Iraq, Syria, Libya, UK – Intelligence failures all


• Lack of intelligence as well as Intelligence
• Intelligence begins at home, but should be deployed away
Given the resources available to US – and British – intelligence agencies, it seems strange that the attraction, influence, finance, and military strength, of the extremist group which calls itself Islamic State (Isis) came as such a surprise.
As Patrick Cockburn observes in his excellent new book, The Jihadis Return, "though the swiftly growing power of Isis was obvious to those who followed its fortunes, the significance of what was happening was taken on board by few foreign governments, hence the widespread shock that greeted the fall of Mosul".
It was evident, says Cockburn, that western governments entirely misread the situation in Iraq and Syria.
For more than a decade, the US – backed by successive British governments, to the horror of many in Whitehall, notably the Foreign Office and some MI6 officers – adopted a simplistic, easy, and entirely misguided, approach towards a most complex and unstable part of the world.
Whether it was bombing (Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan), or demonising dictators (Saddam in Iraq, Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria) it was as though the US and UK governments never contemplated the extraordinary dangerous consequences of a power vacuum.
It is even more dangerous when foreigners impose a deadline on the withdrawal of their forces (Iraq and Afghanistan).
Western governments should have worked more closely, and more humbly, with Turkey, Iran, countries throughout the Middle East, and with Russia (whose leaders have been deeply concerned about radical Islamist extremism for rather longer than the west). The task is to persuade them they do have some essential common interests.
It is not too late to pick up the pieces, and attack such drivers of extremism as poverty, alienation, and sectarianism.
In the short term, humanitarian aid, supplying those fighting Isis with appropiate weapons, and dealing with Assad.
"Sometimes you have to develop relationships with people who are extremely nasty in order to get rid of people who are even nastier", Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative defence and foreign secretary, now chair of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, told the Financial Times last week. Richard Dannatt, former head of the army, took a similar line.
Philip Hammond, former defence secretary, now foreign secretary, distanced himself from such talk. Britain would not supply "lethal suppport" to the "moderate Syrian opposition", he added.
David Cameron and Hammond talk about Britain's "military prowess". That seems to mean intelligence-gathering equipment and (deniable) special forces.
Those used to dealing with unsavoury customers are officers of the foreign intelligence service, MI6. They were among the first to talk to the IRA, taking the long view. They have been frustrated in their early, sensible, attempts to talk to the Taliban.
Now they are warning the government not to overreact to Britons' joining Isis and returning home.
The fundamental tenet of British justice – innocent until proved guilty – should not be changed even in a minor way for this "unproven threat – and it is an unproven threat at the moment," Richard Barrett, MI6's former counter terrorism chief, has told the Guardian. "I don't think we should change the laws without a very much more thorough assessment and understanding of the threat," he added.
Sir Richard Dearlove, Barrett's former boss, said last month that the government and media had blown the Islamist terrorism threat out of proportion, giving extremists publicity that was counter-productive.
The conflict, he said, was "essentially one of Muslim on Muslim".
It is the job of the domestic security service, MI5, to counter any threat they might pose here. Those jihadists who proudly tweet horrific statements and images are not the dangerous ones. The question is how many are quietly planning attacks.
Counter terrorist police appear to be encouraged that families of those who have gone to Syria and Iraq, or their friends and imams, appear to share the concern.
They should be embraced and sticks, rhetorical or otherwise, kept to a minimum.