Friday, September 17, 2010

Chasing a friend: the Intelligence - Terrorism Nexus

"All right, I tell you. Monday we watch Firefly's house, but he no come out. He wasn't home. Tuesday we go to the ball game, but he fool us. He no show up. Wednesday he go to the ball game, and we fool him. We no show up. Thursday was a double header. Nobody show up. Friday it rained all day. There was no ball game so we stayed home and we listen to it over the radio."

Chicolino's spy report to Trentino, the president of Sylvania, in the Marx Brothers movie "Duck Soup", is legendary. Not a lot has changed in intelligence since then. The good guys are chasing the bad guys, with the roles not always clearly defined, at least not for a very often critical public.


Shape the world

Recently an article caught my attention that was giving a dim picture of the relationship between intelligence and terrorism. According to Jeremy Keenan, professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the Saharan front in the global war on terror was fabricated - planned by the U.S. and Algeria in 2002 and launched in 2003 with the abduction of 32 European tourists. Quite like operation Northwood, thought up but never executed in 1962, that called for acts of terrorism against U.S. civilians perpetrated by CIA operatives but blamed on Cuba, thus giving a pretext for a war against Fidel Castro, a plan was developed to instigate terrorist activities in the Saharan. The presence of terrorism would then legitimize the U.S. to intervene in the Sahara-Sahel region and open up for Algeria the possibility to procure high-tech military equipment and a return from pariah status after its dirty internal war in the 1990s.


There is terrorism in the Sahara today, fabricated or real (it sure does feel real for the victims!), and there are many suspicious elements of mankind tirelessly moving around in the desert. There have been several abductions of Europeans and Canadians (the latest one just this week in Niger), killed hostages and numerous attacks on military installations and foreign embassies. Keenan claims that the leaders of these terrorist cells all have linkages to the Algerian intelligence service, a contention that is obviously difficult to verify.

The political benefits of these actions are manifold, not only for Algeria. The U.S. was provided with a further justification for AFRICOM; France with the justification to intervene militarily in the resource-rich corridor in the Sahel to secure its supply of uranium; and it provides other European countries, facing a threat so close to home, with justification for their immigration, security and counter-terrorism policies. (Although, to my knowledge, there has never been a terrorist attack on European soil that could be directly attributed to a group operating out of the world's biggest desert.)


Are the Europeans, usually not in the circle of trust of the U.S. intelligence agencies, running after a terrorist phantom, left out in the unknown by their transatlantic friends? Ask around in Algeria.

Shape yourself

Intelligence services and their targets have since ever co-existed in a kind of symbiosis. Large military organisations were fought with hierarchically structured, militarily organised intelligence services. To fight today’s threats, however, flexible intelligence systems are needed, able to quickly adjust to changing and changed environmental conditions.

System, and not organisation, is the cornerstone of new concepts in intelligence. They assume a perspective that has been described by the Syrian jihad strategists Abu Mus’ab al-Suri as “nizam, la tanzim” (system, not organisation). His model enables autonomously acting individuals and cells to flexibly and thus more successfully plan and implement their attacks, only guided by general principles. To al-Suri, his system is “a type of idea organisation, not an idea of an organisation, and a system of action, not the action of a secret organisation."
 
In al-Suri’s management theory, there is no place for a rigid organisation for operations. The US Army’s recent conceptional outlines - for which first-hand experience from Iraq and Afghanistan has been included - point into a similar direction. In an interview with the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the U.S. Brigadier General Herbert R. McMaster almost sounds like Abu Mus’ab al-Suri when he criticises the way in which the American army had fatally neglected “mission tactics” in recent years. This principle of leadership - fulfilling the mission in a broadly delimited framework, based on a clear intention of higher command structures – will be given a higher importance in the years to come, according to McMaster.


Learning from your enemy, from a friend, learning from al-Suri? Ask around in Washington, London and Paris.


Get in shape

Marc Sageman in his excellent book "Leaderless Jihad" establishes the theory that for young people joining the global islamist terrorism social movement (sic!) was based to a great extent on friendship and kinship. His formula, Basic ideology and goals + network of friends = terrorism, has for me a high degree of plausibility. This formula sound familiar? Could it hold true for politics as well? A frightening thought: the neocons of America were a bunch of friends that already in the 1980 and 1990s pondered plans of a massive U.S. military intervention in the Middle East ot give the United States a more robust presence in this strategically, economically and emotionally important region. They only needed a last very good friend placed in the Whitehouse to finally execute their intentions. And they needed 9/11... Let's give the word on this to the great British Reporter Robert Fisk. In an article published in August of 2007 he gave his opinion about the conspiracy theories surrounding the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001. Robert Fisk: "Let me repeat. I am not a conspiracy theorist. Spare me the ravers. Spare me the plots. But like everyone else, I would like to know the full story of 9/11, not least because it was the trigger for the whole lunatic, meretricious "war on terror" which has led us to disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan and in much of the Middle East. Bush's happily departed adviser Karl Rove once said that "we're an empire now – we create our own reality". True? At least tell us. It would stop people kicking over chairs."

Kicking what? The relationship between Terrorism and Intelligence is one of Inter-Dependency. One is feeding off the other, and vice versa. On both sides you will find lost souls with unachievable goals, almost interchangeable. I liked "Heat" with Robert de Niro and Al Pacino - at the end of the movie you started to forget who was the cop and who was the gangster. In real life they could have been friends.