In this episode, Kash and Jan discuss the recent conviction of ISIS member El Shafee Elsheikh for his involvement in the hostage-taking and killings of four American citizens: aid workers Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller and journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
As senior director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, Kash played a key role in efforts to extradite El Shafee Elsheikh and fellow ISIS member Alexanda Kotey to the United States. Along the way, Kash developed a close relationship with the families of the victims, some of whom he met with again recently.
“It’s always tough. It’s always emotional because you have to remember, they’re here to watch the trial of one of the individuals who beheaded, tortured, abducted, and raped their children,” Kash says.
In this episode, Kash offers background on how these extraditions and trials work, pays tribute to the families, and shares what it was like behind the scenes of the raid that led to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi’s death.
Jan Jekielek: Kash, today, I want to cover something that is perhaps a little bit difficult. There’s this trial going on in Alexandria, the highest profile ISIS terrorist ever to be tried in America, from what I understand, Elsheikh, and you were actually involved, pretty deeply involved in his extradition to the U.S. Frankly, this thing isn’t getting a lot of media coverage at all. There’s British press all over it, but not a lot in the U.S. media.
Kash Patel: Yes. I mean, I’m glad and thankful that we can use our platform, Jan, to cover this trial and not just this trial, there’s so much more to this trial, ISIS, terrorism, Baghdadi, national security policy, other terrorists that we killed and captured in relation to this. It’s not an easy topic to talk about because it involves terrorism, involves deaths of American citizens, pretty abusive and harsh conditions that they were subjected to and ultimately killed. And the least we can do is a tribute to the families of the victims in this case.
Mr. Jekielek: No, absolutely. Actually, you were involved in the extradition of two. They were actually two of four of the members that in the UK, bizarrely, they call these four terrorists, the Beatles because they have British accents. One of them was killed in a drone strike, two were extradited while you were head of counterterrorism.
Mr. Patel: So you’re talking about these British nationals who are British citizens who are fighting on behalf of ISIS in Syria, in the regions around there. One of the guys’ names was Shafee Elsheikh. The other was Alexanda Kotey and the other one was Emwazi, and his alias, he was commonly referred to as Jihadi John. Took a lot of media attention back in 2015. So all of these three individuals were senior members of ISIS. They reported directly to Baghdadi and did his bidding, which included killing and murdering hundreds, if not thousands of people and torturing many more. In reverse order, Jihadi John, Emwazi was killed in a drone strike, a U.S. drone strike in November of 2015. The other two individuals Kotey and Shafee Elsheikh remained at large and committing acts of terrorism for years to come until their capture by KDF, Kurdish Defense Force, which we’ll get into later.
And then in finally completing the reverse chronological order is of course Al-Baghdadi, who was then the head of ISIS and who was in command and control of these and thousands of other ISIS terrorists around the world while they committed these atrocities. We’re going to focus on what they did to American citizens and why this federal criminal trial and prosecution in Virginia currently is so monumental because once we get to the end of the show, I think our audience will see what it takes to go capture a terrorist in the battlefield, to have them fight so many legal proceedings, judicial proceedings in English court and British court, to see the back and forth that it takes between powerhouses like America and England just to get these guys over here for trial.
But more than anything, I think it shows the resolve of the national security mission that we undertook under President Trump to avenge the losses of the victims and try to… You know, you can never make the families whole again, because they lost more than they can ever regain, but you try to… That’s why we signed up. You try to avenge them and you try to get them a small piece of mind that there’s some accountability in this world. I think for us, it started with Baghdadi at the top.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so one of the alleged victims of Elsheikh was Kayla Mueller. Now one of the really interesting things, she was of course a humanitarian aid worker. I think she was in Turkey. She took a quick trip to Syria with her boyfriend and her vehicle got ambushed, got taken up. But after she was in captivity, a number of the people that she came across, like some of the other hostages that actually did make it out noted that she had this kind of strength of character. She was always very compassionate. She actually gave strength to people that were in captivity along the way.
In the end, I guess the connection, what I’m thinking about is that the task force, I think was created to take down Baghdadi ultimately was actually codenamed after her birthday. Right?
Mr. Patel: Yeah. I think we’ll get to that. To quickly outline the four major victims that we’re talking about today: it’s Kayla Mueller, it’s Peter Kassig, it’s James Foley and Steven Sotloff. They were all American citizens. Two of them were journalists—American journalists. One was an army ranger, retired and Kayla was of course a humanitarian aid worker. Unfortunately, all of them during Baghdadi’s reign were captured, three of them were beheaded. Kayla was unfortunately tortured and raped and murdered. But what we’re seeing in trial finally here in federal district court and criminal court is the actual prosecution of two of the terrorists, or one of them. One pled guilty and one’s currently on trial. Elsheikh is still on trial and I think the prosecution is resting their case in chief this week.
So you get a lot of different types of evidence and that’s a whole process to get evidence from the battlefield to get foreign citizens like Kayla Mueller’s former boyfriend to come in and testify and tell the jury his eyewitness testimony and observations of what ISIS did to Kayla and how other hostages were let go and what they did to James and what they did to Steven and what they did to Peter. It’s just a harrowing, raw emotional display in federal court that has to occur if you’re going to end up having a successful prosecution. Because it’s not like there’s going to be many videotapes or surveillance footage like you would think in a bank robbery or something like that. It’s not like there’s going to be a lot of phone chatter amongst these individuals because they were in regions of the world where we don’t really have the capability to go and obtain those types of records and those types of data sets.
So these matters, and I worked on a lot of them as a terrorism prosecutor, are extremely hard to put together, but when you get them right, you have a prosecution like we do for Elsheikh going on in Alexandria, Virginia right now. Hopefully, more people will tell the story of the kids, of the young American citizens who were killed. But we should probably clear up the British national connection piece to this, so our audience isn’t wondering what happened.
Mr. Jekielek: Before we go there, just tell me about the circumstances around this extradition, because I understand it was quite a bit of work to do that.
Mr. Patel: Yes. So this guy Jihadi John, one of the individual ISIS members who was responsible for these deaths and these murders and these tortures and these rapes, he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in November 15, but the two others Kotey and Elsheikh remained at large in Syria. And in order, Syria is an actual theater of war, what we call, an ongoing conflict zone, and that’s not to say the whole country is, but there are certain sections of Syria, which are not good, and I’ve been to Syria multiple times to witness it. We have to put together a program or a mission priority to say, “Okay, are these individuals, did they commit sufficient enough crimes,” and in my mind they did, in President Trump’s mind they did, to put the full force of the U.S. government, because that’s what it takes.
Intelligence community, defense department, justice department, state department, it takes all of it moving in concert with the heads of those departments, firing at all cylinders to make this happen. That’s what it takes. President Trump’s objectives were clear when I was head of counterterrorism for him. He said, “Kash, we’re going to wipe out the Emirs of ISIS. We’re going to take out Al-Qaeda senior leadership. We’re going to bring American hostages home. We’re going to take on Iran and take down the IRGC and we’re going to make sure American national security interests are protected first and foremost.” It was pretty simple marching orders. They seemed to fit. We had four Americans who were killed, murdered, and raped by ISIS terrorists. And so we went forward with you got to find them. You know, it’s called the find, fix, finish, the three Fs as we say in the Department of Defense and Intel community land.
First, you have to locate them, which takes intelligence. It takes data. It takes the work of your entire Intel community plus your allies overseas, such as your European allies, who have access and placement in certain countries like Syria that America necessarily doesn’t. So we have a good exchange with them on high priority matters, especially high priority counterterrorism matters.
So you look at that data set and you pull the intelligence together and you say, “Okay, these are priority. Now, how do we find them?” And you go put the whole mechanism to work, the ground level intelligence, aerial intelligence, computer intelligence, human witness intelligence, put it together, start zeroing in. And then once you found them, the find, then you go onto the fix. So the fix is you don’t lose them. So you fix on them and there’s not necessarily always an immediate decision made, right?
When you find them, you’re not just like, “Okay, we’re going to drone strike them.” That process takes a while. It’s always the option of, are we going to kill them? Are we going to do a raid operation, a U.S. raid operation or an allied partnered operation? Or are we going to have the host nation take them in and adjudicate them in their legal process? Or sometimes are we going to bring them back to America for ours?
In this instance, once we did the find, fix, we needed to… The decision was made that the finish portion of the find, fix, finish would be a capture operation, but we didn’t have the necessary capabilities in place and authorities in place in the region that they were in Syria. But the Kurdish Defense Force did. Kurdish Defense Force not allied with Bashar al-Assad in Syria. They are allied with most of the Syrian people and the Kurds, as they say, in the Northeastern part of the country who we worked with as the United States government.
They were able to, pursuant to our request, able to execute a ground level operation, to capture Elsheikh and Kotey, which is exactly what they did. It’s very impressive. This was we’re talking maybe 2018, ’19. Then what do you do with them? Right? Now you have defendants because they were charged in an American court prior to that, right? Elsheikh and Kotey were federally charged with acts of terrorism, murder, rape, and torture of Sotloff, Foley, Mueller, and Kassig. Got to hold them somewhere.
The hiccup, the twist in this case was [that] Kotey and Elsheikh were British citizens, British nationals, British passport holders. So they have a whole list of other rights that wouldn’t apply to them if they were Syrian nationals or Afghan nationals or Iranian nationals that we had to legally deal with. We couldn’t just say, “Thanks Britain, we’re taking your citizens.” Even though they’re being captured and detained in locations undisclosed outside of their country, we have to respect our number one ally’s legal framework.
So what happens is you go to the Brits and you say, “We want these guys. We have an extradition treaty with the United Kingdom. Please send these guys here to face charges.” America, as you know, Jan, for cases like this has the death penalty. The federal death penalty is still constitutional. It’s still always on the table.
Europe has always been vehemently against the death penalty, and so the Brits said, “Look, they’re our citizens. We don’t like them. We know they’re alleged terrorists and they’ve committed some very heinous acts and you’ve charged them with some serious, serious crimes, but we can’t legally turn them over with the death penalty on the table.”
That’s the scenario we found ourselves in once we captured them. We also had to detain them while this process went on for a year or two years plus. And so we set up through our allies’ detention facilities that met all the humanitarian standards and made sure that they were not released back into Syria or Iran or Iraq or what have you, where they could just be lost and return to ISIS. That’s the scene setter in terms of the judicial international proceedings, the find, fix, finish capture operation, and we haven’t even gotten to the part where we got them over here.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, but basically you agreed, you say, “Okay, we will take the death penalty off the table to get them over.”
Mr. Patel: In order to move the machinery of the U.S. government in a matter like this, as I said, it has to be a priority. It was a priority for Donald Trump, for President Trump. Unfortunately, actually some of his cabinet secretaries during the time wouldn’t move on his priority, go and get these terrorists and bring them to America for prosecution. Secretary of Defense Esper sat on this for an enormous amount of time. Me at the White House as the head of counterterrorism for President Trump on our security council, where the inter-agency hub comes together, demanded answers as to why we were slow rolling this. The unfortunate reality is unless you’re willing to almost go at it with certain agencies and departments, you’re not going to get the mission done.
It didn’t matter to me what they thought of me. I had by this time gotten to know a lot of the families pretty well. You keep them up to date. It’s impossible not to spend time with these people and talk to them and become emotional and just be a human being. So we moved and some people ruffled some feathers, but we moved the president’s priorities to go and get these guys. We called the Home Secretary’s Office in England, and we made sure that we had… Also, to get the death penalty off the table, I should have said this, it’s not a unilateral decision by me. It has to be approved by the president, by the attorney general and by the cabinet. Right? Because there are equities for these individuals at stake legally and rightfully so, but unless you actually forced them to make a decision, they just wouldn’t do it. So we forced the decision.
Some people didn’t like it. And we said, yeah. And we told the defense department, “Yeah, you’re going to assist our allies in whatever detention matters are necessary to keep these guys put.” Because there was actually talk of letting them out of custody at some point because we weren’t moving fast enough. I said, “Absolutely not. That’s not acceptable.” And I know president Trump said we are not going to let that happen. Finally, our government, as a whole informed the UK government that we were going to take the death penalty off the table for Kotey and Elsheikh. That was their biggest objection legally. Once we took that off the table, the Home Secretary in England, to their credit said, “Well, now we can work to get these guys over here relatively quickly.” And relatively quickly is still a few months at the time, but they were finally transferred.
They were never actually in custody in the United Kingdom. They were in custody elsewhere, and we finally got these guys transferred. Here’s the kicker. The Brits before their transfer, stripped them of their British citizenship, so they no longer had British rights. They could no longer return to the United Kingdom, which I thought was an interesting side piece to this because we hadn’t yet convicted them. And if what they were basically doing was washing their hands of them and saying, “Okay, you, now, America deal with this,” which was fine. We wanted to take it on anyway and put them down in America in a federal proceeding. That was a little side twist, but we got them.
We got them over here and then the work to prosecute them and bring in witnesses and bring in evidence from overseas and line up this massive international terrorism prosecution begins. I think it took almost a year and change, if not two years, to get this trial that we’re talking about started. This week, that trial is likely ending. At least, the government’s case in chief is ending.
Mr. Jekielek: Just very briefly, I mean, Kotey pleaded guilty. That’s interesting.
Mr. Patel: Yes. So Kotey’s mom was one of the individuals who was putting up the biggest public fights about not having her son subjected to torture in America, which was never going to happen in a federal United States prison or anywhere else for that matter. It’s illegal. So she made a lot of claims through the European court system [and] to the British court system about that. Once that was resolved, it was the death penalty was still the major claim. Once we got rid of that, the British had no legal reasoning to prevent their extradition to America, and he decided to plead guilty. He did so in September of last year and he’s awaiting sentencing, but his sentencing is a mere formality. He will be doing life in prison once that sentence is adjudicated.
I think maybe next month-ish, but that was his choice. He could go to trial or plead guilty and maybe there was a reason he skipped the trial process, but to me it doesn’t matter, he was convicted and he’s a convicted terrorist for killing the four individuals that we talked about.
Mr. Jekielek: Now. I mean, very, very broadly, what is the evidence here now against Elsheikh?
Mr. Patel: Terrorism trials in American, what we call Article III courts. Remember this is not Gitmo. This is not Guantanamo Bay. This is not a military tribunal. I’ve always said, and I’ve always subscribed to this, that there’s a way to prosecute terrorists in federal criminal Article III courts where I was a terrorism prosecutor. I did it around the country and we do it time and time again. It’s just a big lift, but it works. We’ve prosecuted people related to the first World Trade Center bombing. We’ve prosecuted many other bombers and terrorists, international terrorists from overseas. The Blind Sheikh is the most famous, or infamous one I should say. It is possible to prosecute these guys.
The hesitancy, I think, is almost political theater. You know, this idea that we’re going to allow terrorists on our soil and our detention facilities. They’re not getting out once you put them in there. There’s only one place when you’re convicted of this type of crime that you go. It’s Florence, Colorado Supermax prison. It was designed to put these guys in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives. And so I just-
Mr. Jekielek: Wait, wait. In solitary confinement for the rest of their lives?
Mr. Patel: Yes. 23 hours a day, every day. They get one hour out to walk around. That is the type of detention you need to house them because of the crimes that they’ve been convicted of. They don’t get sent there until after their conviction. Of course, if they’re acquitted, they’re released. I’ve always said, and we’ve successfully prosecuted terrorists in U.S. courts for terrorist crimes that occurred overseas. This is another example of if you put the entire U.S. government to motion to do so, you can successfully do it. I’m probably in the minority on that. When people are like, “Oh, you know, reopen Gitmo.” I remind people I’ve been down at Guantanamo. I’ve looked at those cases. We still have not as a country, tried one person in Guantanamo Bay responsible for the 9/11 bombings. Not one.
I don’t think we should release them, let me be clear, but I do think there’s a way to prosecute these individuals and give them their due process rights. As a former public defender, I firmly believe that the Constitutions must be followed here. There can be no exceptions, but once you do that, there’s a way to convict them appropriately, give them their appellate rights, give them access to the Supreme Court should they need it, and then once all that’s exhausted, they’re serving their life sentences. In some of these cases, the death penalty does not have to be taken off the table. You know, I also remind our audience.
Mr. Jekielek: So just briefly, what is the evidence against him?
Mr. Patel: Yeah. The evidence gets very complicated. We’re talking about taking evidence from an area of active hostility, Syria, where these people were captured and bringing it to an American court system. It’s battlefield information that’s captured that has to be turned into evidence, which is what I did as a terrorism prosecutor. The best type of evidence is always eyewitness testimony that can be corroborated by some sort of video feed and whatnot, but that’s not realistic in a war-torn nation, such as Syria and Iraq and places like that.
What they did in this case, which I thought was very impressive by the prosecutors, was they were able to get witnesses, people who were captured as hostages with Kayla Mueller, James Foley, Peter Kassig and Steven Sotloff. One instance is they brought Kayla’s then boyfriend, a Syrian national over to America, to Virginia to testify to the jury that this is what he saw, the abduction, the abuse, the torture of Kayla and others.
He also testified vividly about how he and other individuals were let go because he wasn’t an American. So you build on levels of evidence like that—testimonial evidence as we call it. Once the defendants are identified in court, in this case, the one, the remaining defendant Elsheikh, by multiple witnesses, which is what has been going on in this case as the individual who kidnapped someone who took them hostage, who tortured them, or even the individual who beheaded them. If you remember, Jan, tragically, three of these individuals were beheaded and it was recorded and it was shown to the world.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, but I think in all the cases, the perpetrators were masked.
Mr. Patel: The perpetrators were masked, but what you can piece together with that type of video evidence and the testimony from eyewitnesses and people that were around the areas were “I know who was behind the mask, I was there.” That’s what you have to piece together. It’s very complicated and it’s very harrowing for a jury to hear this. It’s very emotional. You’re talking about the deaths of Americans, the beheadings of Americans, the rape of a young woman, the torture of them. They have to absorb all this while keeping their emotion aside and saying, we have to follow the law. I must compliment the prosecutors, some of whom I worked with at the National Security Division, in the Department of Justice, doing this very methodically with care for the victims, with care for their families. I think it’s a righteous prosecution that more people should be paying attention to.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, you’ve just made me think. I want to look at something that was read out in court a few days back now. It was a letter from Peter Kassig. I just wanted to ask you why this is something that would be included. For example, this guy was actually an army ranger. From what I understand, kind of interesting life trajectory, later became a humanitarian worker and a medic basically. Here’s what he said in his writing, or this is what’s read out. He saying, “Dad, I’m paralyzed here. I’m afraid to fight back. Part of me still has hope. Part of me is sure I’m going to die.” These kinds of letters… First of all, I’m surprised that they would let letters out in the first place. Where do they come from? And how does this contribute to the prosecution?
Mr. Patel: No, this is a great question. Yeah. What you just referred to is what we called proof of life, POL. Proof of life when Americans have been taken hostages is something we as Americans look for because we want to show their families that they’re alive, and the terrorists, in this case the ISIS, know that. So what they do is it wouldn’t surprise me if they force the hostages to write letters and they send them. Sometimes what they do is they actually force them to videotape a proof of life, a POL video to say, my name is “James Foley, and I’m still alive.” They don’t tell you where, they don’t tell you why, and they don’t necessarily let the individual say what they actually want. They say, “You have to say this, or we’re going to kill you.”
This is ISIS and their leadership recording these statements along the way of their abduction to say, still alive, still alive. Sending it home so their parents could further be tortured by the abduction of their children, but know, at the same time for now, they’re still alive and give them hope that the American regime would go and get them before they were beheaded. I think there were some failures in the national security apparatus prior to the Trump administration that prevented that sort of action that was necessary to rescue them.
Mr. Jekielek: I think there were attempts at rescue and for at least one of them that I was reading about, but just basically they had been moved recently when the force arrived.
Mr. Patel: Yes. On one of them, you’re right, there was, and that happens. You get the find, you get the fix, and then the finish was the hostage rescue operation, and you miss him. And then you have to answer, well, why did you miss him? Was it an actual mistake or did you not move quick enough? Sometimes, and actually I think this is what happened is that the government moved too slow to make that decision once the intelligence and the find, fix was had. That’s a problem.
That was not a problem that I experienced in the Trump administration because his decision making process was very informed and very exact and very decisive. There was really no delay. Just to bring it full circle, the Muellers, Carl and Marsha Mueller, who were just great people have come on TV publicly many, many times and said publicly that if President Trump was in power, when their daughter was abducted and eventually killed, they believe she’d be alive and returned to America today.
Carl Mueller: Let me just say this, Kayla should be here. If Donald Trump had been president, when Kayla was captured, she would be here today.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and it was also a big priority for the Trump administration. I think he brought over 50 hostages back.
Mr. Patel: President Trump, he brought over 50 hostages and detainees from around the world back. That’s more than every president before him combined; just think about that. He reunited American citizens and actually national citizens around the world with their families. And so you should just take a minute and say, “Hey, if I lost a member of my family and they become hostage overseas, try living with that for a year, for two years, for three years, for four years and sometimes longer, and then having that person finally return to you. It’s a pretty momentous occasion when they’re brought back, it’s emotional, but President Trump made it his priority and he did it throughout his administration.
Mr. Jekielek: So, the inspiration for this episode, you actually spent some time with the Muellers and the Sotloffs recently, right?
Mr. Patel: It was great seeing them again. It’s always tough. It’s always emotional because you have to remember, they’re here to watch the trial of one of the individuals who beheaded, tortured, abducted, raped their children. I don’t know how anyone would actually have the energy and strength to do it, but they do. It’s really a testament to their belief in our system of justice and actually putting some accountability to the loss that they’ve had. My interactions with the Muellers and the Sotloffs and the Kassigs and the Foleys started when I took up the mantle as head of counterterrorism for President Trump, and we were marching on one of his other priorities, which was taking out Baghdadi.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, it’s quite something. I’ve worked with a number of war reporters over the years, and it’s a very special kind of breed, I guess, of a person, because I think in both cases of Foley and Sotloff, they had been basically detained, and without knowing whether they’re going to make it out ever like a number of times before this act, before actually being captured by ISIS and ultimately executed. Sotloff, actually, it’s very interesting because he’s credited with doing the reporting around Benghazi that it wasn’t actually a protest that basically caused the attacks.
Mr. Patel: Yes. They’re very seasoned and skilled reporters with amazing backgrounds who had reported in not just one war-torn nation, but multiple war-torn nations. To me, that’s the most courageous type of journalism that you can have. You voluntarily go into a conflict zone and say, I want the story of these people to be told. And the unfortunate tragedy and reality of that situation is you subject yourself to the acts of terrorism yourself as a target, which is what happened here.
Mr. Jekielek: So Kash, this all basically is connected, I think we’ve talked about this a little bit before on a previous program, the al-Baghdadi raid.
Mr. Patel: You know, I was fortunate to play a small role in President Trump’s execution of the Baghdadi raid. I was at the time, the head of counter-terrorism. The raid actually took place in October of 2019 on a Saturday, right around Halloween. It’s one of those moments you build to, and sort of never forget being in the Situation Room with the president. But for President Trump his priorities when he came to counter-terrorism and national security in my portfolio was wipe out the Emirs of ISIS. Well, that was one of the things. Well, the Emir of ISIS was al-Baghdadi and he’d been in leadership for years and years and he’d been torturing and killing and murdering thousands of innocent civilians, Americans, Syrians, Iraqis from all over the world. He had kidnapped and taken hostage other citizens from other countries and killed them.
He was growing the largest terrorist empire across the world and we had to take him out. I don’t think I’ve really ever told this story, but in my office, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where the National Security Council sits and where my counterterrorism team sat, on the back of my door, I had a chart of Al-Qaeda senior leadership and the Emirs of ISIS and their senior leadership. I would take one of those black pens that you’ve seen President Trump use. He gave it to me in the Oval Office once, and every time we would wipe out, kill one of those terrorist targets, I would put an X over their names and their faces on the back of my door. We always wanted to get the top levels of the leadership structures. We’re talking about ISIS today.
By the end of it, I think we had done a pretty good job. We had taken out 90 percent of both, but we still hadn’t at that time taken out Baghdadi. So we took the inter-agency and the president’s initiative and direction who said, taking out Baghdadi was a priority. Let’s get after it. I went into work in jeans on a Saturday at the White House, not thinking anything other than this is a normal weekend, maybe we’ll get them.
When you do these types of operations, there’s always an almost moment. You know, you get there 10, 15, 20 times, and so you’re always ready to go, but you also know something happens that hits pause or delays it or sends you back to the table to rethink it. But on this Saturday, everything came together and I put on my emergency suit that was hanging in my office, which was not the best clothing I had, but it’s what I had, and put on a shirt, put on tie, put on blazer and went to the Situation Room.
After a series of briefings with the president and his leadership team, the decision was made and it can only be made by the commander in chief that the raid was going to go and that we were going to green light it. Once that happened, I was fortunate to be in the Situation Room with the president, the national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a few other folks and on the screen was the raid.
A lot of things have to happen correctly in order for that raid to go successfully. What people don’t realize is the amount of airlift we have to bring into theater, as we say, on the objective to execute such a raid. It’s a massive operation. We have to look after American troop security, our allies’ security. Who’s in the region? Are people going to attack us just because we show up there? Those are just some of the things we have to take into calculation and call our allies, and even sometimes our adversaries to say, don’t get in our way.
And you know, not to fast forward through what was some of the most heart-stopping heart-wrenching parts of my career heading up counterterrorism for President Trump, but once the raid was successful and we called signal jackpot and confirmed that Baghdadi had blown himself up with a suicide vest while locking himself in a cage at the end of the house that we had zeroed in on. President ordered the entire compound obliterated. We viewed it happen. This was Saturday evening at the time. After that, the president looked at us and said, one of the first things he said was, “I want the phone numbers for the Sotloffs, for the Kassigs, for the Muellers and for the Foleys. To me, that was a pretty defining moment of how President Trump operated.
After killing the world’s biggest terrorist without anyone knowing it, because we wouldn’t inform the world until next morning, the first thing the president wanted to do was inform the families that we’ve been talking about today. I found that emotional, but also just kind of awesome. So I got those numbers and I ran them down to him. This was like after 10:30 at night down in the East Wing. I think the families appreciated that, and I think the other thing he wanted to do… Not I think. The other thing he wanted to do was he wanted the numbers of the ground force commanders who executed the raid, because he wanted to call them. So I handed him that sheet, too. That just shows you his mentality that a lot of people don’t get to see. The next day, he would inform the world, he, President Trump, of how that raid went and rightfully so.
Donald Trump: Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.
Mr. Patel: I think the thing that sticks out most in my mind is a couple of months later in January at the State of the Union, most people have seen the State of the Union and they look and they’ll see guests of the president and they sit in the first lady’s box as we call it. There are some seats reserved to invite guests that the president wants to honor at the State of the Union. And of course, he thought it appropriate to honor a family that would represent the group of families that we’re talking about here today. Mr. And Mrs. Mueller were that family. He invited them to Washington. They agreed to come. They came.
There was something we were working on behind the scenes this entire time. Every operation of this nature, he’s always given a classified name and generally those names are never revealed for operational security reasons. When we found out… At the time, we couldn’t tell anybody, we can talk about it now. When we found out that the ground force had named the operation, and those are the guys that get to name it, the guys that do the raid, only rightfully so. They had named this operation 8-14. And when we found that out in the Situation Room that night, it didn’t strike any of us. We were like, it’s usually a name with words, not numbers. I remember someone on the phone asking them directly like, “Why’d you guys name it that?” And they were like, it’s Kayla Mueller’s birthday. And so you’re talking about some serious people in a room who all got a little choked up during that information relay, and then it sort of stuck with me.
I thought maybe the president thought the same thing. If we can remove the operational sensitivities around this one, it was a little bit of a process, why don’t we tell the world that that’s what the ground force team was doing on this raid? The president saw fit and I think correctly so to have it declassified in the appropriate fashion. It took a little bit of time. And in January when he gave his State of the Union, he took time during that speech to honor the Mueller’s, the Sotloffs, the Foleys and the Kassigs. Mr. and Mrs. Mueller who were up in the first lady’s box were honored. He literally looked at them and he said, and I’m paraphrasing, but we named this operation, Kayla Mueller’s birthday, and that’s when we told the world.
Donald Trump: Task force 8-14, it was a reference to a special day, August 14th, Kayla’s birthday. Carl and Marsha, America’s warriors never forgot Kayla, and neither will we. Thank you.
Mr. Patel: That’s where that operation name came from. One of the other things we were able to do was that evening, I talked to Mr and Mrs. Mueller, and they wanted to meet a few folks, and the other individual they wanted to meet was Chairman Milley. I know he and I have had our differences, but on this night, I’ve said publicly, Chairman Milley on the Baghdadi raid acted the way a chairman should, advising the president every step of the way appropriately and accordingly and being completely apolitical. I called him and I said, Mr. Chairman, “You know, the Muellers are in town and they’d love to meet you.” And he did the right thing. He went up to the first lady’s box before the State of the Union started and he spent a few minutes with them. The Muellers told me again, this past weekend, how much that meant to them, because they don’t need to see the internal politics of it all because they shouldn’t, and that’s not the mission.
It was nice to hear that from them and from some of the other families. That’s probably one of the… I don’t know what’s going to get bigger in terms of my career to be a small part of something like that. And to see it come full circle with this trial, which is why I’m shocked in so many ways that the mainstream media is just not covering this.
Another thing I talked to the families about was, “Who’s in the courtroom media wise?” And they said, “There’s almost no American journalist in the courtroom.” There’s almost no American media. There’s British media. There’s European media. We are prosecuting right now the highest level ISIS member we have ever prosecuted in American history, and it’s not being covered. So I’m glad we can cover it a little bit on our show for the families. I think he’ll join his co-defendant or terrorist buddy in Florence Supermax for the rest of his life, where he should be.
Mr. Jekielek: So Kash, incredibly powerful stuff. I’m really glad we did this episode. I guess it’s time for a shout out.
Mr. Patel: Yes, Jan, and I think this week’s shout-out can go to no one else other than the families, the Sotloff family, the Foley family, the Kassig family, and the Mueller family. It has been a long and treacherous experience for you and your loved ones. We hope that the story of your children gets out there and is told often and repeatedly. Our episode today is a very small way of paying tribute to those that you lost, your loved ones.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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