The Caravan

Talking Terror with Islamists

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

As America begins to talk to the new Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries it will need to have two dialogues. One will be the traditional diplomatic dialogue done by the State Department; another will need to be a clandestine dialogue between intelligence services on both sides.

For decades the United States has been talking to the secret police of the Arab world. Omar Suleiman, who just passed away in a Cleveland hospital, was our second most important interlocutor in Egypt after Husni  Mubarak for twenty years. As head of the mukhabarat in Egypt, Suleiman knew everything worth knowing and could do anything he and Mubarak wanted done. The CIA station chief in Cairo had no more important job than the relationship with Omar. He delivered in the war against al Qaeda and other terrorists. America was not alone. Israel, the United Kingdom, France and virtually everyone else dealt through Suleiman to get things done. The other Arabs dealt with Suleiman from the Saudis to Hamas. It was no surprise that Mubarak belatedly made him Vice President in the closing hours of his regime’s life.

The mukhabarat has dominated every Arab state for decades, sometimes brutally and cruelly as in Iraq and Syria under the Baath or in Qadhafi’s Libya, sometimes perhaps more benignly as in Jordan and Oman. But even in Jordan the head of the mukhabarat is always the second most important man in the country. Both King Hussein in his time and King Abdallah today take their spy master into the meeting with the President in the Oval Office, not their Prime Minister or Foreign Minister. The spies always got the messy and sensitive job of dealing with Israel.

In many ways the Arab Awakening is about decades of pent up Arab anger at living in police states. Decades of being humiliated by the secret police finally produced revolutions. Arabs lived in societies where the boss, al Rais, was above the law and his secret police were unaccountable and untouchable. There was no rule of law and no justice.

But it is not so easy to end a mukhabarat state, as Egypt has shown. The army which is the secret police’s support base is reluctant to surrender its primacy. And even the Muslim Brotherhood needs an intelligence and security apparatus. In fact, they may need it even more than the ancien regime.   Al Qaeda and its sympathizers hate the Brotherhood almost as much as they hate America. The new amir of Al Qaeda, the Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri, has spent most of his life denouncing the Brotherhood as too timid and too docile. He has written a book about it entitled The Bitter Harvest. Their success in governing would be a nightmare for Zawahiri.

This is where the second dialogue with the Islamists comes into play. Behind the scenes of the formal dialogue with Ambassadors and Presidents with TV cameras and journalists, there will need to be a more clandestine dialogue between security services. Counter terrorism will need to go on without Omar Suleiman.

This will not be easy. The Brotherhood and other Islamic groups do not trust the CIA. They see it as their old enemy. I have had dozens of conversations with Brotherhood leaders since retiring – usually in Doha – and they find it hard to talk even to a former American intelligence officer about broad political issues. Talking about arresting and interrogating suspected terrorists will be all the more difficult.

But all the more important. In many ways the covert talk with the Islamists will tell us much more than the formal diplomatic dialogue. If we cannot agree on who the common enemy is, then we will really have very little to talk about. Some will suggest we only talk to the army about security issues, which would be a grave mistake. We need to engage the Islamists to find out if they truly interested in combating extremism and violence or only want to play lip service to fighting terror.

We should expect less than perfect cooperation. But we get less than perfect cooperation from most liaison services. Look at our relationship with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, which is among our most important allies against al Qaeda and our most difficult ally against al Qaeda. Even Omar Suleiman could be a difficult partner some times. So our expectations should be low at first. Only time and persistence will see if cooperation can become mutually fruitful

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is author of The Search for Al-Qaeda (Brookings Institution Press, 2008) and Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).

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