Overhauling Iraq’s intelligence services

The political quota system and subsequent appointment of incompetent intelligence services leaders have severely hampered Iraq's ability to fight terrorist forces despite an abundance of confrontations and episodes from which to learn.

al-monitor Iraqi Interior Minister Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban (L) and Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi (R) attend a ceremony marking the Iraqi Police Day's 93rd anniversary at a police academy in Baghdad, Jan. 8, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Ahmed Saad.

Topics covered

terrorism, security cooperation, sectarianism, islamic state, intelligence

Jun 15, 2015

Iraq's security and armed forces suffer from a lack of intelligence-gathering capabilities that has affected their ability to draft plans and mechanisms for combating terrorism. The parliament's Security and Defense Committee on Aug. 14, 2014, linked deterioration in the security situation to the ineptitude of the security apparatuses and the state of their intelligence capabilities.

This reality stems from the bitter experience of authorities having failed to anticipate the ongoing attacks on Iraqi cities, particularly Baghdad. The Security and Defense Committee noted on May 11 that security breaches and criminal acts are escalating in the city and asserted that the breaches there are part of the Islamic State’s (IS) strategy to take its battle to the capital. Iraqi authorities have also failed to thwart terrorist acts during direct confrontations with IS. On May 17, IS announced its full control over the city of Ramadi, after the Iraqi army fled the scene.

Iraq’s inability to establish an effective intelligence apparatus, despite security forces waging daily battles against terrorism and thousands giving their lives, has had a grave and detrimental effect in reducing the government's political as well as security options. It has also had catastrophic repercussions on the ground through IS’ expansion and with security breaches costing the country dearly in material and human losses.

On June 10, Hashd, a nongovernmental organization examining crimes committed in Iraq for potential genocide, announced, “The losses incurred by the Iraqi security and popular mobilization forces since the fall of Mosul on June 10, 2014, followed by the security incidents and violent battles against terrorist groups, reached around 40,000 victims, 25,000 injured and 3,000 missing.”

What has hindered Iraq from building of an effective intelligence apparatus, despite daily confrontations with terrorist forces in a fight that, by all measures, is sufficiently expansive to induce learning, increase knowledge and prompt reassessment? On May 3, the Security and Defense Committee blamed security lapses on the intelligence services’ lack of aptitude and vigilance, leading to their failure to understand IS' movements and maneuvering. Based on a closer analysis of the conduct of the political forces running the country, however, such a blanket accusation reveals itself to be unjust.

All state institutions, including the security agencies, have fallen victim to the political quota system, enabling the appointment of incompetent individuals to leadership positions on the basis of political loyalties rather than ability and national needs. Shuruq al-Abaji, a Civil Democratic Alliance parliamentarian, warned March 23 of sectarian quotas undermining standards of competence, integrity and the capacity to practice politics.

Since 2003, the political parties and factions have been seeking their own share of the Iraqi intelligence services in addition to their own intelligence. This was reiterated March 9 by the fierce competition among the parties over who should head the intelligence service.

The application of the quota system to the security agencies, which require particular coordinative aptitudes, has rendered them unable to form unified commands and deprived them of the mechanisms required for joint coordination, information gathering and analysis. Having failed to protect its intelligence agencies from a political system predicated on partisan quotas, the Iraqi political establishment has also as a consequence failed to guarantee their independence. As a result, the intelligence agencies have become fragmented, dominated by cliques of incompetent individuals and infiltrated by political parties and other exploitative factions.

Intelligence agencies abound, spread throughout the country as administratively independent entities that answer to the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the National Security Advisory, counterterrorism agencies and army intelligence, as well as local governments and special forces units. This expansive spectrum duplicates instead of complements technical and administrative responsibilities, leading to further lack of coordination among the intelligence agencies, exacerbated by a lack of a unified vision to address the dangers that threaten the country.

Despite this construct of separate and independent agencies having proved to be a failure created by the underlying political crisis, Iraqi political forces continue to refuse to integrate and unify the work of the intelligence services. The forces themselves reject the adoption of measures whereby competency, instead of partisan loyalty and ethnic or sectarian affiliations, serve as criteria for appointment. These factors have directly contributed to Iraq’s inability to successfully confront extremist factions.

Given Iraq's domestic political situation, its diplomacy has also failed to exploit common interests with its neighbors and the rest of the world, rendering intelligence-related cooperation ineffectual despite the war against extremist groups having taken on an international dimension. Furthermore, this inability to bolster intelligence cooperation with world and regional actors was mainly due to political considerations steeped in disorder, imbalances and a lack of productive endeavors. Effective intelligence cooperation was further hampered by the prevailing lack of understanding and regional interference in the Iraqi crisis.

In this regard, one should not forget that IS, a transnational organization, has an intelligence arm and interests that intersect with some regional and even international policies. For example, a Jan. 16 report by the al-Mayadeen channel claimed that Turkey’s interests are represented by the support provided to IS, the group's armament and the facilitation of IS fighters' ability to cross borders. Its expansion could not have occurred had it not been for external efforts that directly and indirectly sought to strengthen and use it as a card in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

All of these factors are obvious points of weakness. Fixing them requires a firm Iraqi political desire to dissociate the intelligence, police and army services from the political quota system while working toward building truly national intelligence and security agencies that utilize scientific principles and adopt a philosophy that gives precedence to the interests of the country over those of political parties and external factions.

There are also administrative, organizational and technological deficiencies that must be addressed. It is evident that the intelligence agencies are currently incapable of taking advantage of or implementing the phenomenal technological advances enjoyed by other regional and international intelligence services. In fact, the performance of Iraq’s intelligence apparatus has seemed lacking even in comparison to that of IS, which has cleverly exploited methods of communication, investigation and surveillance to recruit members.

Iraq's technological paucity is due in part to agency leaders ignoring the need for constant modernization and training in the use of up-to-date technologies. It is also a result of their unwillingness to recruit people with competencies in this regard from outside their partisan, sectarian and ethnic quotas.

The Iraqi intelligence services are handicapped by their inadequate information-gathering capabilities, especially from inside organizations. This lack of reliable assets stems from the intelligence services’ inability to win over the local populations of such places as Fallujah, now seen as supportive of IS. In October 2014, Hamid al-Hayes, head of the Anbar Salvation Council, described Fallujah as a terrorist hub and implicated local sheikhs as accomplices.

The lack of assets is obviously due to the intelligence services’ inability to establish a network of informants capable of infiltrating extremist groups' organizational structures, tracking the movements and modus operandi of such outfits and recruiting members from within their ranks. Intelligence agency leaders have failed to grasp the mentality, religious underpinnings and symbologies of organizations, particularly in the case of IS. This shortcoming has, in turn, affected the analysis of information received by Iraqi intelligence, a problem exacerbated by the dearth of analysts capable of understanding and predicting organizations' behavior.

In the short term, it will be difficult for Iraq to make progress in developing effective intelligence services. Regardless, the government, with the support of the parliament and other political forces, must take the first steps toward that end. It should do so by undertaking ambitious reorganizations and rehabilitation of the existing system while at the same time providing the agencies with the technical capabilities required to improve their performance and raise their level of competency. It must also give them the political support necessary to safeguard their ability to combat and confront terrorism through innovative means.

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