Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What went wrong

Ibrahim al-Amin writes in Al-Akhbar about how Lebanese intelligence ended up seriously underestimating the security threat posed by Fatah al-Islam, and in the course of the discussion he mentions the role of foreign intelligence services, including those of Saudi Arabia and the USA. In particular, he says American and Saudi pressure contributed to this intelligence failure, in the following way: Fatah al-Islam and other groups were designed to be threats to the Shia and Hizbullah in particular, so they had to be permitted to exist within a certain "general climate". They also were supposed to be kept under surveillance and control, but American and Saudi pressure discouraged that, resulting in what turned out to be an excessively relaxed Sunni-Sunni relationship between the groups and the Lebanese Intelligence Division.

His first point is by way of background, explaining how the Intelligence Division of the national security service came to be the predominant security agency, with power gradually concentrated in the hands of the Hariri group, the biggest turning point being the expulsion of the Syrians following the assassination of the elder Hariri in 2005.
Political and administrative confusion followed the transfer of power from the team backed by Syria to a team backed by the United States, which worked intensely on various support measures, which including those relating to the Intelligence Division, providing it with modern equipment and the possibility of new techniques not [otherwise] available in Lebanon...
The writer goes on to outline the recent bureaucratic history of intelligence organizations in Lebanon, including the fact that there is still a "plurality of heads of intelligence". But obviously the problems don't stop there, he writes, outlining three major problems with the intelligence handling of the Fatah al-Islam problem.

First, the bureaucracy:
The cracks in the system that showed up in the recent events in the north demonstrate, first, that monitoring of Fatah al-Islam was based on a local approach, and this is a problem that bedevils security agencies throughout the Arab world, because agents don't talk frankly with their political leaders about things like the implications a case could have socially or on a national-political level, or regionally, and so on. This caused the Intelligence Division, and in fact the other security agencies too, to minimize the size of [Fatah al-Islam] and convert it, by a political decision, into an instrument run by foreign intelligence services, which the authorities say means the Syrian mukhabarat, while others have many indications of connections with other Arab intelligence agencies, including an increased number of Jordanian agents (the Jordanians handle the coordination of the US and Israeli agencies with the Arab agencies, and the number of Jordanian agents has increased over the past two years). [In any event], when the confrontations in the north occurred, suddenly it was evident that Fatah al-Islam had an extensive presence outside of the camp [in addition to inside the camp], and capacities making it a real security threat in more than one location, and for extended periods of time.
Some of that isn't crystal clear in detail, but the main point is that there is a bureaucratic practice of sticking to your local tasks and not raising big issues with the political bosses, and this resulted (perhaps he means almost by default) in a situation where the big issues connected with Fatah al-Islam were left to the foreign agencies.

Second, the point that they missed about Iraq:
It appears a major aim was to understand the number of "Arab fighters" that were coming to Lebanon from other countries, via all land and air points of entry, including groups coming from Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia in particular. Saudi and American intelligence people provided a lot of information about their movements, including some information deriving originally from Syria. ...Substantial information made available over the last two days shows that there was a serious defect in followup with respect to the export-center for Arab fighters, because the situation in Iraq was in fact different from what it had been previously. The change was this: All of the entities within the "AlQaeda" framework are now without any manpower problem, and they have started requesting that less people be sent there, so there arose problems for fighters expelled from Iraq, including dozens of Lebanese...
And the writer explains that local people in the north were alerted to the problem, and some locations for "assistance and support" were changed to locations for "action and attack". The implication seems to be that the Intelligence Division failed to understand that Iraq had become a net exporter of "Arab fighters" even though this was having spillover effects in Lebanon. But the he doesn't get into the question of the reasons for that part of the intelligence failure.

Third: They misunderstood what Seymour Hersh and others were talking about

The Lebanese security service, and the Intelligence Division in particular, misunderstood the political warnings [about not overlooking the scope of these groups]. What Western experts were talking about and Seymour Hersh wrote about concerning the political function of these groups vis-a-vis the so-called Shia wave brought things to the point where it was necessary to create a general climate for these groups [like Fatah al-Islam] for the purpose of intimidating the Shia or Hizbullah in particular, but on the other hand [it was also necessary] to keep these groups under surveillance and control. But it soon came about that foreign political pressure from the Ameicans and the Saudis closed the door for maneuvering [in this regard], considering that the Intelligence Division, which had the biggest margin of maneuver [of any of the Lebanese agencies] ended up treating these groups as being "non-enemy territory" the sense that the sectarian-political makeup of the Intelligence Division teams seemed to give them chance to operate with a greater sense of relaxation, being in a predominantly Sunni area. But this margin proved to be narrow indeed once the confrontations started.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who do you think benefits the most from the latest booming spree in several areas around Lebanon?

1:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In case anyone missed it, this report from the ground provides a close look at the behind-the-scene politics of the story:

Who's Behind the Fighting in North Lebanon?

It's in the bottom half, beginning from "To understand what is going on with Fatah al-Islam at Nahr el-Bared one would want a brief introduction to Lebanon's amazing, but shadowy 'Welch Club'."

9:59 AM  

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