Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Waco in Iraq

My friend Jean Rosenfeld, whose work I've mentioned previously, is a religious-studies researcher at UCLA who specializes in analyzing extremist religious movements and the way religion can inspire violence. She was among the scholars consulted by the FBI during the Freemen standoff in Montana, and counts among her colleagues the scholars consulted by the FBI at Waco (whose recommendations were made to the negotiating team, whose work in turn was ignored by the tactical units that were in charge of the scene there). I also consulted with Jean while I was covering the Freemen standoff in Montana -- which, because the negotiating team was placed in charge, had a dramatically different outcome than that in Waco. (For details, see In God's Country.)

She sees an important parallel in what is now happening in Iraq regarding the Sadrists, and is hoping that the government does not make the same mistakes there that they made at Waco. She recently penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that appears to have been ignored by that paper's editors. So I'm going to publish it in full here.
One of the most difficult problems before and during a critical incident is one of access. The media understands this problem, but perhaps does not know that it is a major problem for people with expertise outside the agencies tasked to handle the incident.

There were experts outside the cordon at Waco who were effectively negotiating David Koresh out of Waco. This is now well documented. One of these experts was very effective during the Freemen crisis when he was brought on site by the FBI.

I have studied both critical incidents and written about them. I was involved in data gathering and sending memos during the Freemen critical incident.

Watch what is happening with al-Sadr in an-Najaf. This is a critical incident writ large of the type my colleagues and I have advised about, studied, and written about over a period of eight years. I am hypothesizing that we risk making the same mistake at an-Najaf with al-Sadr that we made at Waco, unless the knowledge gained from three critical incidents in the U.S. -- the CSA (The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord), Branch Davidian, and Jordan, Montana -- has been transmitted to the U.S. military and CPA and has been incorporated into their strategies and tactics. I seriously doubt that this is the case.

I have written and spoken many times about how a religiously motivated critical incident, or standoff, differs qualitatively and markedly from a criminally-motivated hostage standoff. The latter is the model for defusing critical incidents among law enforcement and CT specialists. They remain uninformed and skeptical about these important differences to this day. The Freemen crisis actually began to unravel after scholars advised the FBI to "get a letter from God" to Gloria Ward that allowed her and her two children to leave the Clark ranch. They did so and she left. I have published an article about the Freemen crisis in a peer-reviewed journal and it was reprinted in the book, Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence, ed. by Catherine Wessinger.

[Coalition spokesman] Dan Senor is reported in the Times [last week] as saying, "The way we look at it is, there is no alternative to getting it (capturing or killing al-Sadr and eradicating the Sadr brigades) done ... If we allow the violence to cause setbacks to the political process, the terrorists and the extremists will have scored an enormous victory."

Aside from Senor's mistakenly mixing the Sadrist crisis up with the al-Zarqawi letter that advocated sparking a Sunni/Shiite civil war -- an agenda peculiar only to al-Zarqawi's foreign jihadists in Iraq and not to any other faction even a faction within al-Qaida that we know of, Senor is taking the very same approach that the Waco tactical commanders took to the Branch Davidians. Negotiators at Waco dissented with the tactical team, but were overruled.

What is not known about Waco is that the final assault plan was amended on the ground by the tactical field commanders on the very day of the assault. That alteration had been discussed and rejected by the FBI brass over several weeks. Nonetheless, the FBI HRT commander, Richard Rogers implemented the rejected plan via a loophole signed by Janet Reno the morning of the final assault on April 19. That alteration was identical to the gassing and demolition plan that two Delta Force advisors seconded to the Justice Dept. in a principals meeting of April 14. Those two advisors supported the rejected plan that was later implemented "hypothetically" in order to conform to the letter of Posse Comitatus law. I also have published a peer-reviewed article with this finding. It is based on government documents--all open source. The rejected plan supported by Jeff Jamar, Richard Rogers, and the two Delta Force officers resulted in a disaster that did not have to happen. It was an ill-advised tactical approach to a religious community that feared that Satan was attacking them.

Those two Delta Force officers were Peter J. Schoomaker and "Jerry" Boykin, now both top officials in the US Army in charge of military planning for the war on terrorism.

So, watch an-Najaf. The religiously-motivated standoff may end with a whimper. Or it may end with a bang. It need not end violently or set off more violence against the US. If al-Sadr is killed, he will become a martyr to Shiites outside of Iraq. We have already seen demonstrations in support of al-Sadr elsewhere in Iraq among Sunnis and elsewhere in the Arab world. Al-Sadr is creating solidarity between Sunni and Shiite activist and militant groups. This is not in the longterm US interest.

I believe that the hard tactical approach being contemplated in an-Najaf, if negotiations now under way do not result in al-Sadr's surrender -- is the same approach contemplated and executed at Waco. Capturing or killing al-Sadr will not neutralize what he is regarded as symbolizing to Shiites angry at "occupiers" in Iraq or in Israel. It will only amplify it. There are better ways to defuse the problem of al-Sadr. We should not take a tactical approach because it suits the politics or flawed strategy of the current administration. We may have to change our strategy in Iraq to accommodate new realities instead. This may be tough political medicine, but it will save us from terrible consequences down the road.

I believe Senor's approach is similar to the tactical one taken at Waco against another "messiah." It resulted in many deaths and a legacy that led us to the "commemoration" atrocity in Oklahoma City. As one of many scholars who study these cases of religion and violence and who have not seen our findings incorporated into law enforcement (we did have some input into the FBI's millennium approach) or the military, I am very concerned that the standoff in an-Najaf has the potential to become "another Waco."

The wild card at an-Najaf is religion -- a factor very few experts in fields other than ours fully understand and weigh in their calculations and strategies in these alarming and perplexing incidents.

So, please watch an-Najaf. Consult with knowledgeable experts outside the military cordon there, people who know what al-Sadr represents. He is not in league with Iran. SCIRI is closer to Iran. He is an Iraqi nationalist. He is a puritanical, orthodox Shiite. He does want political representation. We have mistakenly isolated him and his oppressed, impoverished, young supporters. That was dumb, but we should not now be dumber by making him a martyr in the Shiite fundamentalist pantheon.

It is worth observing, of course, that (as Atrios notes) the coalition appears determined to make this mistake, since its official stance is that "The mission of U.S. forces is to kill or capture Moqtada al-Sadr."

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