SpyCast 4.12.22
Ep 534 | 4.12.22

"ISIS Leader al-Mawla: Caliph. Scholar. Canary. Snitch." – with Daniel Milton, West Point CTC Director (Part 2 of 2)


Andrew Hammond: Hi. And welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Andrew Hammond: This is the second of a two-parter on the second caliph of Islamic State, al-Mawla, and more particularly, a series of interrogation reports from when he was in U.S. custody in 2008. al-Mawla succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 after the latter was killed during a U.S. raid. But at the time of his capture in 2008, he was an Islamic State deputy governor in Iraq. al-Mawla himself was killed in February of this year in another U.S. raid. 

Andrew Hammond: Our guest again is Dr. Daniel Milton, the director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He is articulate, thoughtful and extremely thorough, which I guess explains why he is the director of research for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. In this episode, we discuss the origin of the name canary caliph - out of 56 tactical interrogation reports, in the first three alone, al-Mawla willingly identified more than 50 names from within his own organization - what kind of organization Islamic State is as an organization - yes, you will find paperwork, process, committees, turf disputes, empire building and all the other things that we associate with an average bureaucracy - and also, how the Combating Terrorism Center's work is on the radar of Islamic extremists. I'd strongly recommend listening to Part 1, obviously, but also checking out the reports for yourself on the CTC website. 

Andrew Hammond: We had this preamble. Well, part of the reason was we're going to discuss the leader of Islamic State - right? - al-Mawla. But I had a look, and I think it was his press release when he took over the leadership. It described him as the scholar, the worker, the worshipper. But basically, these documents show that he's not a scholar, a worker and a worshipper. He's more a snitch, a hypocrite and a phony. Is that correct? 

Daniel Milton: Well, I suppose as any good villain in any movie or spy novel, he's a variety of things. He does have scholarly credentials. He did go through graduate school in Islamic jurisprudence. He was a preacher and a teacher in a mosque. But if that's the only side of his story that is told, we believe that we're missing a significant portion of who he actually is. And that's what these documents were helpful in revealing, is the things that you noted. 

Daniel Milton: When it came down to it, he was willing to give up critical information about individuals in his organization. People that he had spent time with, people that he had served with, he was willing, in the interest of self-preservation, to give up their names and to give up a lot of details about how to find them. That's one of the interesting things, and we can get into it. He's saying, hey, this individual in the organization is important. And this is where his courier usually goes. This is where he usually eat lunch. This is the kind of car that he drives around. And so I think that that's where we start to get a more complete picture of the individual who is, yes, a scholar and a teacher, but also a snitch and willing to, again, give up his compatriots in the interest of hopefully currying some favor for himself. 

Daniel Milton: And, of course, all of these documents - and this is worth noting - all of these documents are being created long before he is also a brutal leader of an organization that carries out terrible acts against a variety of people. And that's another part of the story that I think is important to keep in mind, is these documents are all created well in advance of some of the most horrific things that he oversees in Iraq and Syria in 2013 and 2014. 

Andrew Hammond: Are these documents on the radar of Islamic State? Have they been getting discussed? What's the chatter? Have they just been fobbed off as American propaganda, and they're not real, and they're a creation of the CIA and all the usual types of stuff, or as it been discussed? Because I'm just thinking, if this was the Mafia and these documents came out that you had been cooperating with the FBI and throw your own - people from your own family under the bus, you would be sleeping with the fishies. But - yeah, so - or is that not on their radar? Or is it just being dismissed? 

Daniel Milton: Well, I think some of the things that you mentioned are what - playing out. You know, these documents are out there. And that's part of our organization's desire, is that these documents are out there for people to look at and to scrutinize and to understand and to research. I think that we usually tend to think about these documents as contributing to the terrorism studies community. But I suppose there is also the possibility that they contribute to the own - within the organization, its own understanding of itself and its leaders. 

Daniel Milton: And we do know that in the past, terrorists have been aware of CTC content that we push out. So, for instance, Ayman al-Zawahiri has mentioned - Ayman al-Zawahiri is the the current head of al-Qaida - has mentioned CTC reports by name. We know that when the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was carried out and Osama bin Laden was killed that CTC material was discovered in his home. So to your point, I anticipate that this type of material would make it out to a much broader audience than just the terrorism studies community. And I think that we could consider a number of possibilities about how it would be received. To the point that you made, I'm sure there's some element of, you know, that's just American propaganda. I'm sure there's some element of, even if it's true, it's - maybe it's overemphasized, or maybe whatever. It's only one side of the story. Who knows, right? Maybe there's an element of, hey, the guy was being detained by the Americans. And when that happens, you can say whatever you want to get out. There's actually some precedents in Islamic history for that as being a perspective. 

Daniel Milton: I have to believe, however, that on the other hand, even if you might be inclined to think that it's propaganda or fake, it's got to raise a question in your mind, because in any organization, so much of your ability to be effective is based on your level of trust in the people that sit around you. And if you start to have doubts about the guy sitting next to you, or worse, the guy at the head of the organization, I got to believe that you're going to start to say, hmm, maybe I'm not going to be as committed. Or maybe I'm going to take a step back. Sorry. Short answer to your question is I anticipate that those responses are happening, but I don't know that I have any good gauge of which are more likely. 

Andrew Hammond: And just help us understand again. What's the difference between a tactical interrogation report and a CEM? 

Daniel Milton: OK. So CEM is the umbrella term that we use to describe all types of material that are collected through activities on the battlefield that can help us understand these organizations that are threatening our interests. And so a tactical interrogation report is one subset of CEM. Another subset would be documents - ledgers, letters, things that we pick up. Another subset would be hard drives containing material - pictures, video files, those kinds of things. So CEM is the broader term that we use to describe that material, and a tactical interrogation report would just be one small piece of that collected exploitable material. 

Andrew Hammond: Who was doing these interrogations, and when were they? They were 2008, right? Who was conducting them? And one of the questions some of our listeners may have was, was there any kind of enhanced interrogation involved? 

Daniel Milton: Now, that's a great question. So to speak to the timeframe period, he was captured in January of 2008, and the last of the reports that we released was dated July 2008. In the first iteration of analysis that we did, there were only three of those reports, and that was in September of 2020. Several months later, in early 2021, we were able to release an additional 53 of those reports, so - for a total of 56 that cover that time period that I've described. And the first set of analysis that we did actually contain some of the answers, so we'd certainly refer any listeners to look for more details there, but discusses the interrogation process as well as addresses the concern of enhanced interrogation techniques. 

Daniel Milton: And so to give a brief answer to both of those questions, when the U.S. military detains somebody, there can be interrogations in the moment - right? - that happen. But in Iraq, during this period of time, usually an individual would be transferred to a detainee holding facility where they would be interrogated by members of the Department of Defense or intelligence community. And they would be conducting those sessions, often with an interpreter for obvious reasons. And during this period of time, there was a - because of some of the revelations that came out of Abu Ghraib and other places, there had been a much more stringent effort by the U.S. government to make sure that interrogations were conducted in a manner consistent with the U.S. Army Field Manual, international law, among other things. And so as far as these documents suggest there - it appears to have been a relatively - obviously, there are different power dynamics. One is a detainee. One is an interrogator. But it appears that the sessions were actually quite free-flowing. And in that second set of documents that we released, the 53 reports, you actually see some reflections to that extent where it suggested that the conversation was actually quite cordial. Those are kind of the best answers that I have in a short period of time to those questions. But again, each of the reports that we released offers a little bit more of a discussion about the specific kind of process that was used to generate these types of reports. 

Andrew Hammond: Just help me understand it a little bit more - the 56. So does that mean that he was interrogated 56 times, or he was interrogated a certain amount of times but there were multiple reports that were typed up on the basis of the analysis of those interrogations? Yeah, help me understand that. 

Daniel Milton: Yeah, great question. And so on each of the reports, there's actually a time and date stamp. And so you can get a sense of the rhythm with which some of these things were occurring. And for those of the listeners who are familiar with the idea of interrogation, whether as a military or law enforcement tactic, usually there is an emphasis early on in the process on repeated sessions - right? - to try to ascertain the important information as quickly as possible. And so through the first few weeks of his detention, the reports show essentially about twice a day these sessions were carried out. And so each of those reports represents one session and the summary of kind of findings and discussion from that session. And so, yes, the idea is that, at least these 56 times, there was an individual session held, which I think is probably a pretty important testament to the value that was seen in his material and in his position. I mean, one of the things that's revealed is that for a period of time, this individual served as the deputy governor of the Islamic State's, in Iraq, Mosul operation. And so clearly, there was a lot that was perceived of value in speaking to him so many times. And had he not been giving up valuable information, he wouldn't have been talked to as much as he was. 

Andrew Hammond: And give us a better understanding of who and what he was at this time, al-Mawla. 

Daniel Milton: So at the time of his capture, he was the overall Shariah or Islamic law administrator for the Islamic State in Mosul. He had previously served for a small period of time as the deputy governor before that point. And then before his time as the deputy governor, he was the overall Shariah administrator. And so he returned to that role following his stint as the deputy governor. And so this is a relatively high-ranking individual in the group's hierarchy in that particular city or region. 

Andrew Hammond: I'm going out on a little bit of a limb here, but I read onto some more of his background. And he was a private in the Iraqi army. As far as I understand it, he didn't come from a privileged background. And I wonder, with all of this stuff - the Islamic State and creating a caliphate and stuff - does that also provide an opportunity to transgress the normal social boundaries and social hierarchies where you were a private in the Iraqi army but no one really cares because you're devout and you're a scholar and you know Islamic law, so therefore, the normal rules of old Iraqi nation-state society don't apply in quite the same way, so therefore you can find yourself being the leader? I'm just wondering if there was something going on there with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and with a leader of Islamic State compared to, say, Osama bin Laden, who comes from a very different type of background. 

Daniel Milton: You know, it's a very interesting idea. And to be perfectly honest, I must confess that I don't know that I'd thought about it a lot. But as you describe the question and the thought, I think that there is something to that. His relatively unremarkable background in terms of what had been, I think, valued in the society in which he lived up until that point almost seems quite contrary to the level with which - the level to which he rose within the organization, and I think is an interesting commentary about how, under different organizational structures, different priorities are emphasized. And so clearly, he might not have had the opportunity to rise as high had the group that he joined not been incredibly interested in religion and ideology. And he happened to have those credentials and was able to, in that sense, advance perhaps higher and faster than he would have in a different type of organization. I think there is definitely something to that. 

Daniel Milton: And I also think that one of the things that you get a sense of is the type of experience that he had in the organization was based on his religious studies. So he became a Shariah administrator. And one of my colleagues, Craig Whiteside, who studies this material at the Naval Postgraduate School, has pointed out that it's interesting to look at the documents because they reveal that the group embedded religion into all parts of the organization's function. So you see that an individual who is involved in Shariah administration would have had exposure to the military side, to the media side, to the logistics side because the group valued a religious perspective in how it carried out its propaganda and in how it carried out its military activities. And so it's interesting. The place that he was seemed to be a relatively, I guess, fast-tracked place for him to gain that kind of experience. 

Andrew Hammond: Camp Bucca - I find Camp Bucca quite interesting 'cause I used to work at the 9/11 Museum, and the name comes from Ronald Bucca, a New York fire marshal. And Camp Bucca has been called, in some places, the birthplace of Islamic State. Help us understand the role of Camp Bucca. Was al-Mawla ever at Camp Bucca? Is that how he met Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Is that how he got involved in Islamic State? 

Daniel Milton: So this is an interesting point in terms of his relationship, or potential relationship, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Based on his own relation of his kind of timeline and his experience, it's not possible for him to have met Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in prison. They weren't detained at the same points in time. And so that's an interesting thing that we found right off in the analysis because if you look at a lot of the open-source discussion about him, there is this insinuation that, hey, they were part of this Camp Bucca radicalization network, and this is where it all began. That doesn't seem to be the case from what we learned through the analysis of this material. He wasn't - again, they weren't there at the same time. And so in terms of their meeting at that point in time, it just doesn't seem that the timelines overlap at all, which I thought was an interesting story. It certainly doesn't undercut any of the - Camp Bucca was a difficult place for a lot of reasons and I think, to the point that you made, did play a very large role in the radicalization and the networking that existed among individuals who were going to form a key part of what would become the Islamic State. And so I don't mean to downplay that. I just don't think al-Mawla was a part of that - was in that same network. I think his connections came later on. 

Andrew Hammond: Help us understand a little bit more. Maybe it's something you picked up in these documents, but what kind of organization is Islamic State? Is there a lot of collegiality? Is it a bitchy, competitive system like Imperial Rome? Give us a better understanding of the organizational dynamics, especially when you get to war (inaudible). 

Daniel Milton: It's interesting because - so one of the things that I like to sometimes do with my cadets is discuss these types of documents and the findings that come from them about the organization with them. And it's not uncommon for the cadets to say something like, sir, that sounds a lot like my organization. 

Andrew Hammond: (Laughter). 

Daniel Milton: And my comment to them is, yeah, it's actually not as distinct as you think, right? Obviously, the legitimacy and the purposes are vastly different. But at a fundamental level, and this is one of the things that these documents reveal, an organization is an organization. And you see that coming out in the documents. I mean, there are times when he will describe paperwork processes. There are times when he will describe disputes with colleagues. There were times when he will describe having to fill an organizational role because other people won't do the job. And I think about that and say, OK (laughter); I've seen this in my office, right? And maybe I've actually been (laughter) a part of it sometimes. And so I think we get a sense of it as an organization that exists and has similar struggles as any other organization does. Having said that, clearly, it's a clandestine organization. And so one of the overriding imperatives is security. Individuals are trying to stay alive and not get arrested or killed, and that affects a little bit of the way that you carry out business. I do think that you also see some element of the things that you described. There is competition. There are people who don't like each other. There are people who, you know, he'll describe some of the individuals, particularly the foreign fighters - he seems to describe them with a little bit of an air of distance and disdain. And so I think you end up having a lot of the organizational tensions that you would experience anywhere. From a structure perspective, their organization was created to achieve certain tasks. So there's a military side; there's a media side; there is a logistics side and administration side - the kind of normal functions that you would anticipate an organization that is trying to establish itself as a state having. You see those in embryo, right? The fighting side is more well-developed at this stage in the Islamic State in Iraq's history. But I think you start to see some of the things that ultimately will develop into a much larger and well-defined governance system many years hence. 

Andrew Hammond: When you were talking there, it reminded me a little bit of "Sopranos." And I think that's one of the reasons why "The Sopranos" was so successful - right? - because the Mafia, in some movies, it's just all glamour and glitz. And it's the Copacabana Club in Manhattan, or it's the casino in Vegas in "The Sopranos." It's also about the mundanity of life and insecurities, pettiness, jealousy, snobbery, all of those types of things that humanize but still throws (ph) the moral and ethical character of the organization. And to relief in your sentence, I don't want to push the analogy too far, but it's something similar. 

Daniel Milton: Sure. Yeah. No, I think that's an important recognition. Sometimes, we either paint the organization as larger and more effective than it is. And sometimes, we're paint it as more backwards and unrefined. And what we actually see is that both of those extremes tend to not be particularly borne out by the documents. It's an organization, and it has a lot of the same challenges that each organization runs into, whether it's - as I mentioned earlier - you know, the U.S. Army and my cadets or "The Sopranos" or whatever the case might be, right? I think that there are certainly common themes there. 

Andrew Hammond: Just on extracting information from these documents, tell us a little bit more about that. So we've spoken about personalities, leadership. We've talked about institutional dynamics. How does that all shake out? Who's extracting the information from it? How is a consensus reached? I mean, are you the vetted voice of the U.S. military academy? Or here's what the CTC's lane is on these or - yeah, how does it shake out? Because they can be - I'm sure this is stuff that you go through in your class with your cadets. But they can be interpreted in different ways, which is not to say they can be interpreted in any way you want. But there are different interpretations going on at the level of leadership, at the level of the institution, not the level of how they could (inaudible) to global politics. 

Daniel Milton: Yeah, so I - to be clear, I would never claim to speak as the authoritative voice for the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. government. There are a lot of individuals who have different takes on... 

Andrew Hammond: I'll have to change my introduction there (laughter). I'm just kidding. 

Daniel Milton: That's probably a good thing then. I do want to keep my day job. But no, I - when it comes to understanding what these documents can tell us about this individual, there are going to be multiple interpretations. And we recognized that when we were doing the analysis. And so part of what we tried to do was to assemble a team of other scholars to be able to look at this material. And so we invited a leadership expert, Dr. Gina Ligon, from the University of Nebraska Omaha, who is actually - has more of a business leadership background in industrial psychology. And so she looked at the documents. We invited Dr. Cole Bunzel, who's a noted expert in ideology, to look at these documents. I already mentioned Dr. Craig Whiteside, who has his own military service background and certainly understands, I think, better than anyone some of the - perhaps the military features - and then Dr. Haroro Ingram from George Washington University's Program on Extremism. And so each of us looked at them. And although I think we came up with a relatively consistent interpretation of what these documents told us about him, I also think that there were some points of disagreement or not even disagreement but just different levels of confidence in what the documents could tell us. And I think that that's also an important piece to keep in mind - is these documents are not the total story. I mean, the biography of this guy - these documents are a helpful contributor, but there's still a lot of things that we don't know about him. And so I think that most of us tried to be relatively guarded in making two grand claims about what they told us about him as a leader, his psychology, his approach. Where we could be much more confident was I can count the number of people that he ratted out, right? This is a relatively objective fact. Now, what that tells us about him - maybe we can quibble over that interpretation. But no, we try to approach it with a sense of - or at least I try to approach it for sure with a sense of humility because mine is simply one take. And as an academic, that take might be influenced by my own experience and biases. But hopefully, it ends up being a take that is borne out by more research and time. And if it's not, then that's part of the process, too. 

Andrew Hammond: How many people did he rat out? 

Daniel Milton: So in the first three documents, we counted over 50 names that he had identified. There were more names in the subsequent 53 documents, but I stopped counting. I stopped counting because I just thought, oh man, there's more here. But yeah, at least that many. 

Andrew Hammond: Significant amount. 

Daniel Milton: Oh, yeah. You know, he - one of my colleagues on the project gave the apt name of the Canary Caliph to him because it really did seem that he was just willing to sing, as it were. 

Andrew Hammond: And when you say ratted out, was this in the form of, do you know of Jane Doe? Yeah, sure, I know of her. This is what she does. Gathers up some names, and he was, like, Jane Doe, Jane Brown, Jane Smith. 

Daniel Milton: So both of those things happened. 

Andrew Hammond: Both, OK. 

Daniel Milton: Both of those things happened. From kind of an interrogation perspective, it's not uncommon to come to the table with some information that you either want to validate or have the individual - right? - not validate. And so there certainly appear to have been instances where he was speaking about an individual that was somebody the interrogators wanted him to talk about. But you also get a sense that, in the course of describing his experience in the organization, he was very free and willing to identify individuals. And it wasn't uncommon for him to offer, again, his personal commentary about their job performance or about their physical demeanor and description, and so there's really - it appears to have been a little bit of a - kind of, of both of those things, as you've described. 

Andrew Hammond: And what was the value of this stuff? Is it more for academics, for cadets that are coming through West Point - it's useful information, or did some of it lead to prosecutions, detentions, people being taken out with drones and so forth? Help us understand what the effect of these was so if you've got on one end of the spectrum, you know, how many angels could dance on the head of a pin through to this information means that A, B led to C - like, what are some of the ramifications and the implications of this stuff? What was the effect of what was extracted out? 

Daniel Milton: So prior to the publication of these documents, there was a real air of mystery about him as an individual, and that mystery was pervasive in the academic community, the policy community, whatever the case might be. And so first and foremost, I think these documents just provide a resource for better understanding of this individual who is the head of one of the most notorious and dangerous terrorist organizations in the world, and I think that that's tremendously important. It has also provided, I think, an opportunity for everybody, really - individuals, scholars, the public - to get a window inside these organizations, and I think that that's tremendously helpful from an understanding perspective. We can only fight against these organizations effectively to the extent that we understand them correctly. And these documents are a tremendous help in doing that. And so we've seen these documents be cited in newspapers. As stories are describing him, we've seen these documents be cited in scholarly archives. 

Daniel Milton: I can't make a direct connection simply because I don't know what's happening within the organization at this very moment, but we also have seen some reflections in Islamic State propaganda trying to what I would gauge as buttress his legitimacy. Is that in response to these materials, or is that simply the normal course of events? I don't know, but I find it to be an interesting reflection. And so I think that we hopefully have done a lot to increase awareness and knowledge. As a member of the Combating Terrorism Center, I certainly hope that it has increased the level of tension within the organization and that individuals have started to look and say, huh. Even if I don't really believe the U.S. government - which is fine - if this is true, what does it say? And hopefully, that raising of questions is something that will happen. And so if there's any one thing that we've wanted, I don't know what it would be, but I hope that it achieves a wide range of those things. And of course, from the personal bucket list, the publication of this material has allowed me to be a guest on this excellent podcast, and so... 

Andrew Hammond: (Laughter). 

Daniel Milton: ...You know. 

Andrew Hammond: Well, we've came full circle. 

Daniel Milton: That's right, that's right. 

Andrew Hammond: Well, if our listeners want to educate themselves more about this, they can go to the CTC website and find the documents. Help our listeners understand how they can educate themselves a little bit more about this stuff. 

Daniel Milton: Sure, absolutely. So the first place to go would be to the CTC's website - that's ctc.usma.edu - and they can find both the CTC Sentinel article that we published in September 2020 that kind of first brought these documents to light, and then there is a specific section of the website where they can actually click through and read the documents themselves. All of the tactical interrogation reports have been placed on the website so that people can draw their own conclusions and gain their own understanding. And that's perhaps one of the most exciting things about it, is by bringing these documents to light, I'm sure that there will be people learning things about them that I hadn't even considered. And I think that's part of the value of putting them out there. 

Andrew Hammond: Well, hopefully, we can get you back for some new tranche of documents when they get released further down the line. 

Daniel Milton: Yeah. We can always hope. We can always hope. 

Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much. 

Daniel Milton: Oh, thank you for having me on. This was wonderful conversation. 

Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at spycast@spymuseum.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian. 

Andrew Hammond: This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.