U.S. cooperation with Middle Eastern intelligence services made a brief appearance in the headlines last month, thanks to President Donald Trump’s loose-lipped revelations to Russian officials in the Oval Office, and his subsequent statements (“I never mentioned the word ‘Israel”) during a Middle East trip. Though early reporting indicated that Israel provided the intelligence in question, a former CIA case officer and multiple Jordanian officials familiar with IS operations later said the source was more likely Jordanian.
The episode underlines the strategic import of U.S. foreign intelligence liaison relationships in the Middle East, and Jordan specifically. While allies, such Israel and Saudi Arabia, lead in the military and technological surveillance fronts of the war on terror, Amman is America’s foremost partner in human intelligence, or HUMINT, operations.
Jordan’s intel directorate has long been described as the model foreign intelligence liaison service. “The ultimate example of this type of relationship is that between the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and the CIA,” Charles Faddis, a former CIA operations officer and head of the WMD terrorism unit, wrote in 2011. “In many ways, this relationship has become the template against which all others are measured.”
An early example of CIA-GID cooperation against terror groups was the 1990s effort to uncover and foil several planned attacks on Jordanian sites frequented by Westerners, such as the SAS Radisson Hotel, and on U.S. soil, such as the LAX airport – a string of events that became known as the Millennium Plots. In late 1999, Jordanian intelligence intercepted correspondence between Abu Zubaydah, a known ally of Osama Bin Laden, and Khadr Abu Hoshar. When Abu Zubaydah said, “The time for training is over,” the GID arrested 16 members of the Millennium Plot cell, including Raed Hijazi, architect of the LAX bombing plot. These arrests also led to the extradition from Pakistan of Khalil Deek, designer of the Encyclopedia of Jihad.
The U.S.-Jordan intelligence relationship has had its pitfalls. The GID failed to prevent the rise of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian thug-turned-warlord credited as a founder of IS. (Al-Zarqawi fell to a drone strike in 2006 after joining the SAS Radisson Hotel plot, training Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, and unleashing immeasurable sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.) More infamous was the 2009 attack on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, by Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal Al-Balawi, the al-Qaeda mole endorsed by the Jordanian intelligence service. The CIA took GID’s word on al-Balawi, and paid the price when he killed 10 people, including seven U.S. operatives, with a 30-pound suicide vest.
Beyond the intelligence quid pro quo, the major benefit to engaging an Arab liaison intelligence service is less red tape. Undemocratic, highly centralized governments require little to no public consent for their law enforcement and intelligence actions, which widen their reach and increases their success rate. Yuri Zhukov’s study of Soviet-era counter-insurgency models notes that “authoritarian regimes can employ, among other things, relatively extensive population control measures and invasive intelligence collection methods, can readily obtain information superiority, and are under relatively little pressure to use minimum force.”
This is especially the case in Jordan, where the GID outranks other institutions, sometimes at the expense of human rights, and whose secretive omnipresence pervades society. Rumors abound of GID spies blending in at social venues, such as local cafes or clubs, to eavesdrop on conversations. Some Jordanians even blame mundane inconveniences, such as traffic jams, on the ostensibly unfettered intrusions of the intelligence service.
Taking a Turn for the Worse
Over the past two years, Jordan has come under increasing attack. After a Jordanian pilot was shot down, captured, and burned alive during an airstrike against IS forces in Syria in February 2015, IS launched a series of attacks that put the Jordanian security apparatus under pressure it had not experienced since the 2005 hotel bombings. In March 2016, Jordanian security forces exchanged fire with seven IS militants in the northern city of Irbid, losing one officer in the 11-hour firefight. Three months later, three alleged terrorists assaulted a GID office in the Baqaa refugee camp of northern Amman, killing five, three of whom were GID officers. And in December, a group of IS gunmen launched a rampage in Karak, a tourist destination just south of Amman, killing seven Jordanian security officers, two Jordanian civilians, and a Canadian. These attacks were likely reponses to Jordan’s participation in the anti-IS coalition and its air and land campaigns in Raqqa and Mosul.
The U.S. can improve Jordan’s counterterrorism efforts by taking a few concrete steps:
First, send Amman more money. Former President Obama broke ground when he signed a five-year, non-binding deal in 2008 to send an annual $660 million to King Abdullah II from the State Department and Foreign Operations accounts. In each of those five years, Congress approved an average of $290.6 million above the originally appropriated amounts. Then in 2015, a three-year agreement boosted annual U.S. aid to Jordan to $1 billion. Most recently, President Trump in May signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act into law, cementing $1.279 billion in funding to Jordan through September 30. Yet Trump’s 2018 budget proposal suggests U.S. aid should revert to $1 billion.
On top of that, the Defense Department-managed 2282 Authority to Build Partner Capacity, Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, and Operations and Maintenance Funds accounts send Jordan about $680 million for border security and armed forces support. According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. security assistance to Jordan is increasingly being routed through DOD, having provided $909 million in military funding above the original budget ceiling since 2014. Thus, U.S. lawmakers have two avenues to send Jordan enough money to meet its threats: raise the State and Foreign Operations account baseline to $1.3 billion while maintaining the same DOD appropriations; or, if State accounts roll back to $1 billion in 2018, boost DOD’s accounts to a combined $980 million.
Secondly, build up Jordan’s drone program. In 2015, then-U.S. President Barack Obama rejected plans to market Predator drones to Jordan. Under the new administration, however, a bipartisan group of 20 U.S. lawmakers have urged Trump to approve the export of drones to the Hashemite Kingdom, among other Arab allies. Fitted with state-of-the-art lasers and cameras, such drones could help track terrorists and mark targets for strikes — and open the Middle Eastern market to U.S. supplies before China corners it.
Finally, improve intelligence sharing. The CIA should continue to work more closely with the GID by embedding more regionally savvy technicians and operatives. This practice can reduce source-handling errors, such as miscommunication or incomplete vetting, and keeps open feedback channels. Most importantly, protect the agents who infiltrate terror networks by ensuring that intelligence is shared with utmost discretion and the identities of sources carefully masked.
During his recent trip to key allies in the Middle East, Trump underscored the necessity of liaison intelligence relationships. But Jordan is still the tip of the spear where U.S. reach is the weakest: HUMINT. By providing resources and support to boost the intelligence capabilities of trusted allies, the U.S. guarantees a comparative advantage in the war on terror.