared. She anticipated questions before they arose. If it wouldn’t have been for her, I’m not sure how we would have survived several of those types of encounters.
… Why were they so intense for this?
In retrospect, I think there was a lack of understanding on their part, on the administration’s part, on how terrorist organizations function, and especially a covert organization like Al Qaeda, the fact that operationally they would not be working together if they had not sworn allegiance, that that would matter. From the administration’s perspective, it was really the ideology behind it that they thought is what was the similarity between the two organizations, and why that would drive them to work together.
… We know from talking to Powell and we know from other films we’ve made about this that it was a pretty intense time. The secretary of state was preparing a speech to the U.N. Did you have input into that process?
Yes. We had a copy of the speech that was sent over from the White House that Powell was preparing. One of our senior analysts was working on it, editing, working on the language to ensure that it reflected our analysis and that it wasn’t overly inflating the relationship between Zarqawi and Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But by the time we saw Powell’s speech on television, we had a copy of what we had sent over to the White House in front of us, and it did not reflect the language that we sent back.
It drew conclusions that — language that we would not use. … We were very, very, very careful about describing the relationship as we saw it, and it seemed to overinflate and not reflect our analysis.
How did that happen?
Within the process of where it went back to the White House and who worked on it after that, I don’t know how it was changed or by who.
Where are you when he gives the speech?
We’re sitting in our vault, our room at CTC, watching the television with a copy of the speech in our hands that we had sent over.
Your personal sense?
I’m watching the TV. I’m trying to follow line by line where he’s at in our section. I didn’t see the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] stuff. I wasn’t even clear what he was going to be saying there or what our analysis was exactly. But when he got to our portion, it went off our script fairly quickly, and we were looking around at each other, saying: “Where’s he at? Where’s he at?” We’re flipping through pages. Right away we could tell that this wasn’t reflecting the language that we had used.
He says when asked about it — basically I’m going to paraphrase now, but he essentially says: “Why are you asking me about this? I don’t even really remember him. It was an insignificant, small part of my speech.”
Doesn’t really matter. Well?
It does matter. It matters from the perspective of how do we view jihadist organizations. How do we understand who is a strategic or a tactical threat? If we just throw anybody out there who adheres to this ideology as a threat and a reason for invasion, we would be involved in every country in the globe, including our own.
So it does matter. The language used matters.
Was it true in any way?
Yes. I mean, there were factual pieces within the context of the speech. I don’t remember exactly what.
The Zarqawi piece, was he connected to Osama bin Laden?
Zarqawi had not sworn bay’ah to Osama bin Laden, so he was not connected other than the fact that they had communicated, adhered to some of the same ideology. But at that point they didn’t have the same outlook on their strategy or their tactics or anything else.
Did he work for Saddam Hussein, know Saddam Hussein, ever meet Saddam Hussein?
Our finding at the time was that Zarqawi did not have a connection with Saddam Hussein. He didn’t have a connection necessarily with the Iraqi government. He hadn’t been working with the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government, of course, was aware of his presence, collocated with Ansar al-Islam. The Iraqi intelligence service was fairly good at their job. But he did not have a relationship with —
But they were looking at him as an enemy, not as a collaborator.
Right. The Iraqi government — I mean, Ansar al-Islam was not their friend, and Zarqawi working alongside of them would have been seen in the same light.
So that wasn’t true —
No, it was not.
— what Powell said.
No. But Powell never drew the direct connection. It was implied. …
And it wasn’t true.
It wasn’t true.
… One of the maybe unintended consequences of Powell’s speech and what Powell says about Zarqawi that just seems obvious now, but maybe didn’t then to him, is he makes him a celebrity. He elevates him to rock-star status. This is, as you’ve described him, a thug, kind of tough guy.
Right. He’s a low-level jihadist at this point.
And when Powell speaks about him and tells the world about him?
I can’t even imagine what that did for Zarqawi’s ego. Here he is; his name is spoken at the U.N. Now he’s showing bin Laden and Al Qaeda who he really is, right? He’s become this iconic person without ever really doing anything. He had pulled off a few attacks, unfortunate attacks inside of Jordan. He assassinated a member of USAID, Laurence Foley. But at this point, he still was a fairly unknown person.
So what’s the effect on Zarqawi himself of the notoriety in those early, early days? …
I think at the point that Powell starts to talk about him, Zarqawi is able to start getting more funding and recruits, unlike before. People are starting to see him in his circles as a real leader, somebody who has a vision that they should follow. That probably helped attract a huge portion of the network that he ended up with during the invasion.
He goes underground for a while, while he waits out shock and awe.
… CPA-2 [Coalition Provisional Authority Order 2 disbanding the Iraqi military] is announced. The military marches in the streets, people looking for payment, looking for money. What is Zarqawi probably doing, thinking? How does that work in his favor?
When it was announced that they disbanded the Baathists and the military, I would imagine that that was going to be a little hiatus for Zarqawi. He was going to wait and see what he hoped for as a Sunni uprising, because we later were able to see where he really focused on trying to start a civil war between the Sunni and Shia.
At that time, there’s a lot of unhappy generals, a lot of unhappy colonels.
A lot of munitions floating around the country.
A lot of possible recruits for Zarqawi.
What do you mean?
The members of the disbanded military and the former Baathists, they’re disgruntled. They feel like they’re going to go by the wayside, that they’re going to be not only the minority population but treated as if they don’t matter. So they were easy targets for Zarqawi to recruit.
So there’s a lot of IEDs; there’s a lot of little stuff on the edges. But then the Jordanian embassy gets blown up, August 2003. You’re there. Does it cross your mind when that happens that this could be the handiwork of Zarqawi?
Absolutely. Absolutely. It would make sense that a target of the Jordanian embassy inside of Iraq — why would that be the first target by a former Baathist or an insurgent? It looked like it was absolutely Zarqawi.
Did he have the skill to pull off something like that?
We knew he was able to manufacture explosives based on the information we had collected after his lab was finally bombed in northern Iraq. So yeah, I think if he didn’t have the resources, he certainly could find it within the former Iraqi military and the former Iraqi intelligence service.
… After the Jordanian embassy, then it’s the United Nations very quickly thereafter. Now what are you thinking?
After the U.N. building was bombed, we were looking at signals intelligence of different conversations that had been happening near the location. A colleague and I were going back and forth on getting the raw cut from NSA [National Security Agency], looking at not only the conversation itself, which was cryptic, but the location and where these phone numbers were tied to.
We didn’t have a clear connection yet to Zarqawi, but we suspected that this was part of his network. By the time that he blew up the Najaf mosque, we were able to tie that to his network, to Zarqawi’s network.
… Part of his strategic plan — others have told us this, too — is you get the Jordanians out because you don’t want moderate Arab states in there. You don’t want the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in there, so you blow up the U.N. You want to basically, I guess, isolate the Americans and get everybody else out of the way. Is that the strategic plan?
Well, it wasn’t just isolating the Americans. It was making sure that there was a lot of disruption inside the country so that not only could an infrastructure not be rebuilt, because he’s trying to lay the groundwork for taking control — he had this vision that he was going to take control of the territory inside of Iraq and build his own caliphate. That’s where ISIS got their first seed of establishing a caliphate inside of Iraq.
Regardless of who the target was, he wanted to make sure that it was being disrupted enough that he could start to control certain parts of territory.
He’s creating chaos.
He’s absolutely creating chaos.
At this very moment that all this is happening — so we’re now probably in August/September ’03 – in Washington, the secretary of defense, Don Rumsfeld, is saying: “This is a joke. These are dead-enders. This is not a big deal. What in the heck?” Cheney says, “It’s the final throes of these people.” What are you thinking when you and your colleagues are hearing the secretary of defense, the vice president and the president saying these things?
I’m thinking that they’re seeing this through a lens that doesn’t exist anymore. This is a country who has been oppressed for decades, and they’ve largely been either starved or taken care of, depending on what population you look at. They have needs that need to be met, and we’re not helping them meet that. They don’t have electricity; they don’t have food. If you’re just an average person walking around Baghdad, you want your kids to go to school. You want to be able to have access to food and water. You need a job because you need money. And none of that was coming to fruition for anybody. They had been promised this newfound economy once Saddam had been removed, and that was becoming the opposite.
And they had no apparent understanding of Zarqawi, of the growing insurgency, the anger of the Baathists and the anger of the former military?
Right. There seemed to be a true lack of understanding of the dynamics in the Middle East within the administration.
Were you hearing that, experiencing that, in your daily job?
The questions that we would receive back based on the publications that we would write — it was clear that they lacked an understanding about the dynamics of the Middle East. We had several senior analysts briefing them on some basics of the Sunni-Shia conflict that could arise because of how Saddam controlled the territory.
You guys were warning early.
Maybe not early enough. We didn’t understand what they didn’t know until after the invasion.
And what didn’t they know?
They didn’t know how the Middle East worked. They were still seeing it through a Cold War Russian lens.
And the effect of that?
We’re still dealing with it. We’re still dealing with the effect of that.
… In that vacuum, Zarqawi’s kind of free to go wherever he wants to go, do whatever he wants to do.
Yeah, in that vacuum, Zarqawi does have quite a bit of freedom. He’s not hated by the local population yet. He hasn’t started attacking Muslims, so he’s free to move around. And if he’s promising an alternative to combating this invasion, then he’s becoming a leader to some of the former Baathists and former military.
And then the [independent contractor] Nick Berg beheading video.
What’s he doing there? What’s the idea?
You know, it’s hard to rationalize any kind of violence like that. I can’t even imagine how and why someone would do what he did. But I think it was really just to strike fear, which is what terrorism does, into not only the American population, but sending out a signal to all the coalition forces and even the local Iraqis that he is a brutal leader, and that he’s someone that you should be scared of.
Did you watch the video?
Unfortunately, I had to.
I watched it just to see if we could identify who the perpetrators were and if Zarqawi was involved. It was by far one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.
Is part of what he’s doing advertising for foreign fighters?
Part of what he’s doing is showing his strength as a jihadist. He’s showing that he’s adhering to the principles, as he sees it, of Sharia law. He’s showing his strength to Al Qaeda. Yes, he’s trying to attract recruits.
… And the effect of that?
The effect of that was huge. I mean, this spread, this went global very quickly. Where news was able to previously mask out images and had control of the content, we no longer could do that. Zarqawi had control of the content.
… One of the, I guess, unintended consequences of the $25 million bounty is that it matches up with bin Laden’s $25 million bounty. And if you look at the two wanted posters side by side, there’s a kind of equivalence finally achieved by the man from Zarqa.
Yeah, there is, absolutely. Now he’s become in the eyes of the United States government just as ruthless as bin Laden.
In a way it lights up bin Laden, because it’s right after that that the relationship changes.
Yeah, it’s shortly after that that the relationship changes. Zarqawi is the new start-up, and bin Laden wants to invest.
And what does it mean to invest?
He wants Zarqawi to use the Al Qaeda brand. Since Al Qaeda hadn’t done anything since 9/11, this was a perfect opportunity for bin Laden to get back in the game.
… Zarqawi writes a letter that gets intercepted, sort of outlining the plan for Zarqawi and bin Laden. What’s the letter about?
The first initial letter that I end up seeing is a discussion between Al Qaeda and Zarqawi. It’s really Zarqawi’s, what appears to be, response to Al Qaeda senior leadership on how he’s waging jihad, what his intentions are, not only tactical intentions, but a little bit of his strategy. He doesn’t come out and say that he’s going to foment a civil war between Sunni and Shia, but he discusses the unbelievers and the infidels are also classified as Muslims that are not going to fall in line with his ideology.
How different is it from what Al Qaeda has been doing, what he’s proposing to do in Iraq?
Al Qaeda had been focused strictly on the United States and Western governments up to that point. They want to change things in the Middle East, but their tactic wasn’t to start killing other Muslims in order to achieve that.
They’re the far enemy people.
They’re the — yes.
And Zarqawi wants to hit Middle Eastern Muslims because?
Zarqawi wants to hit the Shia, mainly. He feels actually slighted more by Muslims who aren’t following his ideology than he is by some of the Western targets that he starts to go after.
The special antipathy for the Shia is based on what?
Well, part of the antipathy for Shia is based on the differences in religion and beliefs. But the other piece of that is, he knows that if he starts a civil war, that’s going to cause even more disruption and dislocation inside of Iraq, which enables him to then try to capture more territory.
Do you think that would be a hard sell to bin Laden?
It became a hard sell to bin Laden. Bin Laden did not buy in to that strategy. This is not how he wanted to deal with the United States and with other Western powers.
Bin Laden didn’t see alienating other Muslims as a strategy that was worth his reputation.
What does Zarqawi do, then, to foment the Sunni civil war? What are his first indications to you that this guy has got big plans?
Zarqawi, with the Najaf bombing, that was the first indication that he was focusing on Shia and that he was trying to start a civil war between the two.
What does he do?
He blew up the whole mosque. And it was a very symbolic mosque. It’s one of the oldest mosques inside of Iraq, Shia mosque.
And the Shias’ response?
It was tragic. You know, there were people killed. This is a symbol for them, for who they are and who they identify with, and how they identify with their culture and their religion. The response — they didn’t know who it was, of course, right away. It wasn’t till much later I think that the public writ large found out.
What finally comes, that we’ve seen anyway, that we have is the [Ayman al-] Zawahiri letter back to him that says: “Hey, love what you’re doing in a lot of ways, but this killing of the Shia — take it from us — this is not a long-term strategy. This is not going to help. We know this.”
So the response from Al Qaeda was: “Stop doing what you’re doing. Killing Shia and other Muslims aren’t going to achieve the objective that we need. … This isn’t the path that we want you to take. We’re telling you to stop.”
When he swore bay’ah, what is the meaning of that? How does that change what Zarqawi is supposed to be doing?
Well, after the communications go back and forth discussing Zarqawi’s strategy, eventually they land on agreeing to disagree somewhat. Zarqawi says, kind of like he’s going to take a step back, but he doesn’t completely capitulate. He ends up swearing bay’ah, which means he’s pledging his allegiance to Al Qaeda. He will now have the Al Qaeda brand. He will be responsible to the Al Qaeda leadership in answering to them. He’ll also help senior Al Qaeda with funding and recruits if they need it. So it’s a symbiotic relationship.
And from what he’s doing, now that he has the Al Qaeda brand, he can hang the sign out, what’s the effect of that on foreign fighters and their coming into Iraq to help?
Zarqawi had named his group various different names prior to becoming Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is the nomenclature we ended up using. But this now is something that jihadists will recognize. This is now just not a loose network. This is a brand that they can get behind and understand.
… And when they come, what do they come to do?
They’re filling the various positions that Zarqawi needs to have a big infrastructure, so there’s logistics; there’s recruitment; there’s bomb makers; there’s operations people and commanders. He’s building his army at this point.
… When they blow up the Samarra mosque, that seems to be the big moment. Everything, all hell breaks loose after that, yeah?
Yes, it does.
Why was it effective?
Zarqawi has been blowing up buses, attacking markets. He’s sowing terror within the local population at this point. And then when he ends up attacking the Samarra mosque, that’s I think a turning point for Shia and what’s coming to be part of the Iraqi government, between the Sunni and Shia relationship.
People say that if Iraq was horrible, it was double-quadruple horrible after that.
Right. Yes. Zarqawi achieved what he wanted to achieve. He had fomented anger and fear and frustration enough that populations felt pitted against each other.
… How would you characterize the state of the government’s interest, knowledge and understanding of what was going on in ’06?
Oh, there was an evolution within the administration on Middle East politics, religion. I think around 2005-2006, they started to understand the dynamic more clearly. They were, from my perspective, more receptive to some of the products that we were producing, asking very strategic, smart questions — except for some.
And terrorism and the insurgency, the administration’s understanding of it?
The global jihadist network has now grown and become this attraction that we haven’t ever seen before. There’s social media use, and there’s videos, and there’s all these intense pushes for recruitment. And they’re focusing on recruiting not only out of countries that are nearby in different regions, but now they’re looking at the EU and recruiting those with Western passports and focusing a much broader position, Zarqawi, than he had initially.
So he’s gone from a thug to?
He’s gone from a thug to a global jihadist leader.
And the meaning of that?
He’s killing a lot more people.
You imply he’s building an army.
He’s building an army, yeah. He’s trying to establish a caliphate.
How do you define caliphate?
Well, the actual definition is control of territory where everyone shares the same ideology. He’s controlling some territory around Fallujah and Anbar province, but he certainly hasn’t achieved what ISIS has at this point.
What does Al Qaeda think about that?
Al Qaeda, well, that’s their long game, to eventually have a caliphate. That wasn’t the first thing on their checklist. They knew that there was a lot of steps to go through in order to get to that point. And they thought he was doing it too early.
How does the Shia-Sunni slaughter and civil war play in to the caliphate ambition?
It’s sowing discontent and chaos so that he can then take control of the power vacuum. Zarqawi is helping the power vacuum become much bigger than just the de-Baathification and firing the Iraqi military.
There’s a video he makes where he finally shows his face. A big deal for him to show his face. Were you surprised to see him that way, that he came out this way?
No. I figured by now, he was so well known that — I would think his PR team would have forced him, if nothing else, to make the video about himself and show his own strength, as it were.
What was he doing in this video? What was that all about?
The video would show him in different situations, having meetings, in addition to shooting a gun, which he does, but very awkwardly and almost falls over. Not sure why that clip was included. They just show him in positions of power, where he’s leading his organization or his members.
Maybe you had known this before, but it’s the first time I found that he literally is talking about the caliphate. It’s almost the announcement of the caliphate with his face on camera.
Right. It’s propaganda. It’s recruitment. It shows what their intention is. He’s wanting other people to join him to help build this caliphate. This is their marker, their stake in the ground.
Were you surprised to see his face?
Not really. I wasn’t surprised to see his face. It seemed like it took longer than I thought it should have for him to make some kind of statement like that.
… We interviewed David Petraeus at some length, and Petraeus said he really felt like they had degraded Al Qaeda in Iraq pretty dramatically [after the surge]. Somebody we interviewed said about 35 guys were left, and Petraeus said on camera, “We had our boot on their neck.” Did they? Did they have a boot on their neck?
No, no. I think this fundamentally speaks to the fact that we militarize all of these problems. Not everything — even a terrorist network cannot be taken care of militarily. I think that’s one of the mistakes that we made. They came in with this big plan of doing this counterinsurgency strategy, and really, what that was was a tactic. It was getting down to the local level, understanding what people’s needs are, which we should have been doing in the first place, and really should just be part of the mission and the objective of how the military functions.
I think there was a lot of misunderstanding about the effect and impact that not only the rolling raids had on Zarqawi’s network, but killing him. There was a lot of misunderstanding, I think, within the U.S. government that this was going to, in effect, kill what was left of that network.
First of all, Zarqawi wasn’t that type of leader. He wasn’t so symbolic that he couldn’t be replaced. He had a bench that had been working with him since the inception of his network. Terrorism, while we all know now is really based on an ideology, you can remove people, but until you actually stem the tide of that type of recruitment and mind-set, you’re still going to be dealing with it
I think there was just some naiveté on the part of the U.S. government.
So they thought they had them, but they didn’t really have them.
They did not have them, no.
Where were they?
The network was degraded to the point that they were laying low. There was a huge external network in addition to what was going on inside of Iraq. So the external network was holding up the other end of the deal while the network inside of Iraq was waiting for their next change to rebuild.
The guy who emerges eventually is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Let’s go into his back story just a little bit. He’s a Ph.D. candidate, Quran expert, language expert. Seems like a kind of mild-mannered guy in some ways. Gets grabbed, put in Bucca [detention facility] in ’04 in one of the raids, maybe by accident. But he’s in there, what a lot of people are calling Jihad University. …
I don’t know if that’s what they called it, but it was certainly a recruitment area. A lot of the prisons, even the temporary ones that were set up there in 2003, putting people who had been radicalized or were just angry at the U.S. government, still angry at the Iraqi government, sitting there together. They’re coming up with ways to deal with their situation. They’re not going to sit by and let the Americans or anybody else tell them what to do. They had just gotten rid of the person that had been doing that for years.
So the way you figure Baghdadi is radicalized in that situation, like so many others.
It’s possible he went in with a really conservative ideology and then by the time Baghdadi left Bucca, it’s possible that helped define for him his approach to how he was going to help deal with the Iraqi government.
And the Baghdadi that is in ’07, ’08, ’09, leading Al Qaeda Iraq or whatever it’s called then, the Islamic State of Iraq, is a guy who would have known about Zarqawi, known about Zarqawi’s stuff?
… It’s clear that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has picked up where Zarqawi left off. He’s taken that playbook and taken it to a whole new level. In addition to the caliphate, he focused on fomenting a civil war. Killing other Muslims is not a problem for him. Senior Al Qaeda has disavowed any connection with his Islamic State, their evolution from being Al Qaeda in Iraq. So he’s taken Zarqawi’s playbook and strategy and added 10 times more dynamite to it. A whole different level.
What kind of dynamite? What do you mean?
Brutality, murder, violence, absolute disregard for any human life. First and foremost is power and control and territorial control.
They’re sitting there in the desert, and across the Syrian border, there’s civil war happening. And it looks like a vacuum in the north over there.
I gather Baghdadi, from what you can see at the distance, is smart enough to say, I’m going to skedaddle out of here where maybe the tribes don’t like me. I’m going to look for a political vacuum I can —
Absolutely. … Baghdadi is now taking control or advantage of the power vacuum that exists not only inside of Iraq, but also inside of Syria. He’s building a country and an infrastructure. But he’s doing it through brutality. He’s requiring that the citizens of his country participate. The support that he is giving, he’s asking them for their allegiance, and if they fall out of order, he kills them.
He’s not able to garner support necessarily. He’s just doing it through fear and terror, and that’s not sustainable.
… [When Baghdadi gets to] Raqqa, he immediately imposes Sharia law. Immediately takes taxes from people. But also, it is brutal.
Zarqawi started to employ some of these same tactics around Anbar province, where he was trying to collect taxes, and he was imposing Sharia law on the little tiny pieces of territory that he was trying to control. Baghdadi took it to a whole ‘nother level. Once he captured Raqqa, he was able to control a huge swath of territory.
Now he’s achieving Zarqawi’s dream of a caliphate. He’s taken it to that whole other level, where he’s now controlling territory in two different sovereign countries.
… Then as you stand and read and see, suddenly in 2014, we’re back to Iraq. The Sunnis are being mauled by [Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki’s Shia forces. The military, the Sunni officers have been purged. The vice president has been chased. The finance minister guys have been grabbed. It’s protests in the streets. Maliki overreacts, or doesn’t, and goes in and gets them and kills them. And suddenly the tribes are inviting, guess who? The one group of people who are likely to protect them from —
From the government, yeah. The Iraqis dealing with the governmental problems that they have in 2014 invite basically the Islamic State back to help control the area, because the Iraqi government has lost control. There’s not enough walls to bang your head against.
And when they invite him, it’s almost like déjà vu to me. I look at it and think, here’s the tribes saying, “Come back, Zarqawi 2.0.”
Right, absolutely. I mean, as a disaffected Sunni, at least under Zarqawi and even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they’re being listened to. There’s someone there that’s actually supporting them. They don’t feel like they’re going to be facing another different version of Maliki coming into power.
… Our film stops when Baghdadi goes up onto the pulpit in Mosul and pulls back the veil and reveals his face. It’s like a Zarqawi moment all over again.
Yeah, it is.
And declares the caliphate.
What was that like for you?
Horrible. What were all these lives for? Iraqi and coalition forces. Again it’s not just one moment in time that — because we are where we are. It’s not just the military forces pulling out. It was all the mistakes that were made all along, since 2003.
Tell me what you mean.
Not having a plan in place to help rebuild the government in 2003. In 2004, not understanding the cultural dynamics between Sunni and Shia and how Zarqawi was able to leverage that. We were letting one person leverage those dynamics, and we were doing nothing about it. How in 2005 we didn’t understand the impact that it was having on the global jihadist network. We understood it, we were writing about it, but we weren’t doing anything about it.
All of these factors led us to where we are. It wasn’t just the military pulling out. We never had control.
And could we have done anything? … Or was it a juggernaut that was impossible to stop.
What, the Islamic State?
Yeah. I mean, if the seed was planted back in that Powell speech, where along the timeline —
If we would have struck the camp that Zarqawi had when he was collocated with Ansar al-Islam, we would not be where we’re at today.
Really. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would not have had a foundation to build his caliphate and this type of jihadist network on. Not at all.
We kill those guys, and what would have happened?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but Zarqawi would not have been able to build a jihadist organization. He would not have joined Al Qaeda. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would not have picked up his playbook and then taken it from there.
… What’s the lesson? What should we think about?
Dealing with terrorism strictly by military means will not get rid of terrorism. That’s a game that we’ve tried to play since 9/11. And ultimately that’s not a long-term strategy.
… Go back to the Powell speech for a second. One of the things Powell states is Iraq is part of a deadly terrorist network headed by al-Zarqawi, an associate of bin Laden. … That was one point that we didn’t touch upon. So you’re listening to this speech. What is some of what you’re hearing, and what about sanctuary?
Saddam is not providing sanctuary for Zarqawi prior to the invasion.
The Cheney connections with Cheney coming to the CIA and stuff. You guys write the report after the meeting that you’re sitting in.
Well, we’ve been working on this paper for a long time, but yeah.
He goes over there after that meeting on the seventh floor. Cheney’s response is, basically he’s furious. You get some phone calls.
It depends on which meeting you’re talking about from him. But yes, I did get a phone call from Scooter Libby.
The second meeting on the seventh floor is the way it was defined. You get phone calls that you end up hanging up on.
That’s a different one. That was a PDB [President’s Daily Brief] I wrote based on something else.
Specifically what was that about — you’re getting phone calls; you’re getting pressure — how angry that makes you and what you do.
My team chief and I went to meet with Scooter Libby and a few other members of the vice president’s team.
At the White House?
At the Old Executive Building. It was based on a presidential daily brief that I had written …
I wrote a presidential daily brief based on intelligence that we had received, that Zarqawi was responsible for some of the major initial attacks in 2003, that he was still there, and that he was looking to foment civil war.
We write this anonymously when they go to the White House. Our names are not attached to the brief. I received a phone call at my desk, to my own line, from Scooter Libby’s office. … I immediately told them I couldn’t discuss any of this and hang up, and talked to my team chief.
How did that feel?
I felt like I was being questioned about my analysis, saying that Zarqawi is still there and that he’s fomenting some of this violence, in addition to the fact there were Iraqis that were taking up arms with him and joining his organization. And that we were calling out some of the Iraqis as insurgents. They weren’t working as terrorists. They weren’t working with Zarqawi. They were actually working on their own just to try to persuade the coalition forces to rebuild a government that they were interested in.
… Why call you? What is that? Intimidation?
That’s the only way I could take it. There is a process in place to ask questions about the analysis that’s presented to the administration, and it’s been there for a very long time. Everyone is very aware of it. So to call an individual analyst typically is only about questioning their analysis in person and pressuring them.
Intimidation. But I wasn’t intimidated.
Unprecedented in your career?
Yes. I don’t know anybody else who received a call from the White House on their black line.
So then you and your chief are going over to the Old Executive Office Building and meet with Scooter.
Yeah, we meet with members of Vice President Cheney’s staff, including Scooter Libby, and we discussed the PDB and the questions that they have. We were able to answer to our satisfaction all of their questions, and — you know, our job wasn’t to try to convince them. Our job was to help them understand our analysis. And they, of course, would take away, you know, their own opinions.
… When you left there, what did you think the result was?
That they really didn’t want to understand it. That wasn’t why we were there.
Why were you there?
We were there because they wanted to figure out how they could poke holes in the analysis. In the run-up to the war, there was an office of strategic plans in the Department of Defense that was built essentially to counter the intelligence and the analysis coming out of the CIA about the invasion, the case for the invasion.
So this telephone call and that meeting at the Old Executive Office Building happened when?
Oh, God, I’m too old to answer that.
After the invasion?
Yes, it was.
After the August U.N. and Jordanian embassy bombings?
Yeah, it was.
In the fall?
Yeah, because the whole questioning was, you know — there was a lot of consternation in the administration of using that term, “insurgents.”
Didn’t want you to say “insurgents.”
Because it would look as if the Iraqis weren’t embracing what we were doing. “Insurgency” implies that they’re fighting against us. “Terrorist” implies that this is someone that’s come in from elsewhere and just trying to incite violence.