The Things Our Allies Tell Us — Or Don’t

On Friday, the NYT reported that the US was surprised that the Nusra Front attacked Division 30, which is what they’re now calling the group of US-trained “moderate rebels” who’ve only recently been inserted in Syria.

In Washington, several current and former senior administration officials acknowledged that the attack and the abductions by the Nusra Front took American officials by surprise and amounted to a significant intelligence failure.

While American military trainers had gone to great lengths to protect the initial group of trainees from attacks by Islamic State or Syrian Army forces, they did not anticipate an assault from the Nusra Front. In fact, officials said on Friday, they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” said one former senior American official, who was working closely on Syria issues until recently, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments.

As Moon of Alabama snarked, this would mean the entire national security elite is shocked, shocked that people we’ve been bombing might not welcome us afterwards.

Given how quickly the US responded to the kidnapping by promising air cover for the Division — which is all but guaranteed to suck the US far more deeply into Syria’s civil war — I don’t rule out the very cynical possibility that some within the US recognized the likelihood our rebels would be attacked, but took that as acceptable price to force the US to engage more directly.

If that’s not the case, given how unlikely it is that the entirely intelligence establishment is so stupid so as to have missed the very obvious risk to our rebels, I think it’s quite likely that the US got affirmative HUMINT from one of our partners in the region that Nusra Front would not attack. Both the Saudis and Israelis are real possibilities to have provided this intelligence, given that we rely on the Saudis for a lot of our intelligence on Sunni terrorist groups and the Israelis have been cozying up to the group. And I’m frankly agnostic whether that intelligence would have been offered cynically — again, as a ploy to suck the US further into Syria — or in good faith.

But I do think one possible explanation for the seemingly impossible claim that this attack took the US by surprise to be that we had intelligence telling us this wouldn’t happen.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the Middle East, consider the first line of this FP story revealing the intelligence community learned the Houthis were launching scud missiles into the Saudi Arabia via Twitter.

The U.S. intelligence community first learned that Yemen’s Houthi rebels had launched a Scud missile toward Saudi Arabia on June 30 not from spies on the ground or satellites in the skies, but instead from a more modern form of information gathering: Twitter.

“The first warning of that event: ‘hashtag scudlaunch,’” Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, the head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), said at a gathering of intelligence contractors just outside Washington on Thursday night. “Someone tweeted that a Scud had been launched, and that’s how we started to search for this activity.”

This also means that the intelligence community — including the CIA led by the former Station Chief to Riyadh — did not learn the Houthis were mounting a counterstrike into KSA from our close allies the Saudis. Yet the likelihood of that was readily available, even to me, via Twitter.

Again, this suggests that the intelligence we may be getting from one of our most trusted allies on the ground may not be all that useful, though in this case I think it possible the Saudis themselves have been delusional about any risk the Houthis might pose.

Whether these two incidents stem from intelligence sharing with our allies, the effect of our ignorance on both counts is that we’re going to be sucked more deeply into the region.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. galljdaj says:

    really… , you folks ought to go read all the PNAC White Papers! Check out who wrote it and where they are! And or have ‘they’ read that White Paper!

    Failure is a Strategy!

    Its called win win no matter; catch 22; i win you loose; And there are other words/sayings even more fitting…

    These folks needed to be tried using Our Treason Laws, and/or RICO Laws, but instead were Elected(sort of), and pardoned never to even see a court! Today they even labeled Peacekeepers and Defenders… .

  2. wayoutwest says:

    You have to wonder where the US found these brilliant mopes who would march into the Syrian Jihad with CIA painted on their backs. These are apparently the rejects from other rebel groups who weren’t actually welcomed by the Army of Conquest even before al-Nusra attacked and scattered them.

    There were attempts by Qatar and some people in the West to split al-Nusra from al-Qaeda but they rejected these enticements publicly more than once and reaffirmed their loyalty and allegiance to AQ leadership which means they are mortal enemies of the West and the House of Saud. Al-Nusra is leading the Army of Conquest, they don’t follow any other group or foreign power although they will take aid directly or indirectly form them.

    It’s a stretch to believe that the US wasn’t aware of these facts, as I’m sure the Saudis were, so there is no reason to believe the BS reported by unnamed US mouthpieces about US Intelligence being ‘surprised’ by this incident.

  3. bloopie2 says:

    I assume that the locals there know everything that’s happened, and so there’s no need to wonder how successful the next recruiting drive is going to be. Maybe that will save us the rest of that training budget (how many billions was it?) Spend it instead on arms for the Kurds, our best allies there, so they can fight back against the Turkish government that’s trying to kill them with … oh, shit, it’s American bombs, isn’t it. Curses, foiled again. When will these people ever learn to fight a proper war?

    • wayoutwest says:

      Col. Mustard sort of gets the picture of what’s happening with this Division 30 operation but then he wanders off into the Barren Lands and starts yelling at the Israelis who are also mortal enemies of al-Nusra. His ‘logic’ and ‘evidence’ only seems to work if anyone and everyone who opposes Assad are al-Nusra except maybe the Islamic State who also must be secretly allied with Israel.

    • wayoutwest says:

      It may be misleading to state that the KSA or Turkey ‘organized’ the Army of Conquest but they certainly are supporting some of the groups in this Syrian Rebel alliance. The ibtimes story did make the distinction that the Saudis were assisting Ahrar al-Sham over al-Nusra due to al-Nusra’s continued allegiance to AQ.

  4. Les says:

    Both Ahrar al-Sham coalition and Nusra Front are ‘Al Qaeda’ . They both have senior commanders who claim to be ‘Al Qaeda’.

    • wayoutwest says:

      The Islamic State leaders were AQ at one time but they certainly are not today and Ahrar al-Sham seems to be an independent Syrian nationalist group today apparently independent enough for the KSA to support them over al-Nusra. This is probably the most confusing civil war in history with too many rebel groups with confusing and changing allegiances along with external alliances of convenience.

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