May 1, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
It was an era of dramatic change for the Middle East. The pos/world/ War I collapse of the Ottoman Empire produced five new states -- Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq and Palestine -- but little peace.
Violence erupted in Syria. Arabs attacked Jews in Palestine. Iraq broke out in rebellion. Ibn Saud continued his campaign of war and diplomacy. British and French colonial intelligence services scrambled to keep up.
In "Empires of Intelligence," Martin Thomas notes that the Brits "tended to value classical education and fieldwork experience" (often relying on gifted amateurs like T.E. Lawrence), while the French preferred "professional training in a dedicated colonial training academy akin to the French Ecole Coloniale."
Both powers recognized the need for "human intelligence" from all sorts of people who understood the conditions on the ground.
Hence they cultivated informants from gossipy secretaries to self-important menservants to royalty. These "humint" sources helped produce brilliant intelligence coups and successful covert operations -- and some inept failures.
Now, nearly a century later, world-rattling change again wracks the Middle East. And, again, intelligence is at a premium for Western powers struggling to plot a course through the chaos.
The problems are many. Western powers had relied heavily on Middle East intelligence services for help in tracking transnational terrorists. These services are now distracted by their own troubles. It leaves Western analysts wondering what is going on in places like Gaza and the Sinai.
Another concern is the release of "political" prisoners in Egypt and elsewhere. Many of those released -- such as Mohammad al-Zawahiri -- are connected to terrorist groups and extremist Islamist organizations.
Hundreds of members of the Gama'a al-Islamiyya terrorist group are reportedly back on the streets. While Zawahiri was rearrested days he was released, Western intelligence experts puzzle over what the other freed militants might be up to.
Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain a big concern. At the height of the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrorist group lobbied for "foreign fighters." Many of those fighters came from countries now in the throes of massive domestic turmoil.
In the weeks and months ahead, some intelligence experts fear al Qaeda will reverse the flow of their terrorist pipelines, pumping the "foreign fighters" back to their homelands to wage war for a new Islamist regime.
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a research fellow at the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, reports that the "chatter" in online terrorist chat rooms trumpets Libya as the next battleground. Western analysts worry that extended chaos there may produce an expanding terrorist sanctuary.
The final wild card that keeps Western analysts up at night is the flood of weapons and mercenaries now floating around North Africa. Some reports claim that recruiters in Guinea and Nigeria are offering $2,000 a day to fight for Moammar Gadhafi. Meanwhile, Western powers are considering supplying the rebels battling the regime in Tripoli. Where will all these people and weapons go next?
Analysts remember Nov. 28, 2002. That's when al Qaeda terrorists fired two SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles at an Israeli-bound plane taking off from Kenya. The plane carried 261 passengers. Luckily, the missiles missed.
But al Qaeda has a habit of trying to perfect tactics they have used unsuccessfully before. Shoulder-fired and anti-tank missiles are among the many weapons that will come on the market as result of the current upheavals.
The United States has much to worry about in the Middle East. It needs all the information it can get about what's going on. Solid human intelligence should to be high on the president's list of things the administration needs to get serious about.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner