Despite Their Treasure Troves of Information, West Doesn’t Trust Arab Intel Agencies

Western intelligence community is suspicious of links between Arab regimes and terror groups; Arab countries aren't the only ones at fault – it was the U.S. that invented the term 'moderate organizations.'

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Police patrol at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was closed following the previous day's terror attacks, November 14, 2015.
Police patrol at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was closed following the previous day's terror attacks, November 14, 2015.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Arguably, in recent days there has not been a single country that hasn’t declared publicly and emphatically that it sent France advance warnings of impending attacks. The latest to do so were Saudi Arabia and Iraq who publicized these early warnings, with Iraq claiming that it “knew” of the attack on the eve of its occurrence. Prior to that Turkey said that it had warned France twice about a terror attack, and Algeria reported its ongoing intelligence cooperation with France and its systematic transfer of information to French intelligence agencies.

It’s interesting how they all knew of the intent to attack France or other European targets but not of plans for attacks on their own soil. Turkey didn’t know about the two lethal attacks carried out by ISIS in June and October, and Iraq doesn’t know when the next car bomb will go off in Baghdad. Saudi Arabia continues to be plagued by attacks and in Egypt a terrorist apparently managed to plant a bomb in a Russian airliner.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that information coming from Arab countries is inaccurate, but in the West it’s treated as suspect at best, or that it is intended to cause Western nations to act against a regime’s political rivals.

The assumption that authoritarian Arab regimes control everything that goes on in their countries and know of every potential suspect has long been ruled out. They don’t. Mubarak’s Egypt didn’t know how to foil attacks on vacation resorts and didn’t grasp that a revolution was around the corner, as was the case for Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, who was surprised by the extent of public fury.

Furthermore, intelligence assessments in the West dismissed the capabilities of Saudi and Kuwaiti intelligence agencies in the past, despite the brutal tactics these employed in extracting information and the gigantic sums of money (close to $1 billion in Saudi Arabia) invested in their intelligence services. Jordan has relatively effective spy agencies, but they too failed a decade ago when Al-Qaida attacked hotels in Amman.

At the same time, the innermost recesses of Arab intelligence services contain treasure troves of information about tens of thousands of citizens, some of whom are connected to terrorist or radical Islamist organizations. This data could profit European intelligence organizations especially now, when thousands of refugees are streaming across their borders.

According to a Western diplomatic source, there is currently no system for carrying out security checks for the hundreds of thousands of refugees reaching Germany or Italy.

“First they are taken in and only later, gradually, are their records checked,” he says. “The problem is that we don’t have sufficient and suitable manpower to investigate every refugee in depth, and there is obviously no cooperation in this from countries such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Lebanon, which could provide pertinent information.”

In fact, the only examination one could undertake is of information already held by European intelligence services regarding possible suspects. This is also limited, since only in exceptional cases, with identified wanted persons, will there be a comparison of intelligence held by Germany with that possessed by Britain or France.

Beyond the difficulty in establishing effective links between Western and Arab intelligence agencies – particularly in the absence of systematic cooperation between Arab agencies – Western agencies suspect that there are links, some of which have been proven, between Arab regimes and terrorist organizations. One doesn’t have to look as far as Pakistan, where there is tight cooperation between intelligence agencies (which enjoy American support) and the Taliban in order to understand the paradoxical situation.

In cables released by WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton complained that Qatar is the worst country in terms of intelligence sharing with the United States. Qatar funded in the past and still finances radical groups operating in Syria, probably including the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.

Saudi Arabia, which donated $100 million to the United Nations plan to combat terrorism, is also a financier of radical organizations. Kuwait, a close business associate of Britain, allows charity NGOs that support terrorism to operate on its soil. Syria has commercial links with ISIS, which has sold it oil and is now selling it wheat and cotton. Turkey was rebuked by the U.S. after being suspected of allowing ISIS and other radical Islamist activists to enter Syria from its territory.

Each of these countries has extensive commercial ties with Western countries, which dictate a clear etiquette: One doesn’t pressure a country that purchases your planes or other weapons for billions of dollars.

“The commonality of interests” that divided Arab countries into a “pro-Western” bloc and an “anti-Western” one forged the delusion that both sides see eye to eye on issues of fighting terrorism or defining violent radicalism. One shouldn’t hold only Arab regimes to account: The U.S. is the one who invented the concept of “moderate organizations” in order to legitimize rebel groups in Syria, radical Shi’ite groups in Iraq and Taliban groups in Afghanistan – each one of which has its own definition of “moderate.”

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