Intelligence services in the Middle East originated with European imperialism and colonialism during the nineteenth century. Spies and informers were not new to the region—the Ottoman Empire had monitored the activities of their officials—but the systematic collecting, organizing, and evaluating of political and strategic data for decision making from both open (overt) and confidential (covert) sources was an innovation.
By the late nineteenth century, European governments saw political and military intelligence as a more effective means of advancing colonial interests than military force alone. In Algeria, interest in political and ethnographic intelligence peaked during periods of resistance to French colonial rule, but when France perceived no further threat, interest in intelligence waned. In contrast, since 1904, Morocco's political and social institutions—including its tribal and religious leadership—had been systematically cataloged by the Mission Scientifique au Maroc (the Scientific Mission to Morocco), with the explicit goal of facilitating political intervention. After France established its Protectorate regime in Morocco in 1912, the head of the mission became the director of native affairs.
Most Western intelligence services compartmentalize their activities: the clandestine collection of data; the analysis of overt and covert sources; counterintelligence blocking an enemy's sources, deceiving an enemy, and reporting against hostile penetration; and covert action. In both the colonial bureaucracies and their postindependence successors in the region, the lines between these activities are blurred. The collection of intelligence data sometimes becomes confounded with the supervision, control, and intimidation of populations; and the analysis and reporting of domestic and external threats become subordinate to reassuring insecure rulers or manipulating the information they receive to further individual political careers or factional interests.
The framework of intelligence activities in the colonial era often continued into the initial years of independent Middle Eastern states, and former colonial powers established arrangements for the training of local intelligence specialists. Thus military and civilian intelligence personnel in Jordan and the Persian/Arabian Gulf area receive training in Britain, and the French have provided equivalent training for Morocco and Tunisia.
Military and intelligence organizations were profoundly shaped by foreign advice and training,
even in countries that did not experience colonialism. Iran's SAVAK was created in 1957 with advice from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), whose role was supplemented in the 1960s by Israel's counterpart, Mossad. Following Egypt's 1952 revolution, the CIA assisted in restructuring the intelligence apparatus; and Soviet-bloc technical assistance stepped in after 1956 during Gamal Abdel Nasser's socialist government. By the 1960s, Soviets and East Germans had begun to play important advisory and training roles in Iraq, Syria, the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, and Libya. The Cold War's players were right in the midst of the petroleum-rich Middle East.
Formal training from foreign services notwithstanding, subtle changes occur as intelligence methods and techniques are adapted to local circumstances. First, rival and overlapping services are created to check authority and autonomy, and the result is factionalism. Some rulers—those of Syria and Iraq provide examples—appoint close relatives to key intelligence posts. For instance, in Syria, Rifʿat al-Asad, brother of President Hafiz al-Asad, was head of the Syrian intelligence service and was linked to the Red Knights.
In contrast to U.S. intelligence, which has traditionally placed more emphasis on international rather than domestic threats, the principal task in the region is the surveillance, control, and frequently the intimidation of their own populations—both domestically and abroad. In some states, such as Iraq and Syria, such surveillance is pervasive and un-checked. Intelligence services in other Middle Eastern countries may be more restrained, although human-rights organizations report abuses in all states of the region, as is the case with Tunisia, whose president Zayn al-Abidine Ben Ali received military training in France and the United States. Governments do little to mitigate people's perception
of the power of intelligence organizations because such notions help to suppress public dissent. The secretiveness of such services provides formal (diplomatic) deniability for countries' actions against regional rivals—providing arms or refuge to opponents of a neighboring regime, for example—which, if publicly acknowledged, might lead to a major confrontation. Domestic factions can also receive discreet assistance in the same manner. Regional intelligence services opportunistically cooperate with foreign services; for example, during the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s, the United States provided both sides with intelligence data from the database it was amassing for its own purposes.
The political intelligence activities of the superpowers in the Middle East have been primarily concerned with their own rivalries, protecting oil supplies, and—for the United States—guaranteeing the security of Israel. For Arab historians, the arch example of foreign intervention is the role of the British, including T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) during World War I, in instigating the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule. The British abandoned the Arab cause once their objectives were accomplished. Other examples include U.S.–British cooperation in overthrowing Iran's Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953; and covert U.S. operations against suspected leftist groups in Syria from the late 1940s through 1958. A converse example in 1978 is the Phalange Party and the South Lebanese Army's acceptance of help from Israel during the Lebanese civil war; later, after the head of the party, Bashir Jumayyil, became president of Lebanon, he refused to sign peace accords with Israel. Testimony during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings in the United States demonstrates how covert intelligence activities can work against formal state control and declared public policy.
Understanding intelligence organizations and their activities is difficult, because information on them is uneven. The history of Israel's intelligence service is better known than those of other Middle Eastern countries, since many agents have published memoirs and relevant political archives (subject to a thirty-year delay for state papers) are available to scholars. Thus historians can trace the development of Israeli intelligence operations from the early Zionist monitoring of Arab nationalist movements at the beginning of the British mandate in Palestine (1922), to professionalization in the mid-1930s as an element of Haganah (the Zionist military underground), to its bureaucratic separation into military, domestic, and foreign units following the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel. While Israel's security forces are well articulated, so too is its opposition, apparent in the many Palestinian liberation groups. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), once considered little more than a terrorist organization although greatly hindered after the restriction of movement placed on Yasir Arafat during the Intifada in 2000, was viewed by many as the voice of the Palestinian people. One country's terrorists are another's security.
Other intelligence services of the region are known primarily through information provided by defectors (Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Libya); deliberate leaks; the release of documents during major domestic crises (the trial in Egypt following Anwar al-Sadat's assassination in 1981) or changes of regime (the release of security files on the Iraqi Communist party following the monarchy's overthrow in 1958); and the capture of documents from foreign security services—such as Israel's publication of Jordanian documents seized during the Arab–Israel War of 1967 or the publication of U.S. intelligence documents and diplomatic reports taken from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Much speculation has emerged after 11 September 2001 as to the changing nature of security in the Middle East. It is apparent that some Middle Eastern governments' security and overall governmental structures will be thoroughly reorganized in line with U.S. security demands. Afghanistan and Iraq are two cases in point. Some governments, like Tunisia, have managed to turn the 11 September attacks into an argument to defend their own internal struggles. Some countries, like Morocco, have adopted profiling techniques similar to those used in the United States after the creation of the Home-land Security Council. Others may argue, however, that there is now a cross-pollination of security strategies between the United States and other countries, and that in fact the United States is borrowing tactics—from the Middle East and elsewhere—that limit domestic civil liberties. Just as colonial intervention shaped intelligence in the Middle East at the time of the Ottoman Empire and after, so too will the United States and other powerful countries continue to influence the evolution of security measures in the region.
Middle Eastern states have historically been more concerned with their own domestic threats than with those involving their neighbors; this most probably will not change in the future, as their own national security is linked to wider international security priorities. These governments have traditionally placed strict limits on civil liberties and have focused surveillance in domains of the public sphere, such as the press. As domestic public spheres are projected into international spheres via satellite television and the Internet, internal security too will invariably evolve. More than ever, citizens in the Middle East are aware that what may be seen domestically as a legitimate action to defend national sovereignty by limiting civil liberties can very quickly become a case for defending human rights within international headlines.
All countries have intelligence services within either the domestic police at various levels, the armed forces, or in some cases private security companies. This list reflects national security institutions that stand on their own as semi-independent organizations working in collaboration with national governments.
Israeli Navy Shayetet 13 (maritime countermeasures unit)
Israeli Air Force
Israeli Defense Force
Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan)
Iranian intelligence service (post-Islamic revolution)
Secret Army Organization (France/Algeria)
Saudi Arabian National Guard
Iranian secret police (during reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi)
Special Security Force (Saudi Arabia)
Special Service Group (Pakistan)
Unit 269 Counter-terrorist unit of Sayeret Matkal (Israel)
The following are some groups that have engaged in movements of reclaiming land, resources, and political sovereignty.
Arab Liberation Front
Military wing of Kurdistan Worker's Party (Turkey)
Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia
Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine
Democratic Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan
Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria)
Islamic Armed Group (Algeria)
Islamic Armed Group, General Command
Islamic Resistance Movement
Service Office of the Mujahideen (Afghanistan)
Movement of Arab Nationalists
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Special Command
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Special Operations Group
Palestinian Islamic Jihad
Palestinian Islamic Organization
Kurdistan Worker's Party (Turkey)
Palestine Liberation Army
Palestine Liberation Front
Palestinian Popular Struggle Front
see also arab liberation front; central intelligence agency (cia); front islamique du salut (fis); haganah; kurdistan workers party (pkk); mossad; palestine liberation organization (plo).
Eickelman, Dale F., and Anderson, Jon W., eds. New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Harclerode, Peter. Secret Soldiers: Special Forces in the War against Terrorism. London: Cassell, 2000.
"Tunisia." In Human Rights Watch: Middle East and North Africa. Available from <http://www.hrw.org/mideast/tunisia.php>.
dale f. eickelman
updated by maria f. curtis