Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Middle East's Most Powerful Spooks

BY PATRICK DEVENNY - foreignpolicy.com
22/ 07/ 2009

In a region known for cutthroat espionage, these five intelligence chiefs have leveraged their skills and connections to gain influence far above their pay grades.

OMAR SULEIMAN

Position: Director of Egypt's General Intelligence Service

Career: The archetypical Arab intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman has risen from anonymous government apparatchik to serious candidate for the Egyptian presidency in less than a decade. Dubbed "one of the world's most powerful spy chiefs" by London's Daily Telegraph, Suleiman was born in 1935 in a poverty-stricken fundamentalist stronghold in southern Egypt. Choosing the military as his profession, he excelled academically, collecting degrees in Egypt and abroad and earning a transfer to military intelligence. His selection as director of Egypt's intelligence service in 1993 came just as the regime was reeling from extremist attacks against tourist sites and other critical infrastructure.

In 1995, he famously insisted that President Hosni Mubarak's armored Mercedes be flown to Ethiopia for a state visit; The car saved the Egyptian leader's life during an assassination attempt the next day. In response to the attack, Suleiman helped dismantle Mubarak's Islamist opponents, a campaign that earned him a reputation for ruthlessness. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Suleiman's experience with combating Islamist terrorists has made him a favorite of Western intelligence services hungry for insights into al Qaeda and affiliated organizations.

Influence: More than from any other single factor, Suleiman's influence stems from his unswerving loyalty to Mubarak. Of Suleiman's allegiance, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer told Haaretz, "His primary task, perhaps his only one, is to defend the regime and protect the life of the president." In a sign of presidential gratitude, Egypt's secret warrior has also recently served as its diplomatic face, traveling throughout the region as Mubarak's personal emissary. This charge includes working as a mediator during ongoing Israeli and Palestinian negotiations and as Cairo's interlocutor to dozens of Palestinian groups, including Hamas. Whether this unofficial promotion is a trial run for a Suleiman presidency remains to be seen.

MEIR DAGAN

Position: Director of Israel's Mossad

Career: Meir Dagan's path to the leadership of Mossad was not a traditional one for an espionage chief who had spent most of his career in military operations, not intelligence. Born in the Soviet Union in 1945, Dagan served as a paratroop commander in the Six Day War, worked in special undercover units in the 1970s, and commanded an armored brigade in the 1982 Lebanon war. Highly decorated and wounded twice, Dagan benefited from his relationship with future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. During Sharon's term in office, Dagan was steadily promoted through the national security ranks leading to his appointment as Mossad chief in 2002. Sharon reportedly informed his old friend that Israel required a spy service "with a knife between its teeth." Dagan, the veteran operator, seems to have obliged.

Influence: Dagan's sway was on full display in June when the Israeli cabinet met to consider extending his term to a near-record eight years. No vote was required as senior politicians including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raced to praise Dagan as "an excellent Mossad chief" who had done much to reform the service following a period of decay. Such unanimous acclaim is especially impressive at a time when Israel is relying heavily on its vaunted intelligence service to counter several threats, including that "existential" one from Iran. Dagan has clearly sought to bolster Mossad operations against Tehran with some apparent success; a parade of Israeli journalists has recently hinted at Mossad's clandestine campaign against the Iranian nuclear program.

Additionally, the assassination of Hezbollah security chief Imad Mugniyah -- widely credited to Mossad -- has only strengthened Dagan's hand. It was reportedly Dagan's intelligence and advice that coaxed Israeli political leaders to approve airstrikes against a possible Syrian nuclear facility in September 2007. Finally, Tel Aviv's reliance on Mossad-derived intelligence to guide its greater Iranian policy grants Dagan considerable influence over his country's foreign policy.

QASSEM SULEIMANI

Position: Commander of the Quds Force, the external wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps

Career: Referred to as "the tip of Iran's spear" by American journalist David Ignatius, Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani was an unknown until he assumed command of the Quds Force, the unit responsible for supporting Iran's regional allies and proxies. A decorated veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Suleimani attracted the attention of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who appointed the young war hero to a command position within the Revolutionary Guard following the war. Since his promotion to Quds Force chief in 2000, Suleimani has been omnipresent, representing the interests of the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Central Asia.

U.S. commanders in Iraq have charged the Quds Force with passing an array of sophisticated weapons to Iraqi militia groups, leading to Suleimani's designation as a terrorist supporter by the U.S. State Department in 2007. In early 2008, he reportedly traveled to Basra, where he negotiated a cease-fire between militias and government forces, a testament to his influence within Iraq's Shiite power circles.

Influence: Suleimani's key role in overseeing Tehran's regional strategy and his relationship to the senior leadership make him a major player in shaping Iranian foreign policy. Former Western intelligence officials have suggested that Suleimani maintains a close connection to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with former U.S. counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke stating that the Quds Force "reports directly to the Supreme Ayatollah." Former CIA official Robert Grenier has echoed that sentiment, referring to Suleimani as "an extremely important and influential guy."

Although little is known about his political views, Suleimani's exploits indicate he is aligned with Iranian leaders who seek to aggressively counter any U.S. presence in the region. With Khamenei relying heavily on the Islamic Republic's security organs during the current political crisis, the fortunes of well-connected and capable regime stalwarts such as Suleimani can be expected to rise.

ASSEF SHAWKAT

Position: Former commander of Syria's military intelligence agency, current deputy chief of staff of the Syrian military

Career: Few paths to power have been as unlikely -- or as oddly romantic -- as Assef Shawkat's. Born in the coastal town of Tartus, Shawkat served in the Syrian military while pursuing a graduate degree in history, a subject for which he has a deep affinity. Shawkat moved easily within elite circles, socializing that paid off spectacularly when he captured the heart of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's daughter, Bushra. His dogged pursuit of Bushra -- her father initially opposed the relationship -- earned him some measure of respect: "Anyone who could go into the home of Hafez Assad and take his daughter away without his permission has the power to do anything,'' a Syrian newscaster who had met Shawkat many times told the New York Times in 2005.

By the late 1990s, Shawkat had joined the inner sanctum, assuming command of military intelligence in February 2005 -- the same month former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated. The initial findings of a U.N. commission cast suspicion on Shawkat, leading many observers to suggest that President Bashar al-Assad would hand his brother-in-law over for questioning or possible trial. In January 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department added to the avalanche of condemnation by freezing Shawkat's assets and dubbing him "a key architect of Syria's domination of Lebanon.

Influence: By 2008, having successfully avoided the calls for his extradition, Shawkat appeared poised to continue the consolidation of his power base. However, his ascension may have been stalled by the death of Hezbollah security chief Imad Mugniyah in February 2008. Killed in the heart of Damascus, Mugniyah's death was viewed as an embarrassing breach of security or even an indication of Syrian involvement. Tellingly, Shawkat was barred from participating in the joint Hezbollah-Syrian-Iranian investigation into Mugniyah's death. Additionally, just this month, Shawkat was "promoted" to deputy chief of staff of the Syrian military, a transfer that may signal a deterioration of the Assad-Shawkat relationship. However, given Shawkat's marriage to Bushra and his long-standing ties to senior members of the security apparatus, it is way too early to count him out of the Syrian power game.

PRINCE MUQRIN BIN ABDUL-AZIZ

Position: Director general of Saudi Arabia's General Intelligence Presidency (GIP)

Career: The youngest son of the Saudi kingdom's founder, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz lived in relative anonymity for the first 60 years of his life. Born in 1945 and educated in the West, Prince Muqrin served in the Royal Saudi Air Force and as governor of several Saudi provinces, including al-Madinah, whose capital is the holy city of Medina. In 2005, he was tapped by his half brother King Abdullah to head the GIP, a daunting task given his lack of intelligence experience and the long shadow of his predecessors, among them legendary chief Prince Turki bin Faisal.

Influence: Despite his inexperience, Muqrin's star has risen quickly in the past three years as he has become a versatile point man for King Abdullah. Muqrin's responsibilities include managing Riyadh's critical Pakistan and Afghanistan portfolio. He has been a regular visitor to Islamabad, maintaining the kingdom's relationships with a wide array of Pakistani political leaders. As for Afghanistan, Muqrin was dispatched to Kabul in January to meet leading officials, including President Hamid Karzai.

The prince might have had an ulterior motive: News reports suggest that the trip was part of Muqrin's overall campaign to bring Taliban leaders into talks with Kabul, suggesting that Muqrin is continuing his predecessor's policy of maintaining contact with Taliban leaders. A month later, Muqrin was sent to Damascus to personally deliver overtures to the Assad regime as part of the larger Arab campaign to reengage Syria. Involvement in critical Saudi foreign-policy efforts and his relative youth have positioned Muqrin well for greater responsibilities in the near future.

The road to Jerusalem runs through Tunis and Cairo



America didn't see democracy coming to the Arab world because it didn't want to see it

The road to Jerusalem runs through Tunis and Cairo
Reuters/Mohammed Salem
Hamas supporters attend a protest in Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on Friday.

This originally appeared at Mondoweiss

The neoconservatives told us that the road to Jerusalem lay through Baghdad. They meant that invading Iraq and installing a democracy there would lead to peace in Israel and Palestine. The way they imagined that peace was a neocolonial landgrab: a greater Israel with portions of the West Bank amalgamated by Jordan. Still, that is what they believed-- that creating democracy in Iraq would lead to a peace in Palestine.

These ideas are in smithereens today. The Palestine Papers have revealed that the peace process was a Trojan horse for Israeli expansionism and that even the American client in the West Bank could not accept a future state without Ariel and Ma'ale Adunim, the long fingers of Jewish territory.

And the lessons of Iraq and Tunisia and Egypt are that you don't install democracy anywhere; no, democracy must arise from the people themselves, you damage the processes of establishing popular will by seeking to impose such a system. The western democratic revolutions also arose from within.

The lesson of Tunisia and Egypt for American foreign policy is that the United States is the most conservative force in the world, in this region. It didn't see democracy coming because it didn't want to see it coming to the Arab world and to the palaces we supported. And when democracy did come, the U.S. creditably reversed field in Tunisia, but has stuck by its dictator in Egypt.

Barack Obama's failure to honor the Egyptian protesters in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, and Joe Biden's cold negativity toward them last night (they're not up against a dictator, we can't encourage them, this is not the awakening of eastern Europe) reveal the unwavering influence of the Israel lobby in our public life, and how conservative that influence is. The administration's statements reveal that it prefers stability in Egypt, no matter the cost to civil rights and human rights there, to freedom for Arab people. And why? Because Egyptian stability preserves the Israeli status quo, in which Israel gets to imprison West Bank protesters without a peep from the U.S. government and gets to destroy civilians in Gaza again without a peep from the alleged change-agent in the White House.

Thankfully, P.J. Crowley was forced to reveal the policy yesterday by Shihab Rattansi of Al Jazeera, when he admitted that the difference between the administration's response to Tunisia and Egypt stems from the fact that Egypt has a peace deal with Israel and has come to terms with Israel's existence, a model to the region. And this line is echoed all over the American news, when they say that Egypt is helping the "peace process," a process that has produced only suffering and dispossession for Palestinians.

The hole in the bottom of the world here is the fear that Arabs have not accepted Israel's existence. They didn't accept it in 1947 in New York, and they didn't accept it in 1967 in Khartoum. They always warned that its presence would create instability in the region, and the State Department said it would radicalize Israel's neighbors, and 60 years on this is more true than ever. The Arab Peace initiative of 2002 was a great gesture of realism: the Arab states did accept Israel's existence, on the '67 lines. But nothing has come of this incredible shift, and Brian Baird tells us that leading American congressmen, tucked in at night by the Israel lobby, didn't even know about the Arab Peace Initiative, and Israel scoffed at the offer because it had American power behind it.

Now in Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab street has taken the neocons at their word and said, Yes we want democracy, and we will get it. And Arab youth has taken facebook and twitter and done more with these tools than Americans have done, and said we want free speech and social freedom.

And when they get it-- if not this year then within ten years, the internet is too dynamic a force, along with Assange and Al Jazeera-- when they get it, they will expose the power of the Israel lobby so that even Chris Matthews will have to address the contradictions. For we will be seen to have only one policy, the preservation of a Jewish state, even if that means Jim Crow and apartheid and stamping out democratic movements everywhere and tolerating a prison for 1.5 million innocent people in Gaza. I waffle about the two state-solution more than anyone, I actually imagined that partition might preserve tranquility, but when democracy comes to Cairo the pressure on Jerusalem to allow equal rights for all citizens will be massive. And the claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East will have completely dissolved.

You see the pressure on Jerusalem beginning in earnest now, from new quarters. You see it in Admiral Mullen's awareness that Americans will come home in wheelchairs until Palestinians have freedom, in Senator Rand Paul's call for cuts in military aid to Israel.

That pressure must come to bear soon on the Democratic Party. It is the natural home for the recognition of minority rights and the self-determination of formerly-oppressed people. How sad that even Russ Feingold can scarcely talk about Obama's war when he speaks out to a progressive audience, and can't even talk about Palestine. Pathetic.

What we see in Cairo is the destruction of American racist attitudes. A year or so back a Jewish friend said to me that if Jews could take on the Israel lobby and reform American foreign policy, it would be a model for human rights leadership across the world. And I agreed; and we are working at it.

But that was an elitist conceit. The moral leadership in the region is coming not from any American movement in our imperfect democracy, no, we are the most conservative country in the world right now; it is coming from the streets in Tunisia and Egypt.

Philip Weiss is the co-editor of " The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict ."