In Depth

Why didn't Western intelligence services see Isis coming?

One of Cameron's advisers remarked: 'We thought Isis was in retreat at the end of last year'…

There is something strange about the sudden spate of warnings about threats to airliners bound for the US from bombers trained by al-Qaeda and Isis. With this comes a strong sense of stable doors banging shut in the land of the intelligence services, well after the horses have bolted.

The lightning campaign which has seen Isis seize a huge chunk of Syria and Iraq, and declare its own Islamic state, was not anticipated by analysts in Britain and the United States. An academic adviser to David Cameron remarked privately last week: “We thought Isis was in retreat at the end of last year, and some in the region were saying they were finished.”

A senior journalist at The Guardian told a mutual friend this week that he and his colleagues believed the claims of Isis had been over-hyped by the media, and their success was likely to prove ephemeral and temporary.

Who fed him that line? Because one of the UK’s leading envoys to the region, an Arabist with long experience in the Middle East, told me a couple of days ago: “Of course Isis is very powerful and highly significant. They have managed to gather in the support of every disaffected Sunni in Syria and Iraq who has felt abandoned by the current regimes in Damascus and Baghdad.

“It’s going to take a long time to restore confidence and governance to those Sunni communities. But the immediate task is to blunt the advance of the militants led by Isis. They are a major threat well beyond the Middle East.”

So, were the intelligence service looking the other way when Isis scythed through Mosul a month or so back? And if they weren’t, why weren’t we being warned ?

If it is true that al-Qaeda’s most adept bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, has move some of his most promising terrorist trainees to Syria, as MI6 has been hinting through its usual journalistic outlets, we must expect more efforts to down passenger planes heading for America.

Faced with the Isis advance, there seems almost to be a public attention deficit disorder among those it threatens. Today even Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to think his main opposition is coming from within his own Shia community. This week he sent helicopters and troops to confront a 25,000-strong militia army raised by the radical cleric Mahmoud al-Sarkhi in the Shia’s holy city of Karbala. At the same time he was offering "a truce" to the Sunni militants following Isis.

The principal practical problem – according to my Arabist envoy - is that it is very “difficult – almost impossible - for us to get down on the ground in the land held by Isis now” to gather intelligence on the new bomb-makers and terrorist operatives now being trained by Isis and al-Qaeda.

This in turn has drawn a bizarre line of argument from some of the architects of the American-British intervention in Iraq in 2003, including Tony Blair and former US Vice-President Dick Cheney. Far from acknowledging any responsibility for the current meltdown in Iraq, they are urging further and greater intervention by western powers, because as Cheney told Fox News, “We could be on track for something worse than 9/11.”

The case for Blair’s visions has been made this week by Matthew D’Ancona, former editor of The Spectator, in rather peculiar terms. “The notion that Mr Blair is responsible for the rise of Isis reflects a lazy approach,” he wrote in Monday’s New York Times. “Mr (Saddam) Hussein was a busy sponsor of jihadist violence, but if the war had never happened and he and his criminal family were still clinging to power, are we so certain that a version of Isis would not have arisen anyway?”

Well, not as it is now, is the answer, because Saddam drew broad support from the Sunnis that are now following the black Isis banners. As for being the “busy sponsor of jihadist violence”, the record shows Saddam hated and feared the jihadis every bit as much as fellow autocrats Mubarak and Gaddafi.

The case against Blair and Bush’s hasty intervention strategy in Iraq is that they never thought through the strategic consequences in going to tackle a non-existent threat - the phantom weapons of mass destruction - and of turfing out a dictator with no idea what to put in his place.

These errors were compounded by the wilfull dismantling of the professional core of the Iraqi army and the Baathist civil administration, including those who ran Iraq's hospitals and schools. These two institutions were the only things that stood a chance of holding the country together.

The dismemberment of the civil service and the army have been catalytic and causal to the present chaos and growing civil war in Iraq.

It is very likely that such considerations have led to the caution of the intelligence services about the true state of affairs in lands now claimed by the Islamic State and caliphate of Isis.

Both Obama and Cameron are neuralgic about the ‘I’ word – Intervention. So their agencies seem to be following the tried and tested maxim of any good advocate or journalist: when in doubt, leave it out.

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