October 18, 2010

Saudi intelligence warnings - seriously?

Prince MuqranThe Saudi intelligence service has issued a warning about an al-Qa'idah threat to Europe. The warning stated that the al-Qa'idah affiliate group calling itself al-Qa'idah on the Arabian Peninsula was targeting "the European continent and in particular France."

The warning comes after a series of threat alerts over the past weeks. What is significant is that this one comes from the Saudis. Since the warning was sourced to the AQAP, it is likely reliable information. Although Saudi intelligence has a uneven reputation as a reliable intelligence service, they are good at collecting information that either threatens the ruling family or takes place in their own back yard.

Saudi Arabia's primary intelligence service is formally called the ri'asat al-istkhbarat al-'amah (رئاسة الاستخبارات العامة‎), the General Intelligence Presidency, but it more commonly referred to as the GID for General Intelligence Directorate. It is a cabinet level agency that reports to the King. As such, its primary intelligence requirement is to provide warning of, and occasionally neutralize, threats to the royal family. The head of the GID is Prince Muqran bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, the third youngest son and youngest surviving son of the founder of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, also a brother of the King. He has been in the position since October 2005.

While deployed to Saudi Arabia during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, I worked closely with Saudi military intelligence and the GID. For the most part, we found their reporting to be unreliable, for several reasons. At that time, and I hope the services have improved since then, they were not functioning as most professional intelligence services do.

The intelligence cycle in most services begins with a requirement, or what does a decision maker want or need to know? Collectors, be they case officers or technical systems, are then tasked to gather information against that requirement. The collected data is then collated and compared with other information if available and analyzed. The final intelligence product is then provided to the decision maker.

In my experience with the Saudis, they tended to skip the analysis step and take most raw data as truth. This caused the American intelligence agencies a lot of time and effort during the run up to the liberation of Kuwait. The Saudis would present us with a raw intelligence report from an asset in Europe or Africa, almost always dealing with a threat to the King. We would have to spend man hours and task scarce resources to collect information refuting the mostly incredible claims of the Saudi assets. This took away from collecting information on the Iraqis whom we were about to engage.

The reason I would believe threat information about AQAP from the Saudi service now is that in 2004 the Saudis had an epiphany when it comes to al-Qa'idah. As far back as 1997, Saudi intelligence was in contact with Usamah bin Ladin. In fact, CIA officers recommended that the Saudi service be considered a hostile intelligence service because of those contacts. The CIA went do far as to claim that in some instances after sharing communications intelligence on al-Qa'idah with the Saudis, the communications would disappear, suggesting that the terrorist group had been warned.

This all changed in 2004 when al-Qa'idah operatives began attacking targets in the Kingdom. The Saudis, who I believe had struck an agreement with Usamah bin Ladin that they would not pursue members of the group in Saudi Arabia, changed directions immediately and went after the terrorist group with a vengeance we could only hope to emulate. In less than three years the efficient and capable Saudi internal security forces had virtually eliminated al-Qa'idah as a viable entity in the Kingdom. Most of the survivors sought safe haven in Yemen or Somalia.

Saudi intelligence can be effective when operating on their home turf defending their royal family. It appears that the warnings were based on information developed as part of these efforts. I would be inclined to believe it.