2012 DIA ‘Islamic State’ Report Enters National Discourse after New York Times Coverage

Above: Ben Swann covered the Pentagon report for CBS46 News in Atlanta the same week the NYTimes referenced it. The below article was originally prepared for AntiWar.com

I’ve written before about the way news of the declassified 2012 Defense Intelligence report spread: throughout early summer it headlined around the world especially in Britain, Germany, and Russia; yet there was complete mainstream media silence in the U.S. even as (according to a Daily Beast article) it “ate the web.”

While the document was referenced and analyzed in literally hundreds of independent/alternative and foreign media reports, major U.S. news maintained its silence, even after Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (Ret.), head of the DIA at the time the report was prepared, confirmed its accuracy and importance in an Al Jazeera interview with Mehdi Hasan.

Even with Flynn’s public and unambiguous confirmation of the document, the American public remained largely in the dark as to the document’s existence.

While the rest of the world had easy access to the interview which featured lengthy discussion of the document with a man who was in 2012 and prior one of the top three highest ranking intelligence officials in Washington, it did not air on Al Jazeera America, and the program itself remains geo-blocked for Americans wishing to access it through Al Jazeera’s official YouTube channel.

The New York Times has finally acknowledged the 2012 DIA report a full six months after its release through FOIA , including new statements confirming its high importance, in a lengthy investigative piece about the rise of ISIS. To my great surprise the article sources my initial reporting of the Pentagon document [emphasis mine]:

Since last spring the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has been expanding beyond its local struggle to international terrorism. In the last two weeks, it did that in a spectacular way, first claiming responsibility for downing a Russian planeload of 224 people, then sending squads of killers who ended the lives of 43 people in Beirut and 129 in Paris. As the world scrambles to respond, the questions pile up like the dead: Who are they? What do they want? Were signals missed that could have stopped the Islamic State before it became so deadly?

And there were, in fact, more than hints of the group’s plans and potential. A 2012 report by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency was direct: The growing chaos in Syria’s civil war was giving Islamic militants there and in Iraq the space to spread and flourish. The group, it said, could “declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”

“This particular report, this was one of those nobody wanted to see,” said Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who ran the defense agency at the time.

“It was disregarded by the White House,” he said. “It was disregarded by other elements in the intelligence community as a one-off report. Frankly, at the White House, it didn’t meet the narrative.”

The syndicated NY Times article hit newsstands in multiple U.S. cities over the past weekend. For most Americans who rely exclusively on major corporate media for news of the world, this will be the first they’ve heard of the bombshell Pentagon report.

The single American news organization that has stood at the forefront of consistent and unapologetic coverage of the DIA report over the course of the last six months is Antiwar.com, featuring it in countless articles by numerous authors.

While larger, corporate organizations with vast resources wouldn’t touch it, Antiwar.com considered the document an essential source for understanding the geopolitics behind the rise of ISIS.

“Agenda-setting” organizations like The New York Times are just now catching up.

ISIS Leader Omar al-Shishani Fought Under U.S. Umbrella as Late as 2013

ISIS Commander Abu Omar al-Shishani celebrates after his joint FSA/ISIS operation at Menagh Airbase in the summer of 2013. (Photo circulated in jihadi social media)

Abu Omar al-Shishani, the red-bearded face of ISIS terror lately described in such headlines as ‘Star pupil’: Pied piper of ISIS recruits was trained by U.S. for the fact that he received American military training as part of an elite Georgian army unit in 2006 and after, did not stop playing for “team America” once he left his home country in the Caucuses. He actually enjoyed U.S. backing and American taxpayer largesse as late as 2013, soon after entering Syria with his band of Chechen jihadists.

A new book about ISIS chronicles the terror group’s earliest successes when it first made a name for itself on the Syrian battlefield by tipping the scales in favor of rebels in Northern Aleppo who had spent nearly a total of two years attempting to conquer the Syrian government’s seemingly impenetrable Menagh Airbase.

Benjamin Hall, journalist and author of Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army, was embedded in Northern Syria during part of the 2012-2013 siege of Menagh, even staying in FSA camps outside the base as attacks were underway.

At that time the Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo was the US/UK officially sanctioned command structure in the region headed by FSA Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, described in international press at the time as “a main recipient” of Western aid.

Hall, who throughout his book expresses sympathy and occasional outright support for the insurgent groups within which he was embedded, describes the pathetic state of a rebel movement in disarray and lacking morale. He identifies a singular turning point which renewed both the tide of rebel military momentum and morale in Northern Syria:

That day in Minnah [or alternately Menagh], I was reminded that nothing happens on time in the Middle East. It took ten months for the rebels to finally capture that base, but it only fell when the FSA were joined by the ISIS leader Abu Omar Shishani and his brutal gang of Chechens. When we had been there, it had been under the sole control of badly funded, badly armed rebels with little knowledge of tactical warfare–but when Shishani arrived, he took control of the operation, and the base fell soon after. [1]

Hall further relates that Omar Shishani’s (or Omar “the Chechen”) presence evoked a certain level of mystique and awe among his FSA associates as he “systematically obliterated Menagh defenses by sacrificing as many men as it took” and rightly concludes that, “it is no exaggeration to say that Shishani and other battle hardened members of ISIS are the ones who brought the early military success.” [2]

The final collapse of government forces at Menagh on August 6 due to Shishani’s sustained suicide bombing raids, sending his men in makeshift armored vehicles to crash the base’s heavy fortifications, resulted in an outpouring of battle wearied emotion and celebration among all rebel groups represented.

Regional media, including Al Jazeera, was there to record the victory and congratulatory speeches that followed, and the fighters weren’t shy about giving interviews. These interviews reveal America’s true battlefield alliances at this key point in the lengthy rebel advance in Aleppo Province at a time long prior to ISIS becoming the “household terror brand” that it is today. The New York Times reported the following:

After the battle, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, the head of the United States-backed opposition’s Aleppo military council, appeared in a video alongside Abu Jandal, a leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In camouflage, Colonel Okaidi offered thanks to “our brothers al-Muhajireen wal Ansar and others,” adding: “We’re here to kiss every hand pressed on the trigger.” He then ceded the floor to Abu Jandal and a mix of jihadist and Free Syrian Army leaders, who stood together, each praising his men, like members of a victorious basketball team.

The group singled out for praise in the video, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, was precisely Omar Shishani’s own brutal Chechen group (“Army of Emigrants and Helpers”) which turned the tide of the battle. Most significant about FSA Col. Okaidi himself, clearly the operational head of this jihadi “basketball team,” was that he had been paid a personal visit by his State Department patron, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, just months prior to the final victory at Menagh.

A translated video montage of footage covering events at Menagh, authenticated by Middle East expert Joshua Landis, shows a clip of Robert Ford’s prior visit to Col. Okaidi inside Syria, with the two standing side by side in an image meant to seal official U.S. support for Okaidi as its top brass on the ground.

Okaidi’s subsequent victory speech at Menagh proves that Okaidi, while on the U.S. government’s Syria support payroll, fought alongside and publicly praised ISIS fighters (calling them “heroes”), and presumably exercised some degree of operational command over them. There is no mistaking the documented facts of the Menagh campaign: in the summer of 2013 the rising Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and the FSA fought as one, with a unified command structure, which happened to have direct U.S. backing.

Thanks to Abu Omar’s willingness to speak to Al Jazeera, we also have video confirmation of his emerging star status within rebel ranks and relationship of direct cooperation with the U.S backed FSA commander. Omar Shishani’s interview was archived online by Al Jazeera Arabic. While offering a simple statement about conquering all of the Syria from “the kuffar,” Abu Omar is surrounded by some of the same men, including emir Abu Jandal (identified above by the New York Times)—the same Abu Jandal that is presented as second in rank under Robert Ford’s friend Col. Okaidi in the latter’s victory huddle.

In another video where he stands proudly amidst a mix of fighters, Omar addresses the camera in Russian and recognizes the FSA’s valiant efforts in its eight months long siege of the government airbase. In a later statement given to the Russian-language pro-jihad site Beladusham, Shishani explained his pragmatic view toward working with U.S. backed FSA forces even while pledging loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “We aren’t in a position of conflict with the whole FSA right now, but just against those groups who oppose our aims of an Islamic State.”

Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has since admitted that the rebels funded by the State Department included ISIS and other Al-Qaeda fighters in their ranks. He recently told McClatchy reporter Hannah Allam that he had called Okaidi to tell him that his public cooperation with Abu Omar Shishani and associates was “extremely unhelpful, extra unhelpful”:

Ford was referring to Col. Abdel-Jabbar al Oqaidi [or alternately Okaidi], then-commander of the Aleppo branch of the Free Syrian Army. The problem was that the American-backed colonel had been filmed celebrating his men’s joint victory with al Qaida-affiliated fighters, creating a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, which was trying to show Congress and the American public that it was boosting moderates and isolating extremists on the battlefield.

Amazingly, Okaidi’s courtship with the West didn’t end in 2013, even after such top U.S. officials confirmed that the rebel leader had been in a position of operational command over ISIS terrorists, some of which now fill out the top tiers of Islamic State’s ranks.

As recently as last July 2015, CNN gave Okaidi lengthy and virtually uninterrupted air time in a Christiane Amanpour interview to make a public appeal for a U.S. imposed no-fly “buffer zone” over Syria in support of “moderate” rebels—this on what the network bills as its “flagship global affairs program.”

In a recent and much talked about poll conducted inside Syria by ORB International, an affiliate of WIN/Gallup International, it was revealed that “82% of Syrians Blame U.S. for ISIS.” While the increased prominence of this view has perplexed many pundits who dare not admit anything counter to the official prevailing wisdom, it could simply be that Syrians pay closer attention and are able to process what U.S. clients like Okaidi utter in plain Arabic and without apology.

[1] Hall, Benjamin. Inside ISIS: The Brutal Rise of a Terrorist Army (New York: Center Street, 2015) p. 74.

[2] Hall 76.

Former DIA Chief Michael Flynn Says Rise of Islamic State was “a willful decision” and Defends Accuracy of 2012 Memo

Lengthy discussion of the DIA memo begins at the 8:50 mark.

In Al Jazeera’s latest Head to Head episode, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Michael Flynn confirms to Mehdi Hasan that not only had he studied the DIA memo predicting the West’s backing of an Islamic State in Syria when it came across his desk in 2012, but even asserts that the White House’s sponsoring of radical jihadists (that would emerge as ISIL and Nusra) against the Syrian regime was “a willful decision.”

Amazingly, Flynn actually took issue with the way interviewer Mehdi Hasan posed the question—Flynn seemed to want to make it clear that the policies that led to the rise of ISIL were not merely the result of ignorance or looking the other way, but the result of conscious decision making:

Hasan: You are basically saying that even in government at the time you knew these groups were around, you saw this analysis, and you were arguing against it, but who wasn’t listening?
Flynn: I think the administration.
Hasan: So the administration turned a blind eye to your analysis?
Flynn: I don’t know that they turned a blind eye, I think it was a decision. I think it was a willful decision.
Hasan: A willful decision to support an insurgency that had Salafists, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood?
Flynn: It was a willful decision to do what they’re doing.

Hasan himself expresses surprise at Flynn’s frankness during this portion of the interview. While holding up a paper copy of the 2012 DIA report declassified through FOIA, Hasan reads aloud key passages such as, “there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”

Rather than downplay the importance of the document and these startling passages, as did the State Department soon after its release, Flynn does the opposite: he confirms that while acting DIA chief he “paid very close attention” to this report in particular and later adds that “the intelligence was very clear.”

Lt. Gen. Flynn, speaking safely from retirement, is the highest ranking intelligence official to go on record saying the United States and other state sponsors of rebels in Syria knowingly gave political backing and shipped weapons to Al-Qaeda in order to put pressure on the Syrian regime:

Hasan: In 2012 the U.S. was helping coordinate arms transfers to those same groups [Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda in Iraq], why did you not stop that if you’re worried about the rise of quote-unquote Islamic extremists?

Flynn: I hate to say it’s not my job…but that…my job was to…was to to ensure that the accuracy of our intelligence that was being presented was as good as it could be.

The early reporting that treated the DIA memo as newsworthy and hugely revelatory was criticized and even mocked by some experts, as well as outlets like The Daily Beast. Yet the very DIA director at the time the memo was drafted and circulated widely now unambiguously confirms the document to be of high value, and indicates that it served as source material in his own discussions over Syria policy with the White House.

As Michael Flynn also previously served as director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) during a time when its prime global mission was dismantling Al-Qaeda, his honest admission that the White House was in fact arming and bolstering Al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria is especially shocking given his stature.

Consider further the dissonance that comes with viewing the Pentagon’s former highest ranking intelligence officer in charge of the hunt for Osama bin Laden now calmly and coolly confessing that the United States directly aided the foot soldiers of Ayman al-Zawahiri beginning in at least 2012 in Syria.

This confirmation is significant to my own coverage of the DIA report, as I was contacted by a number of individuals who attempted to assure me that the true experts and “insiders” knew the document was unimportant and therefore irrelevant within the intelligence community and broader Syria policy.

This began after a Daily Beast article entitled The ISIS Conspiracy That Ate the Web  cited former NSA officer John Schindler as an expert source. Schindler concluded of the DIA document: “it’s difficult to say much meaningful about it… Nothing special here, not one bit.”

To my surprise, only hours after I published a rebuttal of Schindler and the Daily Beast article, I was contacted by a current high level CIA official who is also a personal friend from my time living in the D.C. area.

This official, who spent most of his career with CIA Public Affairs, made a personal appeal urging me to drop my comments attacking John Schindler’s credibility, as I had noted that Schindler is a highly ideological and scandal-laden commentator who consistently claims special insider knowledge in support of his arguments. This CIA official further attempted to convince me of Schindler’s credibility as an insider and expert, assuring me that “he has written insightfully.”

Mehdi Hasan’s historic interview with General Flynn should put the issue to rest—the declassified DIA report is now confirmed to be a central and vital source that sheds light on the origins of ISIS, and must inform a candid national debate on American policy in Syria and Iraq.

As it is now already becoming part of the official record on conflict in Syria among respected international historians, knowledge of the declassified document must make it into every American household.

IMPORTANT DIA UPDATE: Former Defense Intelligence Director Michael Flynn Comments Publicly on 2012 DIA Islamic State Report

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (Public Domain Image)

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Former DIA Director (Public Domain Image)

MY INITIAL REPORTING on the DIA memo that in 2012 predicts that the West would fuel the rise of “an Islamic State” in Syria caused enough of a global media stir that it prompted DIA Public Affairs to respond to my questions.

But as Middle East Eye reported, the DIA’s response was disappointing yet still somewhat revealing:

When asked repeatedly by journalist and ex-US marine Brad Hoff to dispel claims that the West aligned itself with IS or ISIS at some point in Syria, the DIA’s official response was telling: “No comment.”

While major foreign media like The Guardian, The Sunday Times of London, Der Spiegel, RT News, UK Daily Mail, and London Review of Books ran stories and prominent editorials that featured serious discussion of the document, their mainstream media equivalents in the U.S. didn’t touch it. To my knowledge, outlets like CNN, FOX, NBC, Newsweek, NPR, Washington Post, etc… have yet to even quote from the specific document either through broadcast or even in online articles.

Perhaps it will take hearing from the chief of the DIA that was in place at the time the intelligence report was drafted to finally inform the broader American public?

Thankfully, this will happen in a forthcoming Al Jazeera English interview with retired US Lt. General Michael Flynn, former head of the Pentagon’s DIA and senior intelligence officer with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Al Jazeera’s press release announcing the interview entitled “Is the US to blame for ISIL?” indicates that Flynn is asked specifically about the document in the prerecorded show set to air July 31:

Publicly commenting for the first time on a previously-classified August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memo, which had predicted “the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (…) this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want” and confirmed that “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and [Al Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” the former DIA chief told Head to Head that “the [Obama] Administration” didn’t “listen” to these warnings issued by his agency’s analysts.

“I don’t know if they turned a blind eye,” he said. “I think it was a decision, I think it was a willful decision.”

“Is the US to blame for ISIL?” with Michael Flynn will be broadcast on Friday 31st July at 20.00 GMT and will be repeated on Saturday 1st August at 12.00 GMT, Saturday 2nd August at 01.00 GMT and Monday 3rd August at 06.00 GMT.

For continuing coverage of the DIA Islamic State document, follow Taylor Tyler’s excellent reporting at Headline and Global News.