The media, members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates – all of whom should, and do know better – have made it a favorite sport to criticize our intelligence on terrorism, both domestic and international. The problem is that intelligence, by its very nature, is vulnerable to malicious or uninformed criticism – when successful, it has to be quiet; when unsuccessful it becomes a target for free for all criticism. However, occasionally enough information filters out to the public to suggest that the critics of the CIA, FBI and the Bush Administration’s alleged “unilateralism” are badly off base.
Three recent cases may serve as a reminder to the uninformed and overcritical that there is much more they do not know than there is what they know, or think they know.
Item # 1 – On August 12, a British citizen and arms dealer of Indian origin, was arrested at Newark International Airport while trying to sell an undercover FBI agent a Russian – made a shoulder fired anti – aircraft missile. The sting operation started in Moscow, where the dealer approached a Russian officer with a request to buy such a missile. The Russian informed his government, which contacted the FBI, which contacted British domestic (MI5) and foreign (MI6) intelligence. As a result, the FBI Arab speaking operator approached the dealer with an offer to buy the missile for an Islamic terrorist group, for an attack against an US airliner. Meanwhile, closely monitored, the missile made its way as a “medical supply” shipment to Baltimore. Once the dealer was in the United States to finish the transaction, he was arrested. The entire operation took more than a year.
Item # 2 – According to reputable French media, at the end of 2001 the Canadian intelligence – which, by the way, is far more effective and cooperative with the US on counter terrorism than the Ottawa government – discovered that one of its Canada – based Algerian terrorist suspects was in Cuba, and informed the US. Apparently surprised by his existence, the NSA started intercepting his communications. That led to the location of the Algerian’s ultimate boss – the “amir” of the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), Antar Zouabri, inside Algeria, and so informed the Algerians. The result was that in February 2002, Zouabri shared the fate of six of the GIA’s previous leader – he was killed by government forces. It should be pointed out that Zouabri was correctly described as “the worst criminal in Algerian history;” indeed, under his leadership (1996 – 2002) the GIA was probably responsible for tens of thousand of murders. The reason was that he declared the entire Algerian people – or at least the 99.9% who did not support the GIA, as “infidels” and thus as legitimate targets for murder.
What is particularly significant in these two cases is that effective international counter terrorism cooperation was with two governments with a very long history of political hostility or, more recently, political differences with the United States. Indeed, the Russians (and their present intelligence is the direct successor of the KGB, one of whose members was President Vladimir Putin himself) have for decades been our main intelligence enemies. Algeria, at least until it was shocked by economic bankruptcy and the Islamists’ electoral victories in 1989 – 1991, was a “socialist” Arab regime, closely aligned with Moscow and a strong supporter of Palestinian terrorism.
One could go further, and note that intelligence cooperation between American and French organizations is far better, indeed one may appear as surprisingly better that the obviously difficult political relations between Washington and Paris.
Surprises of this kind do not stop here – Libya has cooperated, at least marginally, with the US in pursuing Islamist groups in Europe and elsewhere – not least because Qaddafi himself is threatened by an Al – Qaeda associated group, Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah bi-Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group - FIG). Syria did the same, and for similar reasons – as its former counterpart in Iraq, the Damascus regime is a sectarian minority regime disguised as Baath “socialist” – Sunni in Baghdad, Alawi in Syria , and is threatened by Sunni majority Islamists under the control of the Muslim Brethren . And the Saudis, occasionally but more and more consistently lately, have also increased their cooperation with the US, despite public denials.
There are some, mostly human rights fundamentalists á la Amnesty International, as well as a variety of neoconservatives, who believe, for distinctly different reasons, that US cooperation, including in intelligence matters, with such regimes is shortsighted, politically wrong, and morally unpalatable. That, of course would also imply that World War II alliance with Stalin was shortsighted, politically wrong, and morally unpalatable – an arguable notion, considering Hitler’s threat to civilization as we know it, and a threat similar to that posed by the likes of Osama bin Laden or Antar Zouabri today. It should be clear to any serious observers that intelligence cooperation with such as the Libyans, Syrians, Saudis, even Russians is not, and should not be based on common values but on common, immediate interests and enemies – which simply defines what intelligence is all about.
The Russians have suddenly become our partners on counter terrorism because they face Islamist terrorism in Chechnya, not because they share our interests – witness their counterproductive policy of selling Iran nuclear technology. Moscow has long, and wrongly claimed that all Chechen opposition to Russian rule is terrorist – but the Chechens have also demonstrated, and for many years, that they would rather be solidarity with openly declared, and al Qaeda associated Islamist terrorists, such as Shamil Basayev, ex – Prime minister of the short –lived independent Chechnya of the mid -1990s. It is not hypocrisy, as human rights and pro – Chechen groups in the Weststill claim, that Chechen Islamists have taken over the legitimate cause of Chechen self – determination.
Furthermore, it is only common sense to accept cooperation from Damascus if the alternative may well be another Sunni terrorist regime; the same applies to Libya; and, most importantly, to Saudi Arabia.
Once again, we are faced with a regime which, on the one hand, pays and exports the ideology, Wahhabism, that creates Islamist terrorism world wide; on the other hand the very same regime is the only game in town – any free elections in the kingdom are likely to result in a victory for al Qaeda, with Osama bin Laden as the leader. Do we really want that? And so we go back to the intelligence cooperation aspect - it is going on under the horizon of most media, media pundits and running politicians; it is cheap, easy and commonly manipulated for equally cheap political reasons. And it is wrong. Humility and modesty are needed, but not found.