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EXCLUSIVE: Ex-Special Ops Michael Brewer on Heroic Rescue Efforts Airlifting Americans, Afghans out of Afghanistan

“He was being actively hunted by the Taliban… They had hacked his phone.”

As escape from Afghanistan becomes more perilous, groups of ex-Special Operations are working together with people on the ground in Kabul to rescue Americans and their Afghan allies and airlift them to safety. “We’re tracking over 3,000 individuals now,” says Michael Brewer, a U.S. Army Special Operations veteran and a seasoned hand in counterterrorism intelligence.

He and his team, a loose collection of interested parties known as Project Archangel, are working around the clock to rescue as many as they can. More information can be found at Project Afghan Relief Fund: http://parf.us.

Correction: A previous version of the headline incorrectly identified Michael Brewer as ex-Special Forces. He is a U.S. Army Special Operations veteran, and was not part of the Green Berets.

Jan Jekielek: Michael Brewer, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Michael Brewer: Thank you very much, good to be here.

Mr. Jekielek: Michael, you are in the midst of organizing civilian-led operations in Afghanistan to airlift out some of the remaining folks, both Americans and Afghanis. Before you tell me exactly what’s going on, why don’t you tell me who you are and how you got involved in this?

Mr. Brewer: I got involved in this when I joined the army in 1999. I joined the U.S. Army Special Operations Forces where I served until 2008. Then I left that job and went to Washington DC to join the intelligence community as a counter-terrorism targeter. So this whole part of the world was very near and dear to my heart.

I was an Al-Qaeda targeter, and of course that meant the support networks behind Al-Qaeda, which put me right in the pocket of the folks that we’re we’re dealing with now. I was fortunate to be associated with the Bin Laden raid and the aftermath of that, and mopping up the networks that came out of that operation.

I rapidly found that as I was getting more and more involved in reaching out to people that I knew could affect the situation on the ground, a lot of other people started showing up that were having very good effects. I think a lot of veterans had the same collective gasp when we saw what the withdrawal was looking like, announcing the timelines, and doing it in reverse.

Ordinarily you pull your assets out and then you start pulling away some of those weapons and equipment, and then sort of hold everything back until you’re getting people out at the end. We kind of did it backwards. We sent everybody home and left all the gear. So lot of us predicted that it might go badly and started reaching out to people and creating an informal network of—okay, look, if it does go badly, what do we do?

So I reached out to some policy makers. I know Senator Tom Cotton and Congressman Pete Sessions have been showing exceptionally strong leadership on this. So we started there with their offices and some of that cooperation got things rolling—it really grew legs on its own. It’s funny because I keep getting mentioned as an organizer for this, but we all organized around the results. We saw who was getting things done and then just fell into a team very naturally. So I don’t know that I organized it. I was there for the organization as it were.

Mr. Jekielek: We’re recording this on the day that we know there are at least 12 U.S. service members today that have been killed. What have you and your group, Project Archangel, managed to do?

Mr. Brewer: We’ve done a lot in terms of being able to facilitate people out. We’ve done a lot in terms of being able to coordinate people because we’ve all worked there and we’ve all deployed to Afghanistan and worked with local forces. There’s a pretty broad net of folks that can personally vouch for some of the people that are still left.

Andy Wilson of Quiet Professionals developed a fantastic platform to be able to track some of those people, input their information and see them in real time, so that we could keep track of folks that we could personally vouch for. There were some vetted already, and that were at very high risk if they were left behind.

We’re tracking over 3000 individuals now. We’ve facilitated a lot of people to, and through the gates, even when there was a bit of resistance. So we’ve facilitated a bunch of folks through there. I think it’s north of a 100.

Mr. Jekielek: So you’re tracking 3000 and you’ve managed to get 100 out of there. Are these Americans, or are we’re talking about Afghans who worked closely with the Americans?

Mr. Brewer: It’s both for sure. We’ve had Americans with local national families and American citizens. In one case, I can tell you about an American citizen born in Afghanistan, who volunteered to go back as an interpreter for special forces. He got stuck over there and tried to get his family out.

So we had to mount a fairly intensive effort to get him out. He was being actively hunted by the Taliban while we were trying to effect his escape. And they located him. They had hacked his phone. We had to make about four attempts to get him out, and it was pretty harrowing stuff. He had a small child with him, and his wife, obviously. They were shot at several times, and they were chased by the Taliban. It was a spy movie stuff.

Mr. Jekielek: You said four attempts. What does this look like? This is in Kabul at some point, far away from the airport, and you’re trying to get them there. Is that what is happening?

Mr. Brewer: I was his communicator, I was looking at maps trying to figure out where he was, and figure out where the checkpoints were. He’s a known entity. They had his face and his picture, and information on his family.

They had even called family members. The Taliban had directly called family members in the United States pretending to be the state department, and trying to get them to confirm where he was and whether or not he’d made it out. So in that instant, we were running interference on that front with the people calling here.

We got him to a safe location where he could make an attempt at getting into one of the gates. As he approached the gate, he was noticed. On another attempt to get through a gate, he was actually chased off by the gate guard who fired warning shots over his head, even though he was holding a small child and a U.S. passport.

It’s been such chaos over there, that even when everything is lined up well, and even when you’ve got the paperwork you need, it’s still a bit of a gamble. His last attempt, when we finally did get him out, he was driving towards the airfield and had his vehicle break down at the Taliban checkpoint.

He was sitting there and people were trying to reach him. His phone’s going off in his pocket and he can’t pick it up and speak English or he’ll be discovered. And so it was a very stressful nail biting, hurry up and wait situation until we could get him out of that spot and get him through the gate. But he is now safe in Qatar. He had a pretty tough ride, but he’s safe, and we got him out.

Mr. Jekielek: Incredible stories. This is one of many, and you also have many that are active as we speak.

Mr. Brewer: Yes, it’s one of hundreds. I don’t want to share stories about people who are still there, obviously, because that might compromise things. But I can tell you that these folks are incredibly brave. They’ve been fighting next to us for 20 years.

So there’s no question that they have the character and the fortitude for what they’re going through right now. When I say that, I feel that all of us have to match it. You have to step up and at least be that willing, and at least be that brave, to get them out.

Mr. Jekielek: One of the things that was said, and this was reiterated a number of times actually, the Afghani army just basically gave up. That seems at odds with what you’re describing. Are you talking about individuals? Is this your general experience? How does that ring to you?

Mr. Brewer: I can’t speak very broadly because honestly I haven’t been involved very broadly. I’ve been involved very specifically with what we’re doing to try and get people out. I know that it’s disheartening to see our government addressing the Taliban as if they’re a legitimate leadership organization.

Afghanistan has a government, they have a constitution and I believe that we owe it to them to address it that way. The confidence of the Afghan National Army probably shattered when we started treating the Taliban like they were legitimate leadership, that probably hurt. I don’t know how you balance that equation when you’re on the ground. Do I keep fighting? Do I stick my neck out or do I hide until I have an opportunity to get out of here?

I don’t judge them, I don’t judge them for making the decision that they had to make on the ground. I can tell you that anybody that we’ve looked at and anybody that we’ve worked with to get through those gates, even today, as things are exploding around them, are steel willed. They’re incredibly brave people.

Mr. Jekielek: Tell me about the network of communication here that’s functioning to be able to do this. One person couldn’t do this.

Mr. Brewer: No, not at all. We’ve always done something, we call it establishing rat lines. It’s the sort of underground railroad into which you can put people so that they can affect an escape, if regular means are breaking down. That certainly fits here.

We’ve got locals that we’ve worked with, and we’ve got on the ground folks who are part of the more elite tiers of the special forces. Even the Afghan special forces is a huge network of people. We get them vetted quickly, and we get them processed. We’re bringing the right people in, keeping them screened and making sure that they’re who they say they are, but we’re getting them in. We’re not holding them up in a dangerous situation like that.

One of the unsung aspects is all the people who are sitting by laptops around the United States, doing paperwork for these folks. They’re in a horrible situation sitting on their cell phone. There are veterans volunteering to walk them through forms and make sure that they’ve got what they need. They put it into a picture on their phone so that they can show it when they get to the gate. So it really is an amazingly diverse and effective network.

Mr. Jekielek: Who made the call to action here?

Mr. Brewer: It’s hard to pinpoint. I think action called us all to action, when we saw the situation for what it was. And as we mentioned before the interview started, we took an oath when we joined and it didn’t stop when we got out of service. Everybody looks at that place and those people. I, for one, couldn’t turn away. I served next to these folks, maybe not these specific folks, but some of them. There’s no way we could turn our back on them.

Mr. Jekielek: There are definitely reports of people who want to stay and fight, and not be under Taliban rule, up in the northern province of Panjshir. Are you aware of people heading in that direction, as opposed to the airport. How is that working?

Mr. Brewer: Yes, those guys are incredibly ferocious. I have mixed feelings as a soldier. I look at the fight and I want to go that way. But I’ve seen more and more head that way as evacuation becomes less likely. There are more people willing to get in the fight. I don’t know how we support them other than to give them our best.

There’s a lot of people, notable people, Amrullah Saleh being one of them. He was formerly the vice president and he was the chief of the intelligence service. He’s known as the Lion of Panjshir, so he’s definitely got a warrior’s pedigree. There are a lot of people who would rather fight and die there than submit and go back to the way things were under the Taliban.

Again, I keep mentioning this in a lot of different ways, it’s the bravery of the people trying to get through a gate, and it’s the bravery of the people going to Panjshir to join the fight. It’s the last real pocket of resistance and it’s worth supporting them anyway we can.

Mr. Jekielek: We’re also hearing about a number of land borders that are open and receiving people at the moment. Is this a route that’s increasingly being taken, as opposed to the airport, as things are winding down?

Mr. Brewer: Yes, definitely. We’re hearing a lot of reports. It’s hard to confirm what’s going to stay the way it is, things change so fast. But yes, we’re hearing that there’s a northern route open and there’s an eastern route open. There’s definitely ways to get into Pakistan and ways to get into Tajikistan, and people are going to Dushanbe.

Personally, if I were on the ground right now and the airport was my only out, I would start heading for a border. There’s inevitably a refugee crisis happening in several places because of this, it’s not even a question. The pressure on other governments to take in some of these people and take care of them and help process them and resettle the limit necessary is going to be really key.

There’s definitely routes open now. It’s hard to say how long they’ll stay open or how patrolled they are or where the checkpoints are or anything like that. We’re trying to get a better picture of that right now.

Mr. Jekielek: I’m getting a lot of indications and certainly this has been the advice from a number of people who have worked in the area, that people at this point should be going to ground. Can you explain exactly what that means, and if that’s correct?

Mr. Brewer: What’s happening is that the airport has basically ceased to be an exit route. We’ve got reports of welding the gates shut. As you know there have been several attacks there. And it’s probably only a matter of time before the Taliban begins searching through the crowd to find individuals.

Going to ground is operational speak for finding a safe place to be, whether that’s hiding out someplace or whether that’s organizing transport to one of those columns with people that you see streaming towards the Pakistan border. So when they talk, when you hear people talk about going to ground, really what they’re talking about is to get out of the big crowd.

Don’t be in a co-located area that’s easy to take advantage of if you’re an attacker. Get someplace safe and try to re-establish contact with your network for exfiltration. So they’re looking to go to someplace where they can re-establish some kind of connection with people like us and facilitate them into those networks where they can make a clean escape.

Mr. Jekielek: We’ve been getting mixed messages about this deadline. How do you understand this deadline of the 31st of August?

Mr. Brewer: I don’t know if they’re using the same calendars that we’re using. There’s a withdrawal deadline of the 31st, but we’re seeing things leaving now. Effectively, we’re gone now. We’re not doing a whole lot to get the remaining people out that I can see. We’re definitely not doing a lot to get them onto the airfield. In effect, people are on their own at this point.

I’m certainly not trying to cast a broad dispersion against anybody who’s still working. I’m not trying to say there’s nothing happening, but in terms of an organized withdrawal, in terms of an organized facilitation of refugees and evacuees out of the place, that’s not happening. That’s one of the reasons you see so many of the volunteers like me and our network doing what we’re doing, because the official capacity to get it done has all been stopped.

Mr. Jekielek: The U.S. administration has said that the evacuation will continue past the deadline.

Mr. Brewer: It’s entirely possible that it will. I hope it does, it needs to. I hope that it’s an organized effort and I hope that they absolutely leave nobody behind. I’m a little pessimistic on that front, given what we’ve seen so far. As I mentioned before, we’ve had U.S. citizens holding their passports up saying I’m an American and literally be chased away from a gate.

So again, I can’t help a bit of skepticism. It is an absolute necessity that we do what the president is saying that we should do. Anything short of doing whatever’s necessary to get everybody out is a collective failure on the part of the United States. And I don’t want to see that happen.

Mr. Jekielek: Does what appears to be a suicide bombing that’s claimed at least 12 American service members lives change the equation in any way, from what you’ve been hearing?

Mr. Brewer: It maybe advances the timeline on what we expected to see. I don’t know that we expected to see it quite this soon, but I think anybody that’s operated around there expected this would happen at some point. My understanding is that there were actually three, not just one.

We were getting reports early this morning from a lot of people. Not many of us were sleeping very well. And when we wake up in the morning, there are usually hundreds of messages from people trying to get out. Usually they’re very desperate pleading messages, “Save us,” those kinds of things.

Today was the first day that I woke up to pictures of the dead. It was the first day that I woke up to video of bombers. It’s a little bit unlikely to me that this was a surprise to anybody—the timing of it, the unfortunate nature of the fact that everyone crowding the airport right now is probably a visa holder, is probably an important person, and is probably a high risk person.

There’s something opportunistic in that. I would want to look into it a great deal more. But no, it’s not a surprise tactic, it’s just surprise timing.

Mr. Jekielek: Michael, one of the concerns that people have is that, inadvertently, some bad apples could get through to the U.S. Are you thinking about that and how is that being vetted?

Mr. Brewer: Definitely. We’ve got a couple of companies that are trying to leverage the biotechnology, biomechanics and biometrics firms who can leverage their technology and get them in place. We’ve had everything from volunteers to contractors trying to field that for people.

The network of folks that we have, that we’re actively tracking, are almost entirely people that we have firsthand knowledge of or have worked in the field. We are definitely trying to synchronize and vet these folks very well. We’re submitting their paperwork to get their visas done through the actual state department process. Nobody’s cutting the line, we’re just trying to expedite this and do it very quickly.

Mr. Jekielek: But what about the general threat? So here’s the thing—the U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 20 years. There’s a lot of people in Afghanistan that have actually helped the Americans in an effort to make their country better. Some of these people are going to want to come across, and there’ll be a lot of support for those people. At the same time, there’s going to be Taliban and other terrorist groups looking to use this as an opportunity to get people into the United States, potentially. So how to manage that risk? I know this is a big question, but obviously, this is something you’ve thought about.

Mr. Brewer: It is something we’ve thought about a lot at the tactical level. That answer involves using the processes that are there, using the equipment and technology that’s available. A lot of the biometrics and scanning are really impressive at this point. We’ve got several companies that are working with who essentially have biometric boarding passes that talk to the terrorist watch list and the no-fly lists and all those kinds of things that could be very rapidly fielded, and would be a great asset to have in the field.

Bigger picture, it’s the same sort of argument that’s made when we talk about securing the border. It is absolutely a vector for terrorism. I’ve been actively hunting terrorists for going on 20 years myself. And I can tell you anytime there is a refugee crisis, anytime there’s a loose border, that is a vector for people to exploit and to sneak people in.

I don’t know that there’s a 100 per cent solution, but there are some very common sense things that we can be doing. It involves getting people who are smart on the subject and smart with the people on the ground that have the equipment to process these people accurately and quickly.

Mr. Jekielek: Speaking of biometrics, I’ve heard that the Taliban actually got some kind of biometric database that has information about some of the people that have been working with Americans. Is that accurate?

Mr.Brewer: I believe it is. I don’t have proof of that, but I have seen no indication that it wouldn’t be true, given the things that they’ve been able to exploit, and the things that they took over, It’s safe to say that that’s absolutely correct. If some of the rumors are true that we’re hearing about joint patrols to recover people, it’s not a farfetched thing to say.

If we’re enabling joint patrols for people, then there’s a list. The next thing that we ought to look at is who takes over airfield operations. If you’re seeing Qatar in the picture at all, it’s important to know that the Taliban political office is in Doha. So, it does raise some questions.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s a whole information war element to all of this.

Mr. Brewer: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: We’re seeing, of course, the Taliban celebrating a victory. We saw that trolling image of Iwo Jima, and actually footage of people being killed. I’ve heard some of that is actually disinformation, old footage that’s now being circulated. Tell me about this whole picture. You’re in the thick of it with this network, having to deal with all this potentially conflicting information.

Mr. Brewer: It’s very tough. And in fact, we’ve seen a lot of misinformation and disinformation coming from all sides. Unfortunately it works a lot faster and better on the offense, than it does on the defense. If somebody says something or directs people to an area or passes the word effectively that, “There’s an opening over here,” you’re going to see the crowd move that way before you can get it all sorted out.

If you see that messages are being sent that a certain hotel is safe or unsafe, that’s going to affect your ability to get people where they need to go. They’re definitely experts at the disinformation game, especially when it comes to things like you’re talking about—video of killings and attacks.

I’m looking at my map of the airfield. If you look at where the crowds tend to be and where they tend to push, they will start rumors and make threats just to move people away from an area that they want to be able to get to a little bit better.

So that’s important to know. It’s also important to know that they’re not dummies. They’ve got cooperation from external actors, and other nation states that have an interest in capitalizing on this message as well. We need to be aware that they’re not entirely acting alone in a lot of these cases.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s definitely been a ton of warfare propaganda coming from the Chinese Communist Party, essentially saying that this is the triumph of our system over the American free system.

Mr. Brewer: You’re going to see that from anybody that has an ax to grind with the United States is going to be very exploitative and it’s going to be very enduring, unfortunately, We’re going to see a lot of that. Amrullah Saleh, the Lion of Panjshir, said that this was something that America wouldn’t recover from.

I hope desperately that he’s wrong, but I suspect that some of the ripples of this and some of the impact of this will go on for longer than I’m alive. This is truly historic and it will be remembered for a lot of reasons. I think the best we can do at this point is hope that at least one of the chapters that history writes is entitled, “There were those who wouldn’t leave all of us behind.”

Mr. Jekielek: There does seem to be this unprecedented private effort, hence why we’re speaking here. Frankly, it’s incredible to me.

Mr. Brewer: There was no talk about this, it’s not like people had a meeting and said, what are we going to do? They just started doing it. I think some of the first people that I ran across that were really interested in quick help was Tesla Laboratories that I worked for and with. They jumped to the aid of several different government entities that wanted to come up with faster ways to process people.

There’s a former Clinton white house staffer named Alan Silberberg who runs a company called Digijaks. He’s a cyber wonder and he’s very good at social media management. He has started addressing some things as simple as the misinformation and disinformation that you were talking about. People were arranging air frames to get together.

Andy Wilson at Quiet Professionals and Troy Sullivan at Strategic Support Solutions were some of the first and most effective people out there volunteering. I don’t think that any of us coordinated this. Another one is Brad Tonkin, with a company called BlackBoxx that just simply showed up.

A signal room started to populate, everybody started reaching out to the people that they knew. It’s a small community. We all know the same people, so eventually we ended up in the same rooms. I’ve got a big network of people that I touch. Let me start plugging some of these people that have solutions into the people who have needs.

That has become the heartbeat of the whole thing—how fast can we identify a requirement? How fast can we identify the people with solutions? How fast can we get them in the game on that area? It’s incredible to see, thousands and thousands of people out there doing this around the clock. Nobody asked for permission, nobody has had to be told what to do. It’s very self-directed and very self-sufficient.

Mr. Jekielek: Incredible. As we finish up, tell me about this last airlift that you’re trying to organize, or I suppose one of the last airlifts.

Mr. Brewer: We’ve had a lot of people volunteer to leverage large airframes. We’ve had 747s, 777s, 757’s, a lot of big cargo jets standing by and ready to go. The problem, as always, is can you get authority? And can you pay for it? Does anybody have enough money to fly these giant things in and take folks to where they need to go?

So there’s a lot of coordination there. Senator Cotton’s office was incredibly helpful at plugging us into the FAA Transcom, the Department of Transportation and all of the folks associated with that, the airfield operations guys. So we had a very clear picture of what needed to be done to get permission from the folks that had the authority. We had the airframes, we just simply have not been allowed to work. But we have a lot of guys and a lot of stuff that I think could be of significant use. We’ve just been given the Heisman and told, “Wait your turn.”

Mr. Jekielek: Is there one ready to go? Is this what you were telling me?

Mr. Brewer: Yes, there’s a couple of planes that are ready to go in. I won’t speak out of turn on this until I know for a fact, but we’ve got very strong indications that there is funding for those airlifts. We may be able to get in one or two more times to get some folks out. It would be hundreds of people. It would be definitely worth doing and I hope nobody tries to get in the way of that happening.

Mr. Jekielek: Any final thoughts before we finish up, Michael?

Mr Brewer: This is something that extends way beyond anybody’s politics. This isn’t an issue where you need to be pointing fingers and blaming one administration or another. It’s tempting as that is always in our culture right now. This is really a bigger deal. This is something that is truly historic, it’s a generational event.

If there is anybody that can help, if there’s anybody that can put pressure on people that aren’t doing the right thing, to do the right thing, if there’s people that want to get involved and don’t know how, reach out to organizations like ours. We’ll see if we can get you in the fight.

Mr. Jekielek: How can people find Project Archangel? How can people find you?

Mr. Brewer: We have a couple of 501(c)(3)s set up, and everybody is sharing. This is a new effort. We all met just a handful of days ago, so it is growing on its own. The Archangel Project is one of the charities that we’re running. The other is the project Afghan Relief Fund. People can find that at www.parf.us. Again, it’s the project Afghan Relief Fund.

Mr. Jekielek: Michael Brewer, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.

Mr. Brewer: Thank you guys very much for the time. I can’t tell you how important it is to get some of these efforts out into the public view and let people know how they can support it, and also call attention to what’s going on over there. So I do genuinely appreciate the platform.

Mr. Jekielek: I wish you the best of success with everything.

Mr. Brewer: Thank you very much.

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