Meet the Shadow Warrior Leading the Fight Against the Islamic State
Major General Mike Nagata predicted the rise of the militants. Can he train enough rebels to defeat them?
About 18 months ago, the two most senior U.S. military officers involved in counterterrorism operations in the Middle East sat with several other flag officers in a room at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and listened as Maj. Gen. Mike Nagata told them their worlds were about to come undone.
Nagata was — and is — the boss of the special operations component of U.S. Central Command. One of the four-star officers to whom he was speaking was his direct boss, Gen. Lloyd Austin, Centcom’s commander. Another was Adm. Bill McRaven, then the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, which shares MacDill with Centcom.
The occasion was a conference at McRaven’s headquarters where Nagata was to brief the senior commanders on the Middle East and what his forces might need there. “Mike Nagata basically stood up and told them that Syria and Yemen and Iraq were coming apart at the seams,” said another special operations officer in the room, whose account was confirmed by a former senior intelligence official who also attended the meeting. This was in 2013, before the Islamic State had made its huge territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, and prior to Shiite Houthi rebels sweeping across Yemen, forcing the U.S.-allied government from power. But the passage of time has proved the two-star general with owlish features correct. “Fast-forward 18 months to where we are today,” the special operations officer said, “and Nagata was spot on.”
Today, Nagata is a key player in the administration’s tortured debate about how significant a role the U.S. military should play in the fight against the Islamic State. From Jordan, he oversees the Defense Department’s effort to train and equip the moderate Syrian rebels whom Washington sees as its best chance of gradually beating back the Islamic State without the use of American ground combat forces, an option U.S. President Barack Obama has flatly rejected. Instead, Obama has sent about 3,000 troops to Iraq in an effort to retrain the beleaguered Iraqi military and raise a new force of tribal fighters. Meanwhile, 5th Special Forces Group is ramping up efforts in the Middle East aimed at training more than 5,000 Syrian rebels a year in Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and, perhaps, Jordan.
The Obama administration waited more than two years to take even these limited steps against the Islamic State, a delay that many senior military officers found frustrating. That frustration began with the administration’s decision to pull all U.S. forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011, a policy that ignored “the best advice that DoD was providing the administration,” a former special operations officer who participated in some of the discussions said, adding that the military had provided the administration with options short of complete withdrawal. “We knew there was little appetite [in the administration] for a huge presence, but we said we knew from our extensive experience with the Iraqis and really the region that if there weren’t advisors left on the ground, there was little chance of long-term success,” he said, adding that Nagata’s was one of a chorus of military voices making this point.
In the absence of a U.S. military presence on the ground, the CIA has been running a small program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, while U.S. air power has been bombing Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria. But within tight government circles, Nagata has been arguing for a much more vigorous military response to the rise of the Islamic State, according to the former special operations officer who participated in some of the discussions, and a special operations officer assigned to the Pentagon. “He always saw this as an industrial-size problem and that picking away at it with little, disparate programs across the government wasn’t really going to solve it,” the former special ops officer said. The Defense Department, Nagata would argue, “can’t continue to be on the sidelines.” Beyond these broad points, however, Nagata “was always very careful to make sure it didn’t look like he was trying to write the policy,” the former officer said. “He just wanted to advise the policy.”
But the pressure for a more robust U.S. role is growing as the Islamic State has proved stubbornly difficult to dislodge from the broad expanse of territory it controls across northeastern Syria and northern Iraq. In recent weeks, the militants have scored an important victory over Syrian rebels northeast of Damascus and pushed closer to Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s restive Anbar province and one of the country’s most strategically-important cities.
Senior Pentagon commanders have acknowledged that the current American strategy of bombing the group from the air while trying to build up local forces on the ground may not pay off for months, or possibly years. Nagata is the man charged with making the training initiative operate as smoothly as possible — and, if his past is any indication, bluntly telling policymakers what parts of it may need to change.
His advocates, of whom there are many in military circles, hope Nagata’s record of foresight will lend credibility to his message. “He called this,” said the special operations officer who attended the meeting in Tampa, one of more than a dozen current and former military officials interviewed for this article. “He was Nostradamus, man.”
The question now is whether Nagata’s higher-ups inside the Defense Department and the White House will finally be willing to listen.
Mike Nagata, the son of an Army colonel, has been warning about the threat of Islamic extremism in general — and the rise of the organization that became the Islamic State in particular — for a long time.
In his previous job, as the special operations advisor to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Mike made similar comments during deputies and principals meetings in the White House,” the former senior intelligence official said. Senior representatives of the State Department, National Security Council, and, sometimes, the CIA reacted in patronizing fashion. It was a “‘we got it, Mike, we appreciate your interest in national security’ kind of thing,” the former official said. “It didn’t meet the political agenda of the White House.”
Even as his predictions have come true, Nagata has continued to confound and, in some cases, irritate those above him. When the New York Times reported in late 2014 that he had “assembled an unofficial brain trust” from experts in industry, academia, and think tanks, his bosses were miffed. “That got Mike in a lot of hot water,” said the former senior intelligence official. “Mike’s been told, ‘Lay low, stay out of the limelight.… Shut up and do your job.’” Sure enough, Nagata, who is married with five children, declined or did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.
Meanwhile, Nagata has been charged with training the Syrian rebels, a position that a man who served with Nagata as a junior officer called “one of the toughest jobs in the Army.” Yet it’s a position in which Nagata is apparently considered so essential that on April 15 Centcom publicly refuted a Bloomberg View story saying he would leave his position in May or June. Central Command spokesman Maj. Curtis Kellogg told Foreign Policy that Nagata would retain both of his roles: head of special operations for Central Command and commander of the train-and-equip mission.
Nagata’s entire 23-year career has been building toward this challenge. He has displayed a Forrest Gump-like tendency to show up at key moments in U.S. special operations history — in Mogadishu for the bloody “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993 that left 18 Americans dead, hunting Balkan war criminals later in the 1990s, in Iraq for the campaign against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda offshoot during the middle of the last decade, and in Pakistan at the time of the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden — while impressing people with his intellect and his blunt honesty.
“He’s got the strongest reputation of anybody I know,” said retired Special Forces Lt. Col. Mark Haselton, who served with Nagata in 1st Special Forces Group. “He’s got an incredible reputation for being a straight shooter [and] a visionary thinker. He’s always been sort of ahead of the curve on everything.”
Like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal before him, Nagata knows how to maneuver his way through official Washington. “Nagata is very much an animal of the Beltway, very connected up here,” said a special operations officer in Washington.
But as Nagata followed a career path that produced what more than one source described as a “different” type of general, one equally comfortable chatting with the heads of congressional committees or conducting high-altitude, low-opening (HALO) military free-fall jumps, he did so largely under the radar of most within special operations, let alone the wider military and national security communities. His low profile owed much to the fact that more than 10 of the 17 years he spent in the Army before pinning on his first star were served in one of the military’s most secret special-mission units, an outfit whose mission, said Jim Reese, a former officer in the secret-but-not-quite-as-secret Delta Force, “is hunting shadows.”
A Georgia State University graduate with a degree in physical therapy, Nagata was commissioned as an Army infantry lieutenant in 1982. But after a year as a platoon leader in South Korea and five months at the Special Forces Qualification Course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he took command of an A-team in 1st Special Forces Group in Fort Lewis, Washington. Nagata soon gained a reputation for coolness under pressure, and for a wry sense of humor.
Haselton, the retired Special Forces lieutenant colonel, saw both qualities up close one day in late 1990 when, as a major, he and Nagata, a captain, were on the receiving end of a tirade from a Special Forces battalion commander in Okinawa, Japan. Almost 25 years later, Haselton can no longer remember exactly what had angered the battalion commander, but he recalls standing at parade rest beside Nagata in the commander’s small, windowless office as their boss worked himself into such a frenzy that “spit was flying out of his mouth.”
“About three-quarters of the way into the worst ass-chewing I’ve ever had, Nagata pulled his hand up and looked at his watch,” Haselton continued. That sent the commander over the edge. “Nagata, what the fuck are you doing?!” he yelled, according to Haselton. “Am I boring you?” Nagata had a quick response. “Sir, I just want to check the exact time my career came to an end,” Nagata replied, instantly defusing the situation with humor. “We all started laughing and it was over,” Haselton said.
Shortly after the watch-checking episode, Nagata took a step that would decide the course of much of his future career by volunteering for, and passing, the assessment and selection for one of the most secret units in the U.S. military. Formed in 1980 as the Field Operations Group, before becoming the Intelligence Support Activity and later (as listed on Nagata’s unclassified Army résumé) the U.S. Army Office of Military Support, the unit is headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and conducts signals and human intelligence.
Nagata, whose father was a military intelligence officer, initially stood out there, though not necessarily for the reasons he might have wanted. While he was “obviously a bright guy,” said then-Col. William “Jerry” Boykin, who commanded Delta Force, which often worked with Nagata’s unit in the field, that unit was full of “very professional and good people, so he didn’t stand out among them, other than the fact he was Asian, and you noticed that to begin with, because back in ‘91 you didn’t see that many Asians in the special operations units.”
While on his first tour at Fort Belvoir, Nagata deployed to Somalia in 1993, where he worked closely with the CIA, functioning as the liaison between the chief of station in Mogadishu and Task Force Ranger, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) task force given the mission to hunt down the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. “He was the [CIA] chief of station’s right-hand man,” said Boykin, who deployed as the Delta Force commander. (Like others interviewed for this article, Boykin spoke only in the vaguest of terms about Nagata’s unit.)
Aidid’s men shot down two Task Force Ranger MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters on Oct. 3, 1993, precipitating a vicious battle that raged across the city and into the next day, leaving 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis dead. Nagata and a couple of colleagues made sure Boykin knew they were ready and willing to go to the aid of their comrades. “As soon as the shooting started they kind of told the chief of station in so many words, ‘We’re going to fight,’” Boykin said. Task Force Ranger was located at Mogadishu’s airport, while the CIA station was in another compound about five kilometers away, but somehow Nagata and his colleagues made the dangerous trip between the two locations. “They kind of popped up at the base there and said, ‘Hey, we’re here; we’ve got our stuff together; we’re ready to go’ — kind of like ‘Put me in, coach,’” Boykin said, adding that in the end he thought Nagata’s role with the CIA was considered too important for him to be thrown into combat.
Nonetheless, as Task Force Ranger veterans rose disproportionately to some of the most senior positions in the special operations community over the next 20 years, Nagata often found himself working with and for people with whom he’d built a relationship of trust many years previously. In the meantime, he continued to build his reputation inside his unit and the other units and organizations with which he worked closely, including the CIA, in part by outworking his peers. “Deeply religious,” according to a soldier who worked for him at Fort Belvoir, Nagata had little time for drinking or partying, said a retired officer who was a peer of Nagata as a junior officer. “He was very focused on work all the time,” said the retired officer. “Every briefing we did,” no matter how easy, the retired officer recalled, “he would always rehearse and practice.” Like many sources interviewed for this article, the retired officer requested anonymity in order to speak freely about an officer who spent so much time in a unit that the military does not acknowledge exists.
In 1997 Boykin took over Joint Task Force Amber Star, which was based in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and was charged with hunting Balkan war criminals. He soon reached back to the States and made a by-name request for Nagata — by now a major and on his second tour at Belvoir — to join the effort.
While there, Nagata and another operative from his unit took the time to school some Navy SEALs who were part of the task force in martial arts. “I know this: He is one jiu-jitsu bad motherfucker,” said a former 10th Special Forces Group officer who observed some of these sessions. “I did martial arts for 17 years. Mike Nagata will put you in a hospital faster than you can blink … and orthopedic dudes will be there for weeks trying to put you back together.”
Nagata and his colleague from Fort Belvoir would teach the SEALs how to control dangerous situations without using weapons. “They said, ‘Look, when you’re in close with people you have to use your hands,’” said the former 10th Group officer, likening the fighting to a Bruce Lee movie. “They would just dismantle six SEALs in about three seconds.”
Nagata commanded a battalion that helped run the Special Forces Qualification Course and then in 2000 began a two-year tour as a squadron commander with the Fort Belvoir unit, before spending a year at the National War College in Washington. His next assignment kept him in the Washington area. Boykin, his old boss from the Balkan war criminal hunt, brought him into the Pentagon to work in the office of Stephen Cambone, the first undersecretary of defense for intelligence, a position created by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the aim of empowering military intelligence organizations.
One mission that the new office took on was to figure out exactly what intelligence-collection authorities the defense secretary enjoyed. The conclusion was that the secretary had far more power, and owed far less deference to the CIA, than had previously been assumed. That helped expand the opportunities for Nagata’s old special-mission unit at Fort Belvoir to conduct clandestine operations in countries in which the United States was not at war. This was something that Nagata, by now an expert in the intricate legalisms of clandestine and covert operations, particularly as they related to human intelligence (humint), got to experience firsthand in his next assignment when he became the unit’s commander in 2005.
“We thought we had fixed humint, but his people were on the front lines there and they were the ones that had to really live with what we considered to be the fixes,” Boykin said. As Nagata’s troops fanned out across the world, often undercover, he faced the challenge of coordinating the Pentagon’s new, more muscular approach to humint collection with the CIA’s station chiefs, “while not conceding any authority to them,” Boykin said.
Nagata had returned to Fort Belvoir at a key juncture in the special-mission unit’s history. Rumsfeld had taken the unit from Army Intelligence and Security Command and had placed it under U.S. Special Operations Command, with operational control of the unit given to JSOC, making it easier for the unit to function as part of JSOC task forces. It was now known within JSOC as Task Force Orange, often abbreviated to just Orange. Nagata was the first officer to command it since the early 1980s who hadn’t spent his career in military intelligence.
Meanwhile, then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, JSOC’s commander, had handed Orange enormous responsibilities, tasking it to contribute to his task forces in Afghanistan and Iraq while conducting other clandestine and covert missions around the world, particularly in the Levant and the Horn of Africa, where unit operatives accompanied CIA case officers into Somalia to emplace signals-intelligence gear and to buy the allegiance of warlords in the fight against Islamist guerrillas. Nagata “was certainly confronted with an optempo … that was just incredible,” Boykin said. “It was blistering.”
Nagata commanded Orange for three years and also contributed to a revolution that McChrystal was unleashing inside JSOC, turning a command created to conduct short, set-piece missions into a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week killing machine in which operators would mount a raid and then, based on the intelligence gained at the scene, immediately launch another one. Key to the transformation was an effort to link the previously insular command with other military and civilian organizations by placing liaison officers in them and also inviting them to put representatives in the JSOC task forces and participate in the daily video-teleconferences McChrystal hosted. This aggressive networking was a key factor behind the exponential increase in operational tempo that McChrystal oversaw as his task force fought a grinding campaign against al Qaeda in Iraq. Indeed, Nagata was the architect of the JSOC concept that “it takes a network to defeat a network,” later popularized by McChrystal, according to the soldier who worked under Nagata at Fort Belvoir and who described him as “undoubtedly the smartest Special Forces officer I worked for in 26 years in uniform.” McChrystal himself gently demurred on this point, while paying tribute to Nagata. “There was not a single architect of the ‘it takes a network’ concept; it was the effort of a collection of individuals of various ranks and positions (including Mike Nagata) across the command,” he said. “Mike Nagata, however, became one of its most effective practitioners … [and] is one of the best soldiers I’ve ever known.”
This sort of admiration bordering on affection for Nagata is common among those who have worked around him, though several stress that the officer can be so demanding that he can sometimes overlook the toll the high-risk missions take on those serving beneath him.
The soldier who worked under Nagata at Fort Belvoir (and who is now retired) cited an example of an Orange operative who was deployed alone to a dangerous location, but whose marriage was falling apart back home. Nagata insisted that he complete his tour abroad. “He was the only guy that had a visa in this particular place,” the retired soldier said. Some of the unit’s senior noncommissioned officers “were really upset about him not getting a chance to come home and fix his family.”
Nagata “turned around and said, ‘You know what? Here’s the deal: If I’m willing to risk his life doing what he’s doing, I want him to risk his marriage.’”
Assisting Nagata through the first half of his command tour was his senior enlisted advisor, Command Sgt. Maj. Garry Reid. “Garry and Mike went back to when Garry was a troop sergeant major when Mike came to the unit,” the soldier who served under Nagata at Fort Belvoir said. Reid retired halfway through Nagata’s command tour and went straight into the upper ranks of the Defense Department’s civilian service. He is now a senior official in the office of the outgoing undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Michael Vickers, giving Nagata another ally in a key position of influence.
His deep relationships with senior CIA officials were another advantage Nagata brought to his command at Orange. This made it harder for other CIA officers in the field to win turf fights with him, said the soldier who served under him. “He made a lot of dudes in CIA very uncomfortable, because he saw through their veil of tears, he saw through their cloud of BS,” the retired soldier said. “And he had the ability to pick up a telephone and calls somebody in that building and say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m having a problem with your guy.’ And that was very effective … and he still has those relationships to this day.”
Asked for the CIA’s view of Nagata, a senior CIA official replied: “General Nagata is a consummate professional, a truly strategic thinker, and one of DoD’s finest officers.”
Nagata’s next job gave him the opportunity to broaden and deepen his understanding of how the CIA worked: a posting to the agency’s Langley headquarters as the deputy director for defense at the Counterterrorism Center. “He grasped the landscape very quickly,” said one of his former bosses, who attended numerous meetings with Nagata during that period. “He wasn’t enthralled by the CIA culture or overwhelmed by what people threw at him,” the former boss said. “He had as good a sense of the world, or better, than the people in that building.”
In October 2009, Nagata pinned on his first star, making him what one special operations source said was the first commander of the Fort Belvoir special-mission unit to make general. His atypical résumé has become an asset. “He knows the Beltway; he knew the building; he knew the agencies,” and the CIA in particular, a retired special operations colonel said. “He’s a unique general officer in that regard.”
Even Nagata’s greatest supporters acknowledge that he can be long-winded both in speaking and in writing, which can turn off some of his more action-oriented peers. “Instead of telling you the time, he’ll tell you how to build the watch,” said the retired special ops colonel. “He’s not as concise in his delivery as he probably should be.”
An officer who commanded another JSOC unit when Nagata was in command at Fort Belvoir said he didn’t see “Nagata as a warrior, or as a warrior leader.”
“He is a brilliant interlocutor who talks and sends emails forever,” the officer added, though he said Nagata was “respectful” and “thoughtful.”
Following his tour at the CIA, Nagata was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, where he was the deputy chief for operations in the Office of the Defense Representative, Pakistan. He was there between July 2009 and September 2011, a period that encompassed the Navy SEALs’ raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Nagata’s past work with the CIA and his command of one of the military’s most secret units invited speculation that he was involved with the raid, but no sources interviewed for this article said they knew anything about him having anything to do with the bin Laden mission.
Nagata’s performance in Pakistan was “absolutely brilliant,” said a retired special operations officer who dealt with the general while he was posted to Islamabad. Pakistan is a notoriously difficult work environment for U.S. government officials, particularly those from the military. “People just did not understand the culture and the politics that you had to work your way through [there], and Nagata got it in spades,” he said. Nagata was able to bring his deep understanding of other government agencies to bear, excelling as a “conductor” able to orchestrate those agencies “to do things they’d never been designed to do” by leveraging “other people’s authorities and other people’s monies,” the retired special ops officer said.
After a year and a half as the special operations advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Nagata took command of Centcom’s special operations component (officially, Special Operations Command Central) in June 2013 and carried on where he’d left off in Washington, telling his peers and, especially, his bosses what they didn’t want to hear. “What he was advising is that we have to take far more seriously the rise of the ISIL crowd,” said the former senior intelligence official, using the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. His willingness to deliver this message, as he did to McRaven, Austin, and other senior leaders at MacDill in the fall of 2013, was evidence of his “moral courage,” said the special operations officer who was in the room when Nagata warned that Iraq, Syria, and Yemen were on the verge of coming apart.
“Good for him, because he had the … moral courage to stand up in a room of four-stars and tell them exactly what he thought,” said the special operations officer. “He basically said, ‘Look, we’re on our asses, gentlemen,’” to his bosses, the officer said. “Do you know the amount of balls it takes to do that?”
It is also a function of the “sweat equity” that Nagata and other senior special operations leaders had amassed during JSOC’s vicious campaign against al Qaeda in Iraq — the Islamic State’s forebears — several years earlier, said the former special ops officer who has discussed the Islamic State issue with Nagata. “If you look at the guy’s deployment record, I think he has Iraqi citizenship,” the former special ops officer joked. “He has a lot of sweat equity in that, and he was very frustrated that we were asked to leave in the first place.”
Combined with Nagata’s warnings about the Islamic State are concerns about the United States’ failure to compete on the propaganda front. “He was saying for the longest time, ‘We’re losing this fight because of information. We don’t have an information campaign,’” said the special operations officer who was in the room at MacDill. “He’s been saying this over and over literally for two years. And no one is listening to the dude. No one.”
Nagata is now facing arguably the greatest challenge of his career: command of the task force that has the mission to train moderate Syrian rebels well enough to prevent an Islamic State victory in Syria. It will require both his military knowledge and his skill at working Congress.
When Nagata visits Washington as commander of Special Operations Command Central, his meetings are with officials “one echelon higher” than either of his predecessors, the former special ops officer said. “He is a high-value ticket any time he’s in town,” visiting officials in Congress and the CIA, among others.
Nagata may be the best pick for his job, but even some of his admirers think he has been set up for failure. “I think it’s a loser mission from the get-go,” said Reese, the retired Delta Force officer, citing the confused chain of command governing the various special ops task forces in the Middle East. To succeed, Nagata will need the backing of the administration — support that may simply not be there. “Mike is really good at execution,” said the former senior intelligence official. “He’s absolutely in the right place, but they have to listen to him. When he talks, it shouldn’t just be Lloyd Austin listening to him. It should be the White House.”
Correction, May 1, 2015: Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed Shiite militias reconquered the Iraqi city of Tikrit from the Islamic State in early April. An earlier version of this article wrongly said that the militants had beaten back the offensive and retained control of the city.
Photo credit: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
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