Politics & Policy

Intelligence and the Islamic State

America’s neglect of “perishable commodities”

Intelligence is nothing if not an institutionalized black market in perishable commodities.

— John le Carré

When an intelligence commodity perishes, the costs can be severe. Consider what’s happening with the Islamic State.

Ignorant of IS’s plans, the Obama administration is unable to restrain its advance. With relative freedom, IS continues to move large convoys of fighters and weaponry towards its various offenses. Watch this video from yesterday. It appears to show a large, raucous IS formation advancing toward Baghdad. That convoy was a prime, but perishable, target. Now the convoy has almost certainly divided into smaller, more concealable skirmishing groups.

And this convoy is just one of many IS movements on multiple fronts. At present, IS forces are moving against key towns in Anbar and Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, and against Kobani and other Kurdish strongholds; also, as I explained on Monday, it is proceeding with urban terrorism in Baghdad.

President Obama’s strategy is collapsing. His intelligence failings explain why.

One major intelligence gap is that of human intelligence. As I’ve noted before, the U.S. — hamstrung by force-protection concerns and bureaucratic hesitancy — has few intelligence officers on the ground identifying, recruiting, and directing agents against the Islamic State. That’s a big problem. After all, while satellites show footage of a town, or phone intercepts the content of a conversation, an intelligence officer running a network of sources offers human satellites. Thinking assets of native face, tongue, and cultural understanding, human sources can infect the enemy’s beating heart. These ears and eyes are the crown jewels of intelligence work. Today, the (admittedly superb) Jordanian intelligence service leads this human-intelligence effort. But they desperately need more ground-level support.

Further complicating matters is the fact tat the Islamic State has learned from its predecessors. Where al-Qaeda in Iraq relied on cell phones and other such communication platforms — and therefore received unwanted nighttime knocks from U.S. Special Forces — the Islamic State is now hyper-paranoid about its signal-intelligence vulnerability. Wherever possible, its leaders “stay off the grid.” Again, for U.S. intelligence, which remains far too heavily weighted toward signals collection, this is a big problem. If the enemy isn’t on a cell phone, the NSA’s vast mainframes generate nothing but heat.

Taken together, these gaps mean that U.S. intelligence product on the Islamic State has often (to borrow le Carré’s idea) “perished” or become out of date by the time it has been acquired. To be useful — especially against a mobile, multi-front, adaptable enemy like IS — intelligence product must be timely, accurate, and multi-sourced.

Nevertheless, the final and most problematic U.S. intelligence gap is the continuing delusion of those who receive or “consume” it. Persistent in its neglect of the IS threat, the White House has since doubled down on that ignorance. Ruling out Special Forces deployments (needed to direct air strikes), refusing to deploy sufficient air assets (needed to fill urgent taskings), and ignoring the dire political consequences of these choices, the Obama administration instead buries its head in the sand, while exposing U.S. military operations to the enemy. As a consequence, the Islamic State’s ambition of a Middle East sectarian purge looms ever closer.

Intelligence is never a perfect art, but even (and perhaps especially) in great risk, the bold and calculating practice of it is a necessity. The U.S. military is extraordinarily capable, but, just as an inexperienced fisherman cannot fish without knowing where to cast his nets, a military devoid of tools and intelligence can only “cast” sporadic fire in the strategic darkness.

And that’s why the Islamic State retains the strategic initiative.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute, is based in Washington, D.C., and tweets @TomRtweets.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at TRogan@McLaughlin.com

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