Blue-Eyed Jihad

An exclusive conversation with European radicals fighting for an Islamic state in Syria.

ATMEH, Syria — European jihadists in Syria have been blamed by some Syrians for ruining the purity of their revolution, held up by Bashar al-Assad's regime as a sign of that the rebels are foreign-backed radicals, and feared by Western security agencies as a potential terrorist threat. But despite all the talk about them, they rarely speak with outsiders about their beliefs and goals. So when two European jihadists agreed to speak with us, it marked the first time that fighters working with al Qaeda inside Syria explained to the world why they are doing battle in Syria and what future they imagine for the country.

The two fighters -- one of whom is an ethnic European who converted to Islam, while the other is ethnically neither European nor Arab, and was born a Muslim -- set a couple of preconditions. Their real names and countries of origin could not be published; as they put it, "Europe will do." They also wore masks during the interview, so they could not be recognized. "I still want to travel to my family in Europe," one said.

It was also strictly forbidden to name the town where the interview would take place. "You can mention somewhere in northern Sham," one of the men declared, a reference to Greater Syria -- encompassing not only modern-day Syria but also Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq -- that existed in the early Islamic period.

Getting to the location of the interview posed another problem. In a sign of how perilous Syria has become, al Qaeda-affiliated militants man a checkpoint slightly more than a mile outside the Atmeh refugee camp along the border with Turkey. And there were many more such checkpoints along the way to where the two European jihadists live. With kidnappings of journalists and aid workers by rebels spiking in recent months, locals all advised against the idea of driving deeper into the country. After long deliberations, we chose to stay in Atmeh and send a trustworthy Syrian middle-man on our behalf deeper inside the country. He carried our questionnaire, a camera, and conducted the interviews.

The meetings with the European jihadists occurred separately, on two separate days in two different locations. The interviews were conducted in English, as the fighters are not fluent in Arabic.

The phenomenon of European jihadists flowing into Syria is increasingly attracting the attention of Western security agencies, which fear what they will do when they return home. According to American and European intelligence officials speaking to the New York Times, more Westerners are currently fighting in Syria than in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen: The estimates range from 600 to 1,000 fighters. Their primary motivation is religion -- the vast majority are white converts to Islam or naturalized immigrants with a Muslim background.

The jihadists' religious extremism, military experience in Syria, and the ease with which they could travel around Europe and the United States make a potentially lethal cocktail. Matthew Olsen, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, recently told a conference that Syria has become "the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world," and raised fears that such jihadists could return "as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States."  

Abu Talal, a blond-haired, blue-eyed fighter sporting a black balaclava, is just the sort of religious warrior that keeps Western security officials up at night. He says that he came to Syria "to help the mujahideen [jihadists] against Bashar," but refuses to say how he arrived from Europe. However, he adds that he "will visit my family [in Europe] again and then return to Syria."

In the interview, Abu Talal, who carries a gun and sits in front of a black banner used by jihadist groups, says that he has joined the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," -- the al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq that is both fighting against the Assad regime and attempting to extend its "Islamic emirate" into Syria.

The ISIS, which is headed by Iraqi national Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is considered the most radical group in Syria. With bases in and around the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, the northern cities of Raqqa and Aleppo, and the northwestern Turkmen Mountains, it is an extension of the al Qaeda forces that battled U.S. and Iraqi government troops in Iraq during that country's civil war.

He claims that the relationship between the ISIS and the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of more mainstream Syrian rebel groups, is good. "They are mujahideen and we are mujahideen. We ask God to guide us both to fight Bashar."

But why do many around the world see foreign jihadists as terrorists? "That is funny," Abu Talal says, "because we don't kill innocent people like the forces of Bashar do. The whole world thinks sharia [Islamic law] is bad, but that is not true. We help people.... And we will bring the sharia here -- no matter what."

The jihadists often stated their conviction that the United States will sooner or later get involved in Syria -- not to topple the Assad regime, but to target them for death. Both believe that the United States will use drones against Syrian jihadists -- just like what is happening in Pakistan or Yemen.

"I am sure the Americans will start using drones," says Abu Salman, the second European fighter, who wears a traditional Arabic shawl to hide his identity. "As soon as we get rid of the Assad regime they will send their weapons. But of course, we will fight them. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: 'The infidels will fight you as they fought me.' But God willing, we will win this fight... [E]ven if the Americans attack, we will not retreat."

Abu Salman is something of a free agent in the Syrian jihad, moving fluidly between groups depending on who needs his services. "I am involved in electronics," he says. "I cooperate with any group who needs me here. I did not join one specific group because of the nature of my work, every group needs me."  

But Abu Salman adds that he mostly works with al Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, or alternatively Ahrar al-Sham and Suqoor al-Sham, militias known for their strict interpretation of Islamic law. "They are the best fighters of Islam," he explains.

Abu Salman believes that foreign jihadists in Syria have gotten a bad rap: He says he agreed to give this interview to explain to the world what foreign fighters are doing in Syria. "It doesn't matter how long you speak of what you do," he says. "If you have a beard, if you do salaat [Muslim prayers] you are considered a terrorist. The outside world doesn't understand us. They don't have our mentality. They don't know what we want."

Unlike Abu Talal, Abu Salman is willing to explain how he came to Syria. "I came from the airport [in Turkey] and went illegally through the border from Turkey into Sham," he says. "Everybody is taking this road.

The journey, however, is starting to become more difficult for foreigners. "The road is starting to get cut," Abu Salman says. "You cannot enter into Sham anymore without a Syrian passport, there are many more checks."

Abu Salman agrees with his jihadist comrade that some elements of the Free Syrian Army are good "mujahideen" -- but worries that the United States is funneling support to "bad" elements within the umbrella organization. "They [the United States] only give weapons to the worst groups; those who want democracy," he explains. "These groups operate inside the Free Syrian Army, but they even don't fight for democracy, they just steal money."

The presence of foreign jihadists is controversial among local supporters of the Syrian revolt. Foreign Islamists regularly flog or execute alleged regime supporters in Raqqa, while in Aleppo jihadists executed a Syrian youth they believed had committed blasphemy. Kidnappings of Syrians, foreign journalists, and aid workers by Islamists are on the rise. Just this week, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, a well-known Jesuit priest who lived in Syria for three decades and was staunchly pro-revolution, disappeared in Raqqa.

Abu Salman knows how tenuous the jihadists' position is among the Syrian population: He is convinced that after the Assad regime's defeat, some Syrians will launch a second revolution against radical Islamist groups. "I feel this will happen," he says. "But it doesn't matter. Because the prophet peace be upon him, has said 'You will win this fight.'"

And after Abu Salman and his cohort topple Assad and crush more secular rebel groups, what then? What will become of Syria's sizeable Christian, Alawi, and Shiite minority populations?

"The minorities?" he answers. "They must just accept it. Those who do not accept it, they will be thrown out -- or they can leave."

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The Iraq Red Team

A year and a half before the surge, a secret review group in Baghdad recommended a drastic change in U.S. strategy. If that advice had been heeded, might the war have turned out differently? An exclusive excerpt from The Endgame, a new book on America's final days in Iraq.

Seventeen months before George W. Bush announced that he was sending five additional brigades to Iraq for the 2007 "surge," a team of officers and civilian analysts gathered in Baghdad to conduct a classified review of America's military strategy in Iraq.

In a June 2005 speech at Fort Bragg, President Bush had told the nation that the Iraq war was difficult, but winnable. "Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush said. "We have made progress, but we have a lot more work to do."

But when it convened in August, the Red Team, as the review group was known, came to a very different conclusion. "The perception of many Iraqis is that their government, and by implication, the Coalition has failed the Iraqi people," the report noted. (Read exclusive excerpts from the report.) Not only that, but the strategy Bush so confidently endorsed, the team asserted, would merely burden the Iraqis with a problem they could not handle. Iraqi forces might end up ceding ground to the insurgency in central and western Iraq, and perhaps even in Baghdad. A new counterinsurgency strategy -- one that, in concept though not in resources, bore a striking resemblance to the approach Gen. David Petraeus would oversee two years later -- was needed.

The team's diagnosis and its remedy were both ignored. It was one of the most important -- and until now, unknown -- missed opportunities of the war.

The annals of military history are replete with intelligence failures -- debacles that were not foreseen as a result of cultural ignorance, wishful thinking, or a lack of sources. But what is striking about the early years of the American war in Iraq are those episodes in which dedicated officials correctly discerned the problem and suggested new strategies -- only to be ignored by generals and Bush administration aides who were wedded to their faltering plan.

These missed turning points might have shortened the conflict and provided more breathing room to establish a more inclusive Iraqi government at a time when the United States had maximum leverage in the country. Nobody can say for certain what might have happened, but it is instructive that some of the spurned recommendations were very effective when belatedly implemented years later.

To this day, some of the missed opportunities are not widely known. For all the partisan debate over the Iraq conflict in Washington, only a handful of insiders seem to know what happened during some of its most fateful moments.

As the insurgency began to develop in 2003, for example, a group of officers in the U.S. military's intelligence cell in Baghdad developed a plan to work with the Sunni tribes in the western province of Anbar that was never carried out. Col. Carol Stewart had met with a group of Anbari sheiks and devised a plan to bring them into the fold. The strife-ridden Ramadi and Fallujah areas would be designated a "tribal security zone." Tribal leaders would be authorized to police their own areas and given vehicles, ammunition, and money to pay their men, who would be dubbed the "Anbar Rangers." The entire program would have cost $3 million for six months, a tiny sliver of the multibillion-dollar reconstruction fund for Iraq, officials said.

But when Stewart briefed the idea to an aide at L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, she was told that CPA did not plan to make the tribes a formal part of Iraq's security structure. Leaving one meeting in frustration, Stewart muttered, "If the United States was not going to be working with the tribes in the new Iraq, where was this new Iraq going to be? On Mars?" Stewart had no more luck with more senior civilian and military officials in Iraq, and the idea was shelved -- only to be revived when the Anbar Awakening emerged three years later.

The Red Team

But first came the buried Red Team report, in which a select group of mid-level officers and officials who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy were ignored. This account is based on interviews with current and former American and allied officials and military officers -- and access to the 74-page classified report.

The origins of the Red Team go back to the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the United States ambassador to Iraq. A former Pentagon official who was coming to Baghdad from a tour as the American ambassador in Kabul, Khalilzad began to think anew about the military situation in Iraq. Canvassing the experts, he pondered the work of Andrew Krepinevich, who had written a book about the Army's experience in Vietnam and was a proponent of population-centric counterinsurgency.

During Khalilzad's Senate confirmation hearings on June 7, 2005, a skeptical junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, asked Khalilzad if it might take 10 or 20 years to defeat the insurgency. It could be done in much less than that, he responded reassuringly.

After arriving in Baghdad in July, Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq, commissioned an internal review -- one that was to be carried out by an eight-person team of military and civilian officials. Col. Bruce Reider, a strategist who was working on governance issues for General Casey, co-chaired the effort on behalf of the military. Other members of his military team included a British intelligence officer, an Australian officer, and one of General Casey's planners. Marin Strmecki, a conservative defense consultant and an advisor to Khalilzad, led the civilian side of the review. A CIA analyst was part of the team as well.

Khalilzad met with the group and outlined the questions they were to consider, the most important being: What would it take to "break the back" of the insurgency in one year and "defeat" it in three years? The entire review was to be done in 30 days.

Although Casey had signed off on doing the study, the four-star general was convinced his plan was generally on track and not in need of a major overhaul. He was supporting troop-intensive counterinsurgency efforts in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar and the border town of Al Qaim in western Anbar as a way of interrupting the flow of foreign fighters from Syria. But they were the exceptions to his broader approach to gradually withdraw American forces and hand the fight over to the Iraqis. It was more than an exit strategy for Casey; it was a means to reward, encourage, and prod the Iraqis to step up. The paradox, as Casey sometimes put it, was that the United States had to draw down to win.

As Reider and the rest of the Red Team worked on their assessment in August, they sensed that the general had a different view of the problem. "There is a fundamental issue over what we are trying to achieve," the colonel wrote in his diary. "Gen. Casey believes we are trying to develop ISF so we can hand the fight to Iraqis. The ambassador believes we are here to defeat the insurgency."

The Red Team's diagnosis of the war was, indeed, a far cry from Casey's. The effort to disrupt the insurgents' planning had not been decisive, it concluded, and the enemy had been able to retain freedom of movement. Many Iraqis had no faith in their leaders. What's more, the Iraqi troops who were being trained were not schooled in counterinsurgency. "Iraqi Security Forces have been stood up at great speed," the review noted. "This tremendous achievement to get them ‘in the fight' has not yet delivered sustainable forces with robust leadership." American aid programs were not reaching Sunni areas.

More importantly, the team did not see how the plan could work. "The current plan hinges on an ability to suppress the insurgency to levels that the ISF [Iraqi Security Force] can handle on its own, which implies that the threat will be reduced before the transition," it notes. "Current operations have not succeeded in suppressing the level of the insurgency, and the campaign plan does not provide new or different approaches that offer greater promise in this regard."

And if the Americans were making little headway, the Iraqi security forces would fare worse. "The planned size of the ISF is likely to prove insufficient based on historical cases. The ISF, still an immature force, will be taking on the burden of security in 2006 and 2007 with inadequate funding and less experience, training and equipment than MNF-I," it added, using the acronym for Casey's multinational command.

The political ramifications of a failing strategy, the report concluded, were enormous. The hydra-headed insurgency might be emboldened is it thought that the main American goal was to disengage from Iraq. As a result, the insurgents could be "less likely to cut the political deals that would be needed to shore up the new Iraq."

Iraqis who had stood by the Americans might also lose confidence in their ally. "The fears of abandonment might lead the Iraqis to hedge their bets by developing greater reliance on Iran," the report continued. "If the transition to self-reliance takes place before the defeat of the insurgency, the Iraqi government and the insurgents could seek external support from neighboring states (e.g., Syria and Iran) in order to fight on, potentially leading to civil war along the lines of the one in Afghanistan in the 1990s."

Public support in the United States might be another casualty. "The American public might question whether a muddled outcome was worth the cost, especially since victory was not the goal."

Ink spots

Having assessed the problem, the group proposed an "ink spot" approach in areas that would be secured and developed politically until a patchwork of safe zones was extended across the country. The notion of separating the population from the insurgency was classic counterinsurgency doctrine, the kind Petraeus would later espouse, and ran counter to a Casey strategy that focused on border control and transition to the Iraqis.


The Red Team assumed that the only U.S. forces available were the ones that were already on hand, which meant that there was no way to blanket the country. So it proposed the concentration of forces in specific areas to effect a mini-surge. The command, for example, could use the beefed-up security for the upcoming December elections to establish an initial ink spot, perhaps in Baquba or in the Fallujah-Ramadi corridor. As more ink spots were created in 2006, they would be linked in a "Two Rivers campaign" to control the population centers along the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Without reinforcements from the United States, it would have been an enormously ambitious undertaking. But one of the main obstacles was bureaucratic. Casey had sponsored previous Red Team efforts and saw the report as a means to draw the embassy more into the war effort. But when the Red Team suggested wholesale changes to his military strategy, it was more than Casey had bargained for, one of his former aides said.

The Red Team approach posited a three-year campaign to defeat the insurgents and advanced a plan for concentrating American forces in insurgent-infested areas, which was inconsistent with Casey's vision of progressively handing over the fight to the Iraqis and making troop cuts in 2006 and 2007.

When it came time for the team to brief some of its conclusions on Aug. 23, Casey made it clear that he did not accept the rationale behind much of the report. The team never even got around to presenting its PowerPoint slides. Two weeks later, one of Casey's senior officers approached Reider and said that the general had heard that the Red Team had been pressured to go along with the ink-spot approach by Strmecki. Reider denied it.

In his own post-mortem on the war, which is to be published by National Defense University, it is clear that Casey did not give the Red Team report much weight: he noted only that it made some useful suggestions on how to better integrate the coalition's economic, political, and military efforts.  In December 2005, Casey would hold his own Campaign Progress Review, which concluded that for all the challenges, there were "clear grounds for optimism." (When President Bush opted for a five-brigade "surge" in 2007, Casey still insisted that not all of the forces were needed.)

Still, Khalilzad brought a copy of the Red Team report to Washington and mentioned it to Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security advisor, who suggested that it might be submitted through military channels, a former official recalled. But with Casey opposed to the concept, that was unlikely. A member of the British team passed a copy up his chain of command and it eventually made its way to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. By and large, however, the report vanished from sight.

Too little, too late?

The failure to confront the inconvenient facts about America's faltering strategy in Iraq in 2005 had significant consequences. Bush's eventual decision to begin a military surge in Iraq in 2007 and to appoint Petraeus as commander pulled Iraq out of a worsening civil war. The surge strategy succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation in diminishing Al Qaeda in Iraq and tamping down the sectarian violence. It also served as a catalyst for the Sunni Awakening, which would make its way from Anbar to the area surrounding Baghdad and, finally, to the Iraqi capital itself.

But if the strategy change had come earlier, a longer surge might have led to more progress in establishing a more inclusive Iraqi government and improving the poor performance of Iraq's ministries -- issues that still bedevil Iraq today. Those questions might have been tackled sooner in an improved security environment and when American influence was at its height. An earlier surge might have saved treasure and, more importantly, lives.

The episode also raises some pertinent questions about the Obama administration's strategy today in Afghanistan, where the United States military mounted a surge that ended last week. The transition to an Afghan lead and the closing of American bases is being executed with all of the mechanistic rigidity of the United States' initial Iraq strategy.

I tracked down Reider, who has retired from the Army and teaches at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. What lessons, I asked, did he draw from the episode?

"You always hear senior leaders talking about the need to adapt," he said. "The plan we had in Iraq was not working and people who had worked on that plan did not want to accept that. This was an opportunity to adapt, and we did not take that opportunity."

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