Flood of missives from foreign agencies warn of al-Qaeda peril to country, but its own spies see little direct threat.
Amongst a trove of documents obtained by Al Jazeera is a secret missive from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) warning of a dramatic plot by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The cable, sent to African intelligence agencies, claims that AQIM has “prospective plans” to create a 60-man Marine Unit in order to expand the group’s operational capabilities to the Mediterranean Sea.
“It comprises suicide operatives trained in underwater sabotage techniques”, the cable warned, and would use “fast craft as strike weapons (‘floating bombs’) against seaborne targets”.
The cable also described a laboratory in eastern Algeria that developed “biological weapons to be used for terrorist purposes”. It told a story of AQIM operatives trying to isolate the “pathogenic culture of pneumonic plague” or Black Death. They failed, and around 40 fighters were contaminated and died as a result of “improper hermetic conditions at the laboratory”.
This story was reported via leaks from anonymous sources in media outlets in January 2009. “Anti-terror bosses” and “a security source” were quoted in The Sun newspaper in Britain. A US government official then confirmed part of the story to The Washington Post but spoke “on the condition he not be named because of the sensitive nature of the issue”.
This incident may be true (or may not) but there is one certainty; it has not been verified by anyone who is publicly accountable.
The source of the FSB account, in common with most analyses contained in the Spy Cables, is not divulged. Its origin is probably, of course, Algeria’s Department of Intelligence and Security (known by its French acronym, DRS).
The DRS has been shown previously to be sharing intelligence of fearful plots that never panned out. This writer gathered evidence from an Algerian intelligence source in 2003 that the DRS had supplied Britain with intelligence concerning a series of planned attacks in the UK.
These included plans to bomb New Year’s celebrations in Scotland; to release cyanide gas in the London Underground, and a plot involving the poison, Ricin. In each case, there were no explosives, cyanide or Ricin but a plethora of hyperventilating newspaper headlines suggesting that Britons were about to be attacked.
This served the Algerian regime in two ways. British security services began to focus on Algerian dissidents in the UK who had sought refuge from their government’s oppression of Islamist political movements in Algeria. Secondly, promoting the threat of violence by those same movements globally legitimised that very oppression at home.
The enlisting of convenient intelligence findings in the cause of national interest or strategic goals has a tragic recent history, of course, in the build-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. British journalist David Rose, an early and passionate advocate of the case for war in Iraq, later admitted he was duped by intelligence sources into believing that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction. Rose told this writer that the world of intelligence sharing between different countries creates an “echo chamber” conducive to spreading misinformation.
“Bum information” from an original source circulates through different intelligence agencies and acquires a life of its own, its echoes serving to ‘verify’ the bad intelligence from that original source. “At that point one is extremely vulnerable,” said Rose, “and to my great regret I failed to see that I was being fed lies.”
Iraq in 2003 remains the poster child of espionage failures, not only at the analytical level, but also in the form of the deliberate manufacture and use of faulty intelligence by politicians to justify predetermined decisions.
The US Presidential Commission charged with examining intelligence failures related to WMD in Iraq noted; “Collectors and analysts too readily accepted any evidence that supported their theory that Iraq had stockpiles and was developing weapons programs, and they explained away or disregarded evidence pointing in the other direction.”
Policy directives from political masters appeared to box in the intelligence analysts; eventually, the politicians got the spies to give them the answers they desired.
The Spy Cables suggest that the world’s intelligence agencies continue to share information on the basis of political agendas, particularly to amplify the threat from groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, despite statistical evidence showing that fatalities resulting from violence by self-styled “jihadist” groups outside theatres of conflict remain negligible in comparison to other unnatural causes of death.
Agencies from allied countries pool knowledge on “jihadist” groups, often do so without clearly sourced evidence. And the scale of the threat from such groups grows in the ‘echo chamber’ to reinforce a siege narrative.
A convenient narrative
For example, in September 2012 a delegation from Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID) briefed their counterparts from South Africa’s State Security Agency to the effect that “the main interest of mutual concern for both services is that of Islamic Extremism”. According to the GID briefing, this threat was amplified by the Arab Spring democracy rebellion – a narrative convenient to the authoritarian rule of King Abdullah.
The loudest voice in this particular echo chamber appears to be Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad. It issues a relentless stream of alerts and demands for information on suspects, secret notices about Iran’s nuclear program and weekly “Middle East Intelligence Summaries”. Its agents repeatedly warn the SSA of unspecified risks to Jewish targets in South Africa, as well as a continent-wide menace of bombings by Iranian or Hezbollah operatives.
Of course, intelligence agencies must be aware that their counterparts peddle their national interest as factual intelligence assessments. But there is a danger that agencies are forging a consensual worldview and like water on a stone, future global threat assessments are shaped less by verifiable fact and more by an echo chamber of poorly sourced and politically motivated intelligence.
It is difficult to prove direct intent to manipulate intelligence by any agency or politician; such is the murky world of espionage whose currency is analysis rather than established truths.
But based upon the Spy Cables, it is clear that intelligence agencies don’t just communicate genuine security threats but also further their own national interests by exploiting every country’s fear of attack.
And let’s not ignore the possibility that an intelligence organisation has a vested interest in promoting threat and fear; in a peaceful world, is it the agency itself that faces an existential threat.