Iraq war's impact on intelligence

An attack on Iraq could detract from spying on Al Qaeda, some analysts warn

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The capture of Ramzi Binalshibh – a top Al Qaeda logistics and financial operator – is a textbook example of how Washington wants intelligence agencies worldwide to cooperate with the US.

Speaking from Camp David over the weekend, President George Bush hailed the joint Pakistan-US operation in Karachi last week as proof of a "relentless" US effort to "one by one ... hunt the killers down." (New Al Qaeda arrests in the US, page 2)

But a debate is emerging about the risks of losing such clarity of purpose – and key intelligence cooperation – as the US shifts its focus from the "war on terror" to a "regime change" in Iraq.

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America's Arab and Muslim allies – including Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – now provide important intelligence about Al Qaeda activities. But they publicly reject any US military strike against Iraq.

Experts largely agree that any attack on Iraq is likely to increase public sympathy for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups, especially if such an operation drags on and civilian casualties mount. But they are divided about whether it will help or hurt US intelligence gathering.

"This is like playing multidimensional chess blindfolded, and [the US] has to check mate on all levels of the game," says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

"Of course, the war on Iraq will have huge consequences on the war on terrorism," Mr. Ranstorp says, ticking off concerns about unrest on the Arab street, and a likely surge of anti-US feeling in the Mideast. "Some countries may not be as willing as they have been in the past to engage in this horse trading of intelligence."

That view is shared by Khaled al-Maeena, editor of the English-language Arab News in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda intelligence data could be withheld "as a sign of being upset, because the horrors and disaster could be immense if [the US] attacks Iraq," says Mr. Maeena. "The Iraq issue is very paramount, and Arab states might use any leverage they have to try to tell the US to go easy.... They may stop handing over Al Qaeda information to the US."

Maeena notes the Mideast maxim, "My enemy's enemy is my friend," to explain why support for Al Qaeda and other anti-US groups are likely to increase in the face of an Iraq attack.

On the other hand, it is that same dynamic that may keep intelligence cooperation alive, other analysts say.

"Those governments are as much the targets of Al Qaeda as the United States, We're all in the bull's-eye for Al Qaeda," says Frank Anderson, a former CIA Near East and South Asia division chief, who is now with Foreign Reports, Inc., a consulting firm in Washington. "For that reason," Mr. Anderson says, "nothing in my experience, either in government or since, would lend credence [to intelligence curtailment] as an issue."

A top consideration may be the nature of any US strike against Iraq, and how it will force American allies to adjust their thinking. One sign that the US is taking the "long view," says Ranstorp, is how expanded US antiterror funds to Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and other nations include money for riot control and quelling civil disturbances. "In preparation for the war in Iraq," Ranstorp notes, the US is "teaching them techniques to control their populations."

Such efforts may not be necessary if the US acts decisively in Iraq, says Julie Sirrs, a former Pakistan/Afghanistan analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, in Arlington, Va.

"If we looked like we were going to be successful [in Iraq], by going in with sufficient force, for example, then [allies] wouldn't take it out on us," says Ms. Sirrs. "The information they give us about Al Qaeda is also for their own security. Al Qaeda is no friend of any of those regimes."

Pakistan, with its history of providing support for the Taliban regime and extremist schools, should be the most important source of shared data with the US.

But Pakistan – despite help in last Wednesday's capture of Al Qaeda suspect Mr. Binalshibh, and other key arrests – is also playing a double game, Sirrs says. She says that she continues to see reports that Pakistani operatives are helping hide Al Qaeda remnants in the Pakistan-controlled portion of Kashmir, where it is "extra safe, because a lot of people don't go there, and Pakistan has tight control."

While it is "possible" that Al Qaeda intelligence could dry up in the face of a US attack on Iraq, says Paul Beaver, a London-based independent military analyst, "it works both ways. The US would also be giving Jordan and Saudi Arabia information as well, and they would lose more than the Americans if intelligence ties were cut off."

Still, he argues, the US can handle war against Al Qaeda and Iraq at the same time, if it needs to. "If United Nations inspectors are not welcome [in Iraq], and there is a resort to force of arms, the US would be quite capable of doing that, and at the same time, prosecuting Al Qaeda wherever they are."

But some caution that shifting focus to Iraq, with so much unfinished business still in Afghanistan, could jeopardize success on both fronts.

Sirrs notes that the shift has already begun to take place at the Pentagon, where Southeast Asia analysts "aren't even doing it anymore; they're just tossing it to people from other areas."

"If we do a kind of halfway, botched job on Afghanistan, no one is really going to have a lot of faith in us," says Sirrs. "I see [Saddam Hussein] as a threat, but not in the direct sense with what we're fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I don't even see us facing up to the problem with Pakistan, and Iraq would only distract us further."

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