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Q&A: Malcolm Nance on U.S. security and ISIS, a future ’ghost caliphate’

Intelligence expert, ex-soldier and author Malcolm Nance discusses Donald Trump, Michael Flynn, and the Quebec mosque shooting
Alexander Bisley
Malcolm Nance on active duty.
Malcolm Nance on active duty.

“If you’ve read books like The Terrorists of Iraq and Defeating ISIS, you know Malcolm [Nance]’s expertise,” Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian’s U.S. national security editor, wrote in the foreword of The Plot to Hack America. That book, which came out in September, and was dedicated to Captain Humayun Khan, the late American solider whose sacrifice came to symbolize Trump’s disqualifying bigotry—was prescient about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Nance’s expertise comes from on-the-ground experience; he is an American military, intelligence, counterterrorism, and national-security lifer, with vivid service in the Middle East. He has a reputation for integrity, having publicly opposed waterboarding since his 2007 congressional testimony against it. Nance, whose insightful commentary sees him a regular analyst on MSNBC, also has the fraternal dark humour of a man who has experienced some tough situations.

Maclean’s spoke to Nance ahead of the release of his new book, Hacking ISIS: Destroying Cyber Jihad, which is out now. Our discussion—which has been edited and condensed—included Syria, ISIS as a ghost caliphate, Sean Hannity’s incipient neo-fascism, and terror in Canada.

Q: You and Larry Wilmore took down Milo Yiannopoulos on Bill Maher’s show. Maher recently told me that Trump’s presidency is the Republicans’ “chickens coming home to roost.”

A: The United States is going to suffer horribly for it, and it’s not going to end well [laughs]. It could end pretty bad for all of us actually, both rhetorically and literally. Yes it’s the Republicans’ “chickens coming home to roost.” They wanted to dumb down their constituency, and their strategy of eight years of no compromise, they’re big on the Heckler & Koch submachine gun motto ‘No Compromise!’, ‘Keine Kompromisse!’ Their strategy—of the only way to win is to be harder to the right than anyone is on the right—won!

Q: What’s going on with Trump and Syria?

A: I’ve been involved in air strikes against Syria and operations against Syria numerous times in my career. I was a part of the planning and attack package intelligence team for the strike against Syria in 1983—in which we lost a pilot and had another one captured until Jesse Jackson got him out—and numerous other operations against Syria both before the Iraq war and during the insurgency. One of the most missed components of the entire insurgency in Iraq was that Syria and Bashar al-Assad facilitated Al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq. They actually headquartered the Iraq Ba’ath Party and all of their escaped generals in Damascus. They ran a thing called the National Council of the Islamic Resistance. I wrote a whole book on the Iraq insurgency; Bashar al-Assad helped kill thousands of Americans.

Trump might be sincere [about opposing Syrian children suffering] because Ivanka came into the Oval Office and said “Daddy, look at these poor children dying.” But Trump was endorsing Russia’s strategy, which literally for one year pounded every medical facility in the rebel-held territory to dust, killing virtually all the doctors and patients. And then Assad went after all the White Helmet facilities, any public rescue facilities, and killed all the infrastructure, which was a Putin-in-Chechnya strategy to suppress the masses and take away all of their infrastructure that would give life support infrastructure. Trump endorsed that when he said that we should help Russia continue that. So now to suddenly turn against them, this isn’t going to end well.

Q: Meanwhile, “moderate Republicans” have said they won’t let one Syrian child refugee into America. I struggle to take them seriously.

A: No, you can’t, you cannot take them seriously. Suddenly you had Rex Tillerson talking tough about Syria and Nikki Haley talking tough about Syria. It was a relatively low-grade attack compared to some of the other operations. They killed thousands of people bombing Aleppo into submission. Trump had no problem with that. It’s just hypocrisy at its finest. It’s going to get ugly. Trump’s at 34 per cent approval, he needs this desperately. He’s wagging the dog.

Q: You were also prescient with your book The Plot to Hack America, in that Russia interfered in the presidential election. Your Flynn-tuition that Michael T. would be the first to spill on Trump campaign-Putin regime connections appeared vindicated a few days later, given his attorney’s statement that “General Flynn certainly has a story to tell.”

A: With 35 years of experience, I understand a counter-intelligence investigation, understand the machine that’s working behind it. As soon as I heard Flynn made a phone call to the Russians, whole sections of that machine have to move. We’re on the other end of the line, it’s a third-party conversation.

Trump and Flynn, these guys are acting buggy. Trump doesn’t understand the counterintelligence process. Take, for example, Carter Page. He’s been appearing on television and acting as though the U.S. intelligence community monitoring his activities in Russia and suspicions that he may have been in league with Russian intelligence is an affront. He fails to understand that we have the capacity, given a FISA warrant, to take you apart, right? To treat you like a foreign intelligence agent, which means all your constitutional rights go out the window.

Q: Does Trump know anything about ISIS?

A: No, not a thing.

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. (AP)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. (AP)

Q: What do you hope people take away from your new book, Hacking ISIS: How to Destroy the Cyber Jihad? 

A: Hacking ISIS was actually started before The Plot to Hack America, and this is where I learned about the Russian cyberwarfare malware packages, APT28, Cozy Bear, Fancy Bear. Hacking ISIS—the big takeaway is what’s going to happen. ISIS is having its Okinawa moment. It’s about to be destroyed. That’s all there is to it: it’s going away, period.

ISIS is going to devolve from this physical political emirate, into what Al Qaeda was, which is a covert organization which will go completely underground. But to communicate and to keep propagating their propaganda, after everyone is dead, all their fanboys and whatever surviving leadership that has been operating outside the war or operates in Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, they will form what we call a “ghost caliphate.” The ghost caliphate will be a virtual organization; it’ll be decentralised, with no leadership, and it will just encourage people to keep acting now that the caliphate’s gone, that individuals should go do self-starting jihad. Get a gun, get an improvised weapon, take your car, and carry out the jihad.

The attack on the Bataclan in Paris cost $57 per victim. The attacks in Nice and London, much less. As they devolve, there’s no money to track. They’re not doing gigantic international finance.

There’s really no money to track at the individual level where some kid in Auckland who’s been watching Jihadi videos and playing the terrorist side in Call of Duty just suddenly decides he wants to live out his fantasies, gets his dad’s shotgun and goes to the mall or gets a car and drives into a bus stop. Very hard to predict and kill that ideology. This ideology of theirs is insidious. Once it’s in your head it’s hard to get it out because people with mental defects are naturally drawn to this, wanting to be a hero, and that’s what they’re offering them. Heroism in paradise, for any idiot whether he’s a Muslim or not. There’s going to be a ghost caliphate, and it’s going to be way harder to stop terrorist attacks.

APR24_BISLEY_POST02Q: What can countries do better on terror?

A: Between 2008 and 2010, I wrote a book called An End to Al Qaeda—you can now get it for a dollar on Amazon. It was a 350-page breakout of Al Qaeda’s ideology: how it was un-Islamic, and how you could attack the framing of their apostasy, of their cultishness, to break their ideology. And I repeated it again in Defeating ISIS that these are not religious groups, these are cults. There have been cults in Islamic history before, there have been four major cults before. In the Islamic world, the Muslim world took care of it, right? The 6th century, the 12th century, the 19th century and in 1979. They took care of it.

I kept and keep saying, we have to encourage the ideological battle; the battle for the soul of Islam has to be carried out where Muslims engage them as Muslims. But ISIS rules Muslim apostates every day and then beheads them. Poorly educated guys get Islam for Dummies, petty criminals who think they’re suddenly changing their lives because they see the light. The best way to fight them is to show them they don’t know Islam at all, and that they are in fact working for the other side. The average Muslim that I say this to, they go, “You’re absolutely right!”

I called it a “Return to Islam movement.” You have to harness the entire Muslim world, and Indonesia did a good job of this. They had their largest Muslim union in Indonesia two years ago, fifteen million Muslims, all rejected publicly ISIS’s ideology, right? And they had put out their own da’wah. Da’wah is the evangelical call to come to God. They put out their own da’wah: “Return to Islam, stop what you’re doing.” That’s a very powerful weapons system. We refuse to deploy it in the United States; we keep going, “Well, we’re not Muslim so we can’t talk about Islam.” Yes we can.

This is a battle for the soul of the Muslims who are and have been misled by ISIS. You will not convert ISIS members; they are irreconcilable. They will die. But the guy who’s selling them water, you can peel him away to the point where he won’t sell them water at risk of his own soul.

Now you have Donald Trump ready to execute policy on the basis that the Muslims are the problem, not ISIS. Oh Jesus, it’s a circular firing squad.

Q: Just after Trump took office, the Islamophobic Alexandre Bissonnette killed six people at a Québec City mosque.

A: It annoys me right-wing extremism is not equated to Islamic extremism. I’ve written seven books thus far, six of which are on terrorism, including my first book Terrorist Recognition Handbook which is a standard law enforcement textbook at the FBI, the CIA, and other law enforcement training centres. I have to hammer that there’s only two classes of people: terrorists and non-terrorists. Terrorists come in every flavour: there are Buddhist terrorists right now killing Rohingya in Burma! Buddhists! They’re not allowed to kill bugs.

That kid up in Canada, Bissonnette, was a Canadian terrorist who carried out a lone wolf operation. There is no difference between an ISIS gunman and an American gunman that goes into a mosque, or the gunman Baruch Goldstein who went into the mosque in Bethlehem and killed 29 guys about fifteen years ago. Goldstein took his service weapon and tried to kill everybody in the mosque. He shot over a hundred people. There’s no monopoly on terrorism. Terrorism experts know this and we live according to that.

Alexandre Bissonnette is escorted to a van after appearing in court for the deadly shooting at a mosque, Monday, January 30, 2017 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)
Alexandre Bissonnette is escorted to a van after appearing in court for the deadly shooting at a mosque, Monday, January 30, 2017 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

Q: The Trump administration decided the government’s Countering Violent Extremism program is only going to target Islamists.

A: That’s extremely scary. First off, it’s straight-up racist, and bigoted. Second off, it does not meet any of the professional requirements that intelligence needs in order to break extremism. If suddenly there’s an outbreak of Christian, right-wing, white-supremacist violence in the United States?

As you know, Osama bin Laden himself believed in Samuel Huntington’s philosophy of the clash of civilizations. Bin Laden felt that Islam and the West were due for a clash of civilization, and that’s why he did the 9/11 attack. He wanted to lure the United States into having a war with all of Islam. And then Islam would fall under the knights of Al Qaeda and now ISIS. Donald Trump and some of his senior advisors like Steve Bannon and General Flynn, they believe in the clash of civilizations and they are trying to provoke one. Bin Laden beats us from the grave because they have adopted his philosophy.

Q: Netflix had a sobering documentary about Timothy McVeigh blowing up Oklahoma City’s Federal Building. Guys like Timothy McVeigh and Dylann Roof are out there, angry and capable of mayhem.

A: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Timothy McVeigh blew up that building in the belief that it was a signal to all white US soldiers to go get their guns out of the armory and mass murder all the blacks and Hispanics in the military, and create a white state. That stuff now is said on Stormfront and Infowars, as if its common sense. The inaction by the Trump administration is facilitating their beliefs and are making them feel like they have the United States government on their side. It’s only a matter of time before somebody executes that McVeigh [bombing] idea again.

Q: Trump has gone on Infowars and hailed Alex Jones as having an “amazing reputation.”

A: Yeah, can you believe that? It’s just insane. When Trump is over and done with, there will be laws passed to limit the hell out of a president, to get them to have psychological workups and things like that. Mark my words.

Q: Garry Kasparov says Trump aspires to be a Vladimir Putin-style tyrant. Do you agree?

A: Trump wants to be an autocrat, he does want to be a Vladimir Putin-style ruler. His chief strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, is a follower of Alexander Dugin. Dugin believes liberal democracy should be destroyed and it should be destroyed from the right, and an alliance of autocracy should form between the United States, Europe and Russia, in order to confront Islam.

Q: What’s your response to Sean Hannity’s call for America’s intelligence agencies to be purged?

A: That’s insane! It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever heard. It’s bad enough they’re putting political commissars into each government agency. There’s going to be a reckoning in all of this, the backlash on this will be brutal and swift, people like Hannity are going to be called out for what they are, which is people who do not believe in American liberal democracy. I was born and raised and steeped in liberal democracy, in Philadelphia. Independence Hall is my playground. When I’m upset, I go sit behind it and just give it some thoughts about the values this country was built on. What men risk their lives and treasure on. Hannity’s statements like that are really the first stages of fascism.

Q: Any advice for Canada on terrorism?

A: The problem that Canada will have to deal with is people who have gone over to ISIS, particularly women and children who are the dependents of ISIS fighters. Canada’s laws probably can’t remove their ability to return, but you’re talking women who have been indoctrinated into the ideology and who could form their own Black Widow brigades, right? Reintegration programs for them have been poor. Female fighters returning from war and their children under the age of ten, some of whom may have actually taken part in combat, or at least the training of the Ashbal daj, right? The daj tiger cubs. It’s going to be difficult for Canada to reintegrate them. But it’s been done in other places, Liberia, Sierra Leone.

Few of these men are coming back alive. Most ISIS members are irreconcilable. Once they’ve bitten that bug, that cultish bug, they would prefer to die. They’re going to be given the opportunity, no one’s going to get out alive from Iraq and Syria now. They make sure everyone’s a suicide bomber now. It’s Okinawa. But the women and children coming home? It’s going to be a massive dilemma. The Russians have had to deal with that, with the Chechen Black Widows. Those are some hardcore women. Mia Bloom at the University of Georgia, she’s the best person to talk to about that subject, that’s a whole article in and of itself.

Q: Do you think Trump’s going to remain president for four years?

A: Nah. He will not resign. But the allegations that are arrayed right now! The corruption is in our face. He changed his trust, supposed to have been a blind trust, which it was not, he changed it so that he could withdraw profits personally at any time from facilities that are being paid by the United States. It’s corrupt.

Alexander Bisley has been (occasionally) writing on the Middle East for over a decade, and reported from Lebanon in 2012. He’d be more critical of Robert Fisk these days.