In February 2014, Lt. Gen. Flynn delivered the annual DIA threat assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee. His testimony revealed that rather than coming out of the blue, as the Obama administration claimed, US intelligence had anticipated the ISIS attack on Iraq.
In his statement before the committee, which corroborates much of what he told Al-Jazeera, Flynn had warned that “al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) also known as Iraq and Levant (ISIL)… probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah.” He added that “some Sunni tribes and insurgent groups appear willing to work tactically with AQI as they share common anti-government goals.”
Criticizing the central government in Baghdad for its “refusal to address long-standing Sunni grievances,” he pointed out that “heavy-handed approach to counter-terror operations” had led some Sunni tribes in Anbar “to be more permissive of AQI’s presence.” AQI/ISIL has “exploited” this permissive security environment “to increase its operations and presence in many locations” in Iraq, as well as “into Syria and Lebanon,” which is inflaming “tensions throughout the region.”
It should be noted that precisely at this time, the West, the Gulf states and Turkey, according to the DIA’s internal intelligence reports, were supporting AQI and other Islamist factions in Syria to “isolate” the Assad regime. By Flynn’s account, despite his warnings to the White House that an ISIS attack on Iraq was imminent, and could lead to the destabilization of the region, senior Obama officials deliberately continued the covert support to these factions.
US intelligence was also fully cognizant of Iraq’s inability to repel a prospective ISIS attack on Iraq, raising further questions about why the White House did nothing.
The Iraqi army has “been unable to stem rising violence” and would be unable “to suppress AQI or other internal threats” particularly in Sunni areas like Ramadi, Falluja, or mixed areas like Anbar and Ninewa provinces, Flynn told the Senate. As Iraq’s forces “lack cohesion, are undermanned, and are poorly trained, equipped and supplied,” they are “vulnerable to terrorist attack, infiltration and corruption.”
Senior Iraqi government sources told me on condition of anonymity that both Iraqi and American intelligence had anticipated an ISIS attack on Iraq, and specifically on Mosul, as early as August 2013.
Intelligence was not precise on the exact timing of the assault, one source said, but it was known that various regional powers were complicit in the planned ISIS offensive, particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey:
“It was well known at the time that ISIS were beginning serious plans to attack Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey played a key role in supporting ISIS at this time, but the UAE played a bigger role in financial support than the others, which is not widely recognized.”
When asked whether the Americans had attempted to coordinate with Iraq on preparations for the expected ISIS assault, particularly due to the recognized inability of the Iraqi army to withstand such an attack, the senior Iraqi official said that nothing had happened:
“The Americans allowed ISIS to rise to power because they wanted to get Assad out from Syria. But they didn’t anticipate that the results would be so far beyond their control.”
This was not, then, a US intelligence failure as such. Rather, the US failure to to curtail the rise of ISIS and its likely destabilization of both Iraq and Syria, was not due to a lack of accurate intelligence — which was abundant and precise — but due to an ill-conceived political decision to impose ‘regime change’ on Syria at any cost.
This is hardly the first time political decisions in Washington have blocked US intelligence agencies from pursuing investigations of terrorist activity, and scuppered their crackdowns on high-level state benefactors of terrorist groups.
According to Michael Springmann in his new book, Visas for al-Qaeda: CIA Handouts that Rocked the World, the same structural problems explain the impunity with which terrorist groups have compromised Western defense and security measures for the last few decades.
Much of his book is clearly an effort to make sense of his personal experience by researching secondary sources and interviewing other former US government and intelligence officials. While there are many problems with some of this material, the real value of Springmann’s book is in the level of detail he brings to his first-hand accounts of espionage at the US State Department, and its damning implications for understanding the ‘war on terror’ today.
Springmann served in the US government as a diplomat with the Commerce Department and the State Department’s Foreign Service, holding postings in Germany, India, and Saudi Arabia. He began his diplomatic career as a commercial officer at the US embassy in Stuttgart, Germany (1977–1980), before becoming a commercial attaché in New Delhi, India (1980–1982). He was later promoted to head of the Visa Bureau at the US embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1987–1989), and then returned to Stuttgart to become a political/economic officer (1989–1991).
Before he was fired for asking too many questions about illegal practices at the US embassy in Jeddah, Springmann’s last assignment was as a senior economic officer at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (1991), where he had security clearances to access restricted diplomatic cables, along with highly classified intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA.
Springmann says that during his tenure at the US embassy in Jeddah, he was repeatedly asked by his superiors to grant illegal visas to Islamist militants transiting through Jeddah from various Muslim countries. He eventually learned that the visa bureau was heavily penetrated by CIA officers, who used their diplomatic status as cover for all manner of classified operations — including giving visas to the same terrorists who would later execute the 9/11 attacks.
CIA officials operating at the US embassy in Jeddah, according to Springmann, included CIA base chief Eric Qualkenbush, US Consul General Jay Frere, and political officer Henry Ensher.
Thirteen out of the 15 Saudis among the 9/11 hijackers received US visas. Ten of them received visas from the US embassy in Jeddah. All of them were in fact unqualified, and should have been denied entry to the US.
Springmann was fired from the State Department after filing dozens of Freedom of Information requests, formal complaints, and requests for inquiries at multiple levels in the US government and Congress about what he had uncovered. Not only were all his attempts to gain disclosure and accountability systematically stonewalled, in the end his whistleblowing cost him his career.
Springmann’s experiences at Jeddah, though, were not unique. He points out that Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted as the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, received his first US visa from a CIA case officer undercover as a consular officer at the US embassy in Khartoum in Sudan.
The ‘Blind Sheikh’ as he was known received six CIA-approved US visas in this way between 1986 and 1990, also from the US embassy in Egypt. But as Springmann writes:
“The ‘blind’ Sheikh had been on a State Department terrorist watch list when he was issued the visa, entering the United States by way of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Sudan in 1990.”
In the US, Abdel Rahman took-over the al-Kifah Refugee Center, a major mujahideen recruitment hub for the Afghan war controlled by Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. He not only played a key role in recruiting mujahideen for Afghanistan, but went on to recruit Islamist fighters for Bosnia after 1992.
Even after the 1993 WTC attack, as Springmann told BBC Newsnight in 2001, “The attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 did not shake the State Department’s faith in the Saudis, nor did the attack on American barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three years later, in which 19 Americans died.”
The Bosnia connection is highly significant. Springmann reports that alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad “had fought in Afghanistan (after studying in the United States) and then went on to the Bosnian war in 1992…
“In addition, two more of the September 11, 2001, hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both Saudis, had gained combat experience in Bosnia. Still more connections came from Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who supposedly helped Mohammed Atta with planning the World Trade Center attacks. He had served with Bosnian army mujahideen units. Ramzi Binalshibh, friends with Atta and Zammar, had also fought in Bosnia.”
US and European intelligence investigations have uncovered disturbing evidence of how the Bosnian mujahideen pipeline, under the tutelage of Saudi Arabia, played a major role in incubating al-Qaeda’s presence in Europe.
According to court papers filed in New York on behalf of the 9/11 families in February, covert Saudi government support for Bosnian arms and training was “especially important to al-Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the US.”
After 9/11, despite such evidence being widely circulated within the US and European intelligence communities, both the Bush and Obama administrations continued working with the Saudis to mobilize al-Qaeda affiliated extremists in the service of what the DIA described as rolling back “the strategic depth of the Shia expansion” across Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The existence of this policy has been confirmed by former 30-year MI6 Middle East specialist Alastair Crooke. Its outcome — in the form of the empowerment of the most virulent Islamist extremist forces in the region — was predictable, and indeed predicted.
In August 2012 — the same date as the DIA’s controversial intelligence report anticipating the rise of ISIS — I quoted the uncannily prescient remarks of Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, who forecast that US support for Islamist rebels in Syria would likely to lead to “the slaughter of some portion of Syria’s Alawite and Shia communities”; “the triumph of Islamist forces, although they may deign to temporarily disguise themselves in more innocent garb”; “the release of thousands of veteran and hardened Sunni Islamist insurgents”; and even “the looting of the Syrian military’s fully stocked arsenals of conventional arms and chemical weapons.”
I then warned that the “further militarization” of the Syrian conflict would thwart the “respective geostrategic ambitions” of regional powers “by intensifying sectarian conflict, accelerating anti-Western terrorist operations, and potentially destabilizing the whole Levant in a way that could trigger a regional war.”
Parts of these warnings have now transpired in ways that are even more horrifying than anyone ever imagined. The continued self-defeating approach of the US-led coalition may well mean that the worst is yet to come.