In late 2005, U.S. Special Forces fighters attacked an al Qaeda safe house in central Iraq, in an operation called Objective Rivergate. We believed an important leadership meeting was taking place. It was a fierce battle, but we killed and captured most of the terrorists, and took over the house. This was the beginning of wisdom for us. The treasure trove of documents and media discovered inside a garbage bag and smelly garbage cans gave us that wisdom.
Inside the garbage containers we found extensive documentation of our enemies' knowledge and thinking. To our surprise and horror, we saw they knew a great deal about us, including the names of many local informants. They also had done a lot of planning, laying out specific objectives, the risks associated with attacking them, and the measures they should take to thwart our countermeasures.
Until Objective Rivergate, we had no idea that al Qaeda in Iraq had anything approaching that degree of sophistication. We were compelled to reevaluate our picture of the war. This was an enemy we had to take far more seriously.
Six months later we attacked another safe house, which we called Objective Larchwood. We arrived shortly after a very important meeting that had included the chief of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. We captured a laptop computer with a video on it, showing Zarqawi himself making a PowerPoint presentation to his commanders, discussing the course of the war, analyzing al Qaeda's successes and failures, ordering changes in tactics, and then leading his men in song and prayer. Zarqawi and the video were every bit as professional as anything our analysts and strategists had imagined him to be or could create.
That was ten years ago. Today Radical Islamists are fighting us on a much bigger battlefield, including our homeland (the director of the FBI has testified that he is running investigations of ISIS—the Islamic State, the successor to al Qaeda in Iraq—in every one of our fifty states). By now, we have seen numerous arrests, various attacks in our cities and against our law enforcement professionals, and young men and women being brainwashed by Radical Islamists. It is time we get serious against this vicious, barbaric enemy.
We're in a world war, but very few Americans recognize it, and fewer still have any idea how to win it.
I've been fighting for more than thirty-three years, much of the time at the top levels of U.S. military intelligence. I have some strong feelings about this war, about our "field of fight." The title comes from the ancient Greek epic poet Homer, writing in the Iliad about a battle involving both men and gods. Our most fanatical contemporary enemies think they are in a similar battle with us. Most of them believe their cause is blessed and supported by the Almighty. We must prove them wrong.
I wrote this book for two reasons:
1. To show you the war being waged against us. This administration has forbidden us to describe our enemies properly and clearly: they are Radical Islamists. They are not alone, and are allied with countries and groups who, though not religious fanatics, share their hatred of the West, particularly the United States and Israel. Those allies include North Korea, Russia, China, Cuba, and Venezuela.
2. To lay out a winning strategy. Any reader needs to judge the reliability of the book's author, and I'll tell you about myself so you can make an informed decision. I don't fit the stereotype most people have of a military officer, never mind a career intelligence officer. I had a successful career in the United States Army, but I'm a maverick, an atypical square peg in a round hole, as both my friends and critics will attest. My maverick direction started when I was a lot younger than I am today.
I've fought in this war on physical and bureaucratic battlefields, from Afghanistan, Iraq, and African jungles, to the highest level of the United States' intelligence and military establishments. I know our enemies better than most "experts," and I'm plenty scared.
We could lose. In fact, right now we're losing. To make matters worse, our political leaders insist that the war is going very well, and the scores of professional analysts who know better are being censored when they report the truth to their superiors. I know this story firsthand. In 2014, I was fired as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency after telling a congressional committee that we were not as safe as we had been a few years back.
Others who want to tell the truth about the war are fighting back against their censors. In the late summer of 2015, dozens of military analysts protested that their superiors at CENTCOM—the Central Command for the war in the Middle East—were blocking or altering their reports on the true course of events. That allegation was then investigated by the Pentagon's inspector general. The story was leaked, and congressional hearings were held. This book shows that the censorship isn't new; it has been going on for years, and threatens our ability to win.
I also have a lot to say about Iran, which is responsible for killing hundreds of Americans in Lebanon, East Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We've known about Iran's murderous activities for many years, and you'll learn how we knew it and how the information was long suppressed by two consecutive administrations.
There's a lot of information on Iran in the files and computer discs captured at the Pakistan hideout of Osama bin Laden. Here, too, the censors have been busy. Some of it—a tiny fraction—has been declassified and released, but the bulk of it is still under official seal. Those of us who have read bin Laden's material know how important it is, and I'll tell you as much as I'm allowed.
Other information about Iran comes from the battlefield, where the Iranians have killed and maimed our troops, and continue to do so. I'll tell you how we uncovered the Iranian network in Iraq, largely by the use of spies who went back and forth between the two countries to gather the truth for us.
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Then there are the terror groups, principally ISIS and al Qaeda. By now, we have seen so many horrific acts—from beheadings to crucifixions and burning captives alive—that many attentive people imagine them to be savages, barbarians. They are certainly barbaric, but they are driven by a systematic vision of how to conquer the world and impose their religious ideology on all of us. Did you know that ISIS has long worked from a detailed written timetable for global victory? It's a Radical Islamic Mein Kampf, and was discovered by a courageous young female American journalist in Pakistan in 2015. You'll get all the details.
We face a formidable group of terrorists and hostile countries, and we've got to be better prepared to compete or we will need to be ready to destroy them. That requires better strategy, as well as better intelligence, to which I devoted all my brainpower and passion for a long time. I learned how to get accurate information, which goes hand in hand with the winning strategy, because both the information and the strategy come from the people—the citizens of these countries—caught up in the war itself. We must work closely with those people. They have the crucial information, and they will determine who wins. I changed our methods in Iraq in 2004 and in Afghanistan starting in 2010, and they worked.
I hope to convince you that we face a potentially fatal challenge, which we must and can overcome.
As you read these pages, remember that you don't have to be a military officer to see the global war. A man of peace, Pope Francis, has warned us of the gravity of our situation: "Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction," Francis said at a mass at the Italian Military Memorial of Redipuglia. ("War Is Madness.").
And he knows the consequences: "War ruins everything, even the bonds between brothers. War is irrational; its only plan is to bring destruction: It seeks to grow by destroying."
Very few Americans—indeed very few Western leaders who, from time to time, use the word "war" and promise to "win" it—seem to recognize that a global war is being waged against us. Even the few who follow the actual combat tend to see the events separately: there's fighting in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Sinai, terrorists are at work all over the place, and we try to figure out what to do in each case.
It isn't likely to work out well. Fighting well requires that you know your enemy, as the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said. Our leaders don't want to identify our enemies. That puts us on the path to defeat.
Most Americans mistakenly believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind, while war is some weird aberration. Actually, it's the other way around. Most of human history has to do with war, and preparations for the next one. But we Americans do not prepare for the next war, are invariably surprised when it erupts, and, since we did not take prudent steps when it would have been relatively simple to prevail, usually end up fighting on our enemies' more difficult and costly terms.
So we don't know our enemy and are not prepared to fight effectively.
Fewer still have any idea how to win. I'm in a better position than most on this score. I've seen, shot, captured, interrogated, and studied our enemies.
I know them, and they scare me, a guy who doesn't scare often or easily. They scare me even though we have defeated them every time we fought seriously. We defeated al Qaeda and the Iranians in Iraq, and the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, they kept fighting and we went away.
Let's face it: right now we're losing, and I'm talking about a very big war, not just Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
We're in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam. But we are not permitted to speak or write those two words, which is potentially fatal to our culture. We can't beat them if we don't understand them and are afraid to define them, but our political leaders haven't permitted that. We're not allowed to use the phrase "Radical Islam" or "Islamists." That's got to change.
Once we've understood them, we've got to destroy them. Here's how:
• We have to organize all our national power, from military and economic to intelligence and tough-minded diplomacy. It's not cheap, and it's probably going to last through several generations.
• They must be denied safe havens, and countries that shelter them have to be issued a brutal choice: either eliminate the Radical Islamists or you risk direct attack yourselves. Yes, there will be some foreign countries that can't defeat their indigenous Islamists, even though they want to, and they'll need help. They shouldn't be punished twice—first by the Islamists, then by us and our allies—and we should welcome them to our ranks.
On the other hand, some of these countries are considered "partners" of ours, but they aren't. We can't afford to be gulled by foreign countries that publicly declare their friendship, but then work in cahoots with our enemies.
• We've got to attack the Islamists everywhere and in every way. That most certainly includes attacking their evil doctrines and detailing their many failures. Are we not fully entitled to tell the truth about them? In the Cold War, we repeatedly exposed the failures of Communism. Why shouldn't we do the same with al Qaeda and ISIS?
As you see, I'm not a devotee of so-called political correctness. I don't believe all cultures are morally equivalent, and I think the West, and especially America, is far more civilized, far more ethical and moral, than the system our main enemies want to impose on us.
This kind of war is not at all new. It created our world. I dare say that most Americans don't realize that the religious and political transformation of Europe that we call the Reformation entailed hundreds of years of very bloody fighting. The religious people who settled America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were fleeing that terrible bloodshed. The world badly needs an Islamic Reformation, and we should not be surprised if violence is involved. It's normal. The important thing is to defeat the Islamists, and we must make it clear why they have declared and waged war against us, and why we reject their doctrines.
We've got to stop kidding ourselves about the intentions of the state and nonstate supporters and enablers of violent Islamism, whether on the ground, in the mosques, or online. We speak for freedom, they denounce it and crush it. That means we are the bull's-eye at the center of their gunsights. And we've got to stop feeling the slightest bit guilty about calling them by name and identifying them as fanatical killers acting on behalf of a failed civilization.
We also have to stop kidding ourselves about our enemies' intellectual capabilities. They may be crazy, but they're not stupid. The bin Laden documents, and the ISIS timetable for victory, show they study us very carefully, and they excel at identifying our weaknesses. Once they learn how to exploit our weak points, they keep doing it. They keep staging multiple attacks against population centers, from New York City to Paris, from Mumbai to Beirut to Brussels, because it keeps working.
Finally, they are willing—sometimes eager—to die for their global mission.
So how do we prevail?
If you want to be a successful intelligence professional you have to learn how to get inside other people's minds. Mostly you're getting inside your enemies' minds, and you have to feel the same passions, beliefs, and fears that drive them. The same requirements apply to leading and following your own people, by the way. You've got to get inside the minds of both the men you lead and the ones you have to obey, whether they're military or civilians.
You've got to be able to anticipate your own men's mistakes, predict your enemies' actions, and understand what your superiors want from you. I did pretty well at the first tasks, as you can see from the results on the battlefield, and from my appointment as the highest-ranking military intelligence officer in the U.S. government. You'll have to judge for yourself how well I did in my dealings with my bosses, especially at the end of my career, when I was told my service had come to an end a year ahead of schedule.
I spent many years and a lot of effort to get inside the heads of our enemies, many of whom we killed or captured, but many of whom remain at large, hell-bent on destroying us. That's why those passions, beliefs, and fears that I found in their heads remain important today. If you understand them it's a lot easier to defeat them, which is the central mission of this generation.
We're going to have to learn to think like the evil men—women don't really count in their ranks, aside from being used to breed new killers and as suicide bombers—who have sworn homage to al Qaeda, the Islamic State, various other jihadi groups, and to the leaders of radical regimes like the one in Iran. They will continue to do terrible things, and escalate their war against us, against Muslims who reject their doctrines, against Christian "infidels," against Jews, against women, indeed against the entire Western enterprise. We have to destroy them before they fulfill their mission.
Don't think for a minute that they're not good at what they do. They have a serious ideology—replete with intense passions, beliefs, and fears—and they mean to dominate the world. They have built a fearsome movement, based on deep religious conviction. They think they're winning, and so do I.
They're good fighters. They have proven their courage and shown great skill. They learn fast, they quickly give up failing tactics, and they're skilled at the techniques of Internet operations, from hacking to propaganda. They're tough enemies, as I learned fighting them on multiple battlefields. We need to be a lot better. Today we're not nearly good enough. A big reason for that is that we don't get inside their heads. Alas, our schools, media, and social networks are doing a poor job of helping Americans understand our enemies in order to defeat them.
So is our government.
Copyright © 2016 by Michael T. Flynn and Michael Ledeen
Lt. General (Ret.) Michael T. Flynn spent 33 years as an intelligence officer. Before he was terminated from government service, he served as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Senior Military Intelligence Officer in the Department of Defense. He has since founded the Flynn Intel Group, a Commercial, Government, and International consulting firm. He lives in Virginia.
Michael Ledeen is the author of War Against the Terror Masters and The Iranian Time Bomb. He spent twenty years at the American Enterprise Institute where he held the Freedom Scholar chair, and now holds a chair at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He lives in Maryland.
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