In the campaign against the Islamic State group, Faisal Al Shoubaki might be the most important spy in the world.
Haven’t heard of him? We forgive you. When we think of powerful spy agencies, we tend to think of the CIA, Israel’s Mossad or, in years past, the Soviet Union’s KGB. But it turns out that Jordan, the little Hashemite Kingdom in the Middle East, has developed a valuable cloak-and-dagger operation of its own. It’s called the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), or Mukhabarat, and its particular forte is shoe-leather, clandestine operations. That’s right, forget the drones: What makes the Mukhabarat so effective — and valuable to allies like the United States — is its ability to gather human intelligence.
The Mukhabarat finds itself in a pivotal position in the fight against the Islamic State, which has committed a string of barbaric murders — including, in February, the immolation of a Jordanian pilot, which attracted global attention. The agency’s director, Al Shoubaki, reports directly to King Abdullah; its security services receive hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the U.S. and its footmen have decades of institutional knowledge and connections throughout the region. For the United States (which is reluctant to get sucked into the Middle East), Jordan and its Mukhabarat are the most reliable ears and eyes in the region.
The United States and Jordan have been working closely ever since civil war inflamed Syria in 2011. Tucked in the Levantine heartland to the south of Syria, east of Israel and west of Iraq, Jordan is a U.S.-friendly oasis whose location has enormous strategic value. The country has served as a central staging ground for U.S. military and special forces operations. The CIA has trained U.S.-approved opposition fighters on Jordanian soil too: first to counter Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, and then to launch attacks against the rising Islamic State group.
Jordan’s assets are more than geographic, though. While American spies have high-tech trappings that can help them to track terrorist movements via satellite and to intercept cellphone calls, their lack of on-the-ground contacts puts them at a major disadvantage. So-called “human intelligence” is “where Jordan brings a lot to the table,” says David Schenker, formerly a top policy aide at the Department of Defense. It helps the agency track flows of fighters across the border to foment jihad in Syria.
Critics — and there are many — point out that the kingdom devotes much of its intelligence resources to spying on its own people. Its secret police apparatus hasn’t earned Jordan any gold stars in the human rights department — the Mukhabarat is regularly accused of torturing prisoners and silencing dissent. That hasn’t stopped the U.S. from partnering with it. Unlike other Arab spy agencies, the GID has an easy rapport with the CIA, says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a onetime Middle East specialist at the CIA who now works at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank. “That’s not true in many, many places in the Arab world,” he says, where communication is “less than ideal.”
Collaboration isn’t always successful: Jordan’s spy agency was partly to blame for one of the most devastating CIA setbacks in decades.
The roots of the U.S.-Jordan intelligence relationship stretch back to the 1950s, when the United States began supplying the kingdom with economic and military aid, a reward for its Western-friendly policy. The CIA also began underwriting Jordan’s spy service. In his memoir, the kingdom’s onetime CIA station chief Jack O’Connell recalls his first meeting with Jordan’s King Hussein, shortly after arriving in Amman: “I then asked if I could meet the head of his intelligence service to establish a working relationship,” O’Connell writes. “‘You are looking at him,’ the king said.”
It wasn’t until the 1990s, when Jordan renounced Saddam Hussein and signed a peace treaty with Israel, that the modern-day partnership really took off. Through Sept. 11, the Iraq War and now the battle against the Islamic State group, the two countries and their spy services have been almost completely aligned, intelligence experts say. When U.S. forces killed al-Qaida leader Abu Musab Zarqawi in 2006, it was the Mukhabarat director who had provided the tip, according to multiple reports at the time. Collaboration, of course, isn’t always successful. Jordan’s spy agency was partly to blame for one of the most devastating CIA setbacks in decades: introducing the CIA to the Jordanian triple agent who eventually blew up a CIA outpost in Afghanistan, memorialized in a harrowing scene in the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty.
In the wake of the Islamic State group’s very public and very violent execution of Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kaseasbeh, the question lingers: Just how far is Jordan willing to go now? Yes, the country has been pounding Islamic State group strongholds in Syria from the sky and rallying other Arab partners to join the fight. But Jordan’s leaders continue to insist that they have no intention of using ground forces in Syria. That, says Schenker, would be a key turning point and one that would really require stepped-up levels of spycraft. Gerecht agrees, but says that it’s ultimately up to the United States, not Jordan, as to whether the coalition takes this fight against the Islamic State group to Syria.
That doesn’t seem likely under President Obama, even as the U.S. Congress debates his new request to go to war against the extremists. Gerecht certainly doesn’t anticipate it, “unless something surprising happens.”
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