Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Iraq has been setting the foundations for its new state, including the institutionalization of a new set of security and intelligence services. Over the past eight years, Iraq has been following the mold of most nascent intelligence communities, slowly taking into account its geopolitical situation — as well as bureaucratic, institutional and personal battles — to create operational, analytical and decision-making protocols that will remain relatively constant even as the country's political leadership changes.
Since the beginnings of modern-day Iraq after World War I, its geopolitical imperatives have changed little, and the roots of these modern intelligence services can thus be found in those of previous governments.
Iraq's First Intelligence Services
Iraq's first intelligence agency, the General Security Service (GSS), was created in 1921 in what was then the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. Created with a domestic focus after the British crushed an armed insurrection in 1920, the GSS helped the British rule Iraq through a minority government composed of the Sunni elite. It was foremost responsible for detecting, monitoring and disrupting dissent from political, ethnic or religious groups. It also became responsible for investigating political corruption and major economic crimes. The GSS remained Iraq's largest intelligence agency until 2003, and though it lost significance to competing organizations established by Hussein, it kept these same responsibilities and handled the most investigations even after the establishment of superseding organizations.
Iraq established the Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) after its 1932 independence. Compared to the GSS, the MID was more focused on counterinsurgency, tasked with monitoring ethnic groups on the country's border regions (Kurds in the north and Shia in the south) for signs of militancy. It also became useful in creating and maintaining militant groups to oppose and distract Iraq's neighbors; the most well known of these groups was the anti-Iranian Mujahideen-e-Khalq, which the MID established in 1965 and supported until 2003.
The MID's broader responsibility was to collect military intelligence on neighboring countries by utilizing reconnaissance units, human intelligence networks and security units. Its most infamous such outfit was known as Unit 999, which was responsible for long-term penetration operations in neighboring countries and their militaries. Unit 999 developed sources for tactical military intelligence such as adversaries' order of battle as well as aiding local militant groups.
Saddam Hussein and a Focus on Regime Preservation
When the Baathist government took over Iraq in 1968, it kept both the GSS and MID and began to develop what would become some of the most potent security services in the world. However, most of these capabilities were focused inward; the regime came to power in a series of coups, and it thus was more intensely focused on its own preservation than any other concern. Unlike the birth of foreign intelligence services in other countries, such as during China's civil war or Iran's revolution, Iraq's intelligence body developed out of a need for internal party security as opposed to foreign or widespread domestic threats. Thus, only at their peak did these security services have significant capabilities abroad.
Hussein's expansion and consolidation of control over his internal intelligence apparatus was led by this fear of being overthrown, be it by grassroots dissidents, foreign-backed movements, ethnic groups or his closest confidants. By 1980, the MID no longer reported to the Ministry of Defense, but rather directly to the Office of the Presidential Palace. The GID and GSS were already wired in to Hussein's headquarters, but the potential threats remained.
The Baath Party developed what later became the country's first foreign intelligence organization after failing to hold power in 1963. The imperative of developing internal security became clear to Hussein, who was then a young, aspiring party leader. In 1964, he was given the authority to create the Special Apparatus. It was known for monitoring any threats to the party leadership — both from within the party and outside — and was involved in multiple assassinations of party members and other opponents (Hussein himself was involved in a botched assassination of then-Prime Minister Abd Al-Karim Qasim in 1959). This was essentially a political party's counterintelligence wing that grew to dominate Iraq's intelligence community. In 1968, it became known as the Yearning Apparatus, and soon after, the Baathists retook Iraq's government.
In 1973, the Yearning Apparatus officially became the General Intelligence Department (GID). The GID's establishment was a direct response to a failed coup attempt by GSS director Nadhim Kazzar. Hussein recognized the need to have a parallel unit watching the GSS, and the GID became the first of many. Most governments have such parallel services; they prevent a monopolized intelligence process and serve as a check on potential threats to the government. The GID took the latter concern to the extreme by prioritizing the policing of other intelligence officers.
The GID was given a wide range of domestic intelligence responsibilities, prioritized as such:
- Monitoring the Baath Party for security threats
- Monitoring, infiltrating and disrupting political opposition
- Policing minority groups, specifically Shia and Kurds
- Counterintelligence and monitoring of embassies and foreigners
Over time, the GID became Iraq's primary foreign intelligence service, and other agencies took over its domestic responsibilities. The department's responsibilities abroad were typical of an intelligence organization, with a focus on Iraq's neighbors and their potential threats as well as exiled Iraqi opposition groups. By 1991, it developed capabilities to collect significant intelligence on the United States, United Kingdom and other powers farther abroad. After the Gulf War, however, some of its international capabilities were limited when many of its intelligence covers-for-status, such as embassies and Iraqi Airways offices, were shut down. At this time, Iraqi clandestine operations abroad such as serious work with militias and terrorist groups, assassinations or sabotage were believed to have subsided. That said, the GID clearly maintained some of its international capabilities, but these were forced to stay clandestine rather than carrying out aggressive covert activity.
Hussein created the Special Security Service (SSS) in 1982 after two perceived intelligence failures. The first was the failure to protect the Osirak nuclear reactor from an Israeli airstrike June 7, 1981. While the main intelligence services would not be responsible for protection, and warning of such a strike is difficult, Hussein blamed the military and atomic energy administration for being unable to respond to the attack or to forewarn of the need to protect the reactor. The second was a July 1982 assassination attempt, supposedly by Shiite gunmen, on Hussein's convoy as it was leaving the town of Dujail (Hussein's reprisals after the attack would come to be known as the Dujail massacre and would be the main charge for which he was executed in 2006). Another mission difficult to warn against, both of these increased Hussein's paranoia.
Headed by Hussein's son, Qusay, the SSS essentially became the presidential, or regime, intelligence service, with its top priority to protect Hussein. This service had officers and informants in every other intelligence service and served as the president's main protection detail along with the Special Republican Guard. The security branch of the SSS, called the Special Protection Apparatus, was the only unit allowed to carry arms in Hussein's vicinity. It was responsible for his personal security both at the Presidential Palace and while traveling to public engagements.
The SSS's internal security units were the center of gravity of the organization. These units were authorized to infiltrate every organization in the Iraqi state in order to monitor potential internal security threats as well as to track threats abroad. They were given oversight responsibility — but not command authority — for the rest of the security services. This meant that the SSS had intelligence from a broad range of other sources, on top of its own 5,000-officer force.
A final organization was created to further protect Hussein from threats in the military in 1992 after the Gulf War. The MID's security branch was made independent and became known as Military Security. Its only responsibility was to detect and disrupt any opposition within the military services. Like the SSS, but even more expansive, it placed officers within every single military unit.
All these services were nominally overseen by the National Security Council, which functioned as a coordinating body for all national security issues. As Hussein required more agencies to report directly to the Office of the Presidential Palace or SSS, the National Security Council lost considerable influence with Hussein. It was used more as a coordinating body to make sure different issues and targets were covered rather than as an oversight or executive body.
Even with a slightly weakened regime after the Gulf War, Hussein still had a powerful intelligence and security apparatus to maintain his power. This was exemplified in 1996, when the CIA supported an attempt to overthrow the Iraqi regime with a military uprising. In one of the largest attempts since Hussein's rise to power, the CIA worked with a former Iraqi air force general, Mohammad Abdullah Shahwani, who had previously fled to exile in London in 1990. Shahwani recruited as many as 200 midlevel officers throughout the Iraqi military, including three of his sons. However, the plot was exposed in June 1996, and 80 of the officers were soon executed.
Hussein's intelligence and security apparatus proved too robust for Iraqi opposition, and many recriminations followed the failure. Hussein's intelligence structure had one main priority: preservation of the regime and keeping Hussein at the top. It was based more on familial and tribal ties than merit, but until the U.S. invasion of 2003, it was successful protecting his authority. While it did develop strong international capabilities, direct access of Iraq's leader to intelligence about others in the government was key. When establishing a new service post-Hussein, this was a habit the CIA attempted to break.
Post-2003: Creating a New Intelligence Apparatus
Iraq's current priority has been to build a functioning intelligence apparatus. It has established seven intelligence services of varying (and questionable) capability, nearly parallel in structure to those of Hussein's regime — the only difference being that Iraq's ruling Dawa party, led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is largely in control of them. Al-Maliki's political position is not entirely secure, but he has made major advances in establishing new and controlling old intelligence services in the past few years.
Iraq's next priority is to develop extensive intelligence networks for maintaining internal security. The ruling government will carefully watch and police its opponents in a struggle that will fall across ethno-sectarian fault lines more than political. Iraq is also dealing with an insurgency that will require monitoring of jihadists, tribal groups, organized crime and others that threaten Iraqi security. These pose challenges to both counterinsurgency and counterintelligence efforts because they infiltrate security forces and the government in order to weaken it or use it to take out their rivals.
After gaining control of internal security, Iraqi intelligence will have to monitor foreign counterintelligence challenges that have become larger than at any other time in Iraq's history, separating its own intelligence apparatus from those trying to influence it: the United States' CIA and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The first Iraqi intelligence service rebuilt in 2003 was an outgrowth of the CIA, and while the United States has withdrawn from Iraq, it will maintain some intelligence presence there to compete with Iranian influence. Iraqi intelligence will thus seek to stay independent from a United States hoping to keep it as a strong liaison service.
Lastly, Iraq will need to develop strategic military intelligence on its neighbors. What this will look like remains unclear for now; behind-the-scenes internecine battles will decide how Iraq develops these capabilities, but this could end up looking quite similar to that of Hussein's regime.
Developing the New Services
A series of improvised explosive device attacks and kidnappings in 2004 signaled the development of Iraq's insurgency, leading then-interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to create the General Security Directorate (GSD) that July. According to Stratfor sources, it was set up with the blessing of the CIA and worked both with the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Justice. The GSD was specifically tasked with counterterrorism, by monitoring different tribes and ethnic groups. But it was dissolved as a parallel service established itself.
Post-Hussein Iraq's first full-fledged intelligence agency was the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS). Officially announced in April 2004 by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the INIS was run and funded by the CIA at a cost of $1 billion per year from 2004 to 2007. Shahwani, the leader of the 1996 coup attempt, was chosen to run the organization, due to his experience in the Iraqi military and special operations before his exile, his ties to the CIA during that exile and his connections with Allawi. He also offered an ethnic background the United States thought would contribute to a nonsectarian institution after decades of Sunni Baathist control over the intelligence apparatus: Shahwani is a Sunni, ethnic Turkmen from Mosul and married to a Shi'i, and he chose a Kurd as his deputy.
The INIS charter enables it to collect intelligence both domestically and abroad, with its first priority to infiltrate and understand Iraq's various insurgent groups (some of which were thought to be commanded by officers purged from the Iraqi military and security services in 2003). While the CIA had created its largest overseas station in Baghdad, it had little capability to reach outside the Green Zone, and this is where the INIS became instrumental. INIS officers were capable of traveling throughout Iraq recruiting sources to fight insurgent groups and collecting information valuable to the CIA.
Unlike the new Iraqi military and police, Shahwani was able to recruit a range of Iraqi nationalists to his service, including former Baathists. A June 2004 report by Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi said the INIS was two-thirds Sunni and one-quarter Shiite. Given that Iraq is 60 percent Shiite, and even taking Chalabi's bias into account (he was an opponent of Allawi and close to Iran), it is evident that a large number of former Sunni officers from Hussein's GID were recruited (around 2,000, according to Stratfor sources). While there was a higher chance that these personnel were working for the insurgency as double agents, it also meant that loyal service members would be the most adept and capable at identifying and disrupting former Baathists involved in the insurgency. This double-edged sword paid off by 2007 with a marked decline in insurgent violence. While many factors were involved in this decline, including the "Sunni Awakening," and U.S. military intelligence and operations, there is no doubt that intelligence collected by the INIS, and often passed to the United States, played a role.
The INIS mandate was wholly different from its predecessors in that it had no powers of arrest or interrogation. It was modeled more like Canada's Security and Intelligence Service or the United Kingdom's Secret Intelligence Service as an intelligence rather than investigative agency. It also required a warrant before it could collect information on Iraqi citizens (though it is unclear if these rules were followed). The director of the INIS would serve a five-year term and report to the prime minister while also facing oversight from a parliamentary committee.
The INIS quickly recruited 1,000 officers, many of whom were trained in Jordan and Egypt. Some of its most important recruits for counterintelligence purposes were many of the old officers from GID's Department 18, the Iranian operations unit. This was partly out of necessity, as Iran was second only to the United States in influence over Iraq. Due to Iran's support for different Shiite militias, stemming the insurgency meant monitoring and disrupting Iran's clandestine influence.
Along with that, it was imperative for the INIS, and the CIA more broadly, to track down former GID officers. Former members of Iraqi intelligence services had access to intelligence and sources that would make them prime recruitment targets for insurgent groups or any other country developing intelligence networks within Iraq. In counterintelligence efforts, the INIS needed to recruit these former officers at least as agents before recruiters from Iran, Syria, the United States, al Qaeda in Iraq (now known as the Islamic State of Iraq) or elsewhere could get to them.
The Ministry of the Interior and its various police forces took over internal security. The Iraqi National Police, made up mostly of paramilitary units, is responsible for domestic security. From an intelligence perspective, the Iraqi National Police took the on-the-ground responsibilities of the multitude of internal security services developed under Hussein.
To coordinate all these agencies, Allawi and the Coalition Provisional Authority created the Ministerial Committee on National Security in June 2004 (this later became the MSNS described below). Chaired by the prime minister and including the INIS director, national security adviser and the ministers of defense and interior, its purpose was to coordinate national security and intelligence activities at the highest level, much like Hussein' National Security Council before it. Another coordinating body was the National Intelligence Coordination Council (NICC), which includes the prime minister, national security adviser and heads of all intelligence agencies except the Office of Information and Security. The NICC is meant to serve as a dissemination mechanism from the intelligence heads to the prime minister, rather than each reporting individually, and to prevent intelligence from being controlled by one person or entity as Hussein did. A third is the National Intelligence Cell (NIC), which was formed in early 2010 to serve as a sort of clearinghouse for intelligence on nationwide operations, or of vital importance to Iraq's top leaders.
In reality, Iraq's intelligence agencies have largely avoided the NICC and NIC, instead reporting to their sectarian allies and meeting directly with the prime minister. This led to many complaints in the mid-2000s about the lack of coordination between agencies, especially over tactical intelligence such as wanted insurgent databases, and there is no indication that this has improved in the years since. These agencies are partly motivated by a desire for operational security — they do not trust their information in other hands for fear of leaks — and partly by a desire to take credit for a successful capture or kill. In reviews after major insurgent attacks, it often was found that one of these agencies had information on the perpetrators and their plans that was not shared with others. It remains to be seen if these organizations will be able to create a functioning intelligence bureaucracy, but at this point, it seems blocked by conflicting political interests.
While multiple intelligence agencies are battling for state control, other groups within Iraq have their own intelligence networks in order to protect their own interests. Both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have had a hand in governing an autonomous or semi-autonomous Kurdish region throughout Iraqi history, and intelligence apparatuses became a requirement for developing their own power base. The KDP has the Kurdistan Protection Agency, Parastin, headed by Masrur Barzani, son of KDP leader Massud Barzani. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's intelligence service is called the Information Apparatus, Dazgay Zanyari. Both are primarily active as a sort of secret police in the Kurdish region, but they extend their collective activities all the way to Baghdad. In some ways, the Kurdistan Protection Agency, the more powerful of the two, is feared to the same extent as Iraqi internal security services. They both compete in their activities throughout the region and collect intelligence on each other as well.
They also work together, in the official Asayish, the intelligence branch of the Kurdistan Regional Government, also currently run by Masrur Barzani. This was actually created when Kurdish Iraq gained de facto sovereignty in 1991, but real efforts to unify both parties' intelligence services did not happen until 2004. Even then, the PUK essentially has control of the Asayish office in Sulaymaniyah and the KDP has control of the office in Arbil. Due to the essential nature of intelligence to political power, each major ethno-sectarian grouping is maintaining its own intelligence organization.
Various insurgent groups maintain their own intelligence capabilities. This is primarily reflected in their ability to infiltrate Iraqi security forces, acquire armaments and uniforms, and enter secure neighborhoods for attack. While attacks are currently at a lull, mostly limited to groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq, the prospect of insurgent operatives from former intelligence services still exists. Many of these groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq, depend on tribal chiefs and allies for local intelligence collection and reporting. There are rumors that the Islamic State of Iraq gets support from Saudi and Jordanian intelligence, or has received support in the past. While the current status of its intelligence capabilities is unknown, intelligence on targets is required to carry out attacks such as the coordinated IED strikes that have occurred every few months.
The Battle for Influence over Intelligence Services
In Iraq, where sectarian, ethnic and political divides are rife, having the best information to compete with rivals is a primary means to power. And that is the challenge the burgeoning state intelligence apparatus is dealing with.
Al-Maliki's rise to the premiership in 2006 prompted the ruling Shia to confront the U.S.-controlled and Sunni-dominated INIS. Al-Maliki gave Sherwan al-Waili the responsibility of handling intelligence matters. Al-Waili, a brigadier general under Hussein, was arrested after the 1991 Shiite uprising. He began playing a prominent role in the Dawa party after Hussein's fall and is currently a member of the parliament. His intelligence experience and connections to al-Maliki are unclear.
Al-Waili developed his own intelligence service within the previously impotent Ministry of State for National Security Affairs (MSNS). Al-Waili's predecessor, Abdul Karim Anizi, had previously lobbied for such power and begun developing sources but was not allowed to expand his staff. By 2009, al-Waili expanded a staff of 26 to 1,000-5,000 intelligence officers, a force rivaling that of the INIS with networks in all of Iraq's provinces. A Stratfor source says this has now expanded to 20,000 personnel, but this number is unverified. Whatever the exact number, the MSNS has expanded quickly to serve as a regime intelligence service along the lines of Hussein's SSS. The MSNS is still only an unofficial intelligence network; it has no legal grounds for domestic intelligence collection or arrests, but it is operating in a state with very limited rule of law, and the power of al-Maliki's regime behind it. While INIS officers criticize their competitors' inexperience, they have lost ground in the behind-the-scenes clandestine intelligence battle. The MSNS's power lies in its access to al-Maliki and his ability to request arrests and operations of other agencies based on MSNS intelligence. Both the INIS and MSNS are deeply involved in spying and reporting on each other. Shahwani was accused of using his agents to help kidnap an Iranian diplomat believed to be working with Shiite insurgents, while al-Waili's officers were criticized for spying on Sunni politicians suspected of involvement with Sunni insurgents.
In the meantime, other intelligence agencies developed in Baghdad within the police and military forces. They include the National Information and Investigation Agency, which is responsible for domestic criminal investigations; the Directorate General for Intelligence and Security, which is part of the Ministry of Defense and is similar to the Hussein-era Military Security; the Office of Information and Security, an agency within the prime minister's office that reports solely to him with unknown intelligence collection responsibilities; and the Military Intelligence Directorate (M2), which carries out the same functions as the Hussein-era MID.
2009-Present: Al-Maliki Attempts To Become Iraq's Strongman
Shahwani resigned from the INIS in 2009 (about the same time as his five-year term would have expired), leaving Gen. Zuheir Fadel Abbas al-Ghirbawi, a former pilot in Hussein's air force, as its new director. According to Stratfor sources, Shahwani resigned in protest of al-Maliki's misuse of intelligence prior to the Aug. 19, 2009, attacks known as Black Wednesday. The test of turning the INIS into an institution thus will lie with al-Ghirbawi.
The competition between the INIS and the MSNS due to factional allegiances has only grown. When the INIS was first established and run directly by the CIA, Iranian intelligence officers and their agents began an assassination campaign to eliminate its officers. INIS officers claim that 290 of their colleagues were assassinated from 2004 to 2009. Another 180 had arrest warrants issued by al-Maliki's government. Stratfor sources claim more recently that since 2004, 500 officers have been killed and 700 have been imprisoned. The INIS appeared to mount a response in 2009, when Shiite sources within the INIS reported that MSNS personnel also were being assassinated. They claim that the culprits were the hard-line former Baathist officers reinducted into the INIS.
It is still unclear precisely how much control al-Maliki has over the INIS or if other Shiite leaders will be able to establish their own influence. According to a Stratfor source, al-Ghirbawi and al-Maliki have frequently disagreed. Al-Maliki's office reportedly has attempted to exert control over INIS by directing them to work closely with Iranian intelligence services by providing information on anti-Iranian officers within INIS. This is not confirmed, but moves to gain Shiite influence within INIS, specifically of al-Maliki's allies, are apparent, such as al-Maliki encouraging Shia from Karbala to join INIS after they become members of the Dawa party.
Challenges to Come
The Iraqi intelligence services are a key battleground in gaining control of the Iraqi state. Both the United States and Iran have major stakes in Iraq, and Iraq's neighbors all want an Iraqi government friendly to their interests. At the same time, Iraq's imperative is to develop an independent government. While it may rely on a patron — be it Iran or the United States — establishing an independent and functional intelligence apparatus is vital to its own security. Its two current priorities are maintaining intelligence on insurgent or opposition groups — from the Kurds to Shia to Sunnis, as well as jihadists — and monitoring and influencing or disrupting foreign intelligence operations within Iraq. In other words, domestically focused counterintelligence is its current mandate.
To some extent, post-Baathist Iraq will have to develop the strong internal security bodies that it has maintained since its borders were defined in the early 20th century. This does not necessarily mean another Saddam Hussein in Iraq (though al-Maliki seems to be following the strongman model) but rather the ability to monitor and police various familial, tribal, ethnic and religious groups as they establish an Iraqi identity. Still, the Iraqi intelligence services face an even larger challenge than before as the country is completely infiltrated by Iranian, U.S., Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi intelligence services, among others. The ability that Baathist intelligence officers developed to police each other for counterintelligence threats would actually be more effective in monitoring foreign assets in today's Iraq.
These intra-regime battles between and within the intelligence services indicate that the capabilities and expertise developed in the Hussein era are severely weakened. Instead of institutionalizing and focusing on threats to Iraq, they have been fighting and focusing on threats to the regime. Stratfor sources confirm that many of the experienced officers have been dismissed, arrested or even killed. Events like the recent bombings in Baghdad will bring the intelligence services' abilities into question, and there will be more demands for better attack disruption. As al-Maliki crystallizes control over the INIS and strengthens the MSNS, these apparatuses' lack of experience and capability may become one of his weak points. If al-Maliki does become a strongman, the services will begin competing for influence in his office. This will further politicize Iraqi intelligence, rather than broadening human intelligence and technical collection capabilities to disrupt insurgent threats. While Sherwan al-Waili told the International Crisis Group in 2009 that inter-agency competition is "normal … in the current phase of our existence," it is difficult to sustain. Al-Maliki and other Shiite leaders will now try to enforce complete authority over all of Iraq's intelligence services, but it remains to be seen how well they can perform.