Improving Military Intelligence

Security Requires Anticipating the Actions of Terrorist and Nonstate Actors


How sound is our intelligence in predicting events in our sometimes unpredictable world? The answer to this question is critical for security professionals in the Middle East and elsewhere. We must remember that wars are fought on a foundation of information, and that this foundation is growing ever more doubtful and uncertain.

For these reasons, we must carefully examine the soundness of our intelligence service operations. The success of intelligence operations depends entirely on the availability of raw information and on the ability of intelligence analysts to distinguish correct and reliable information from misleading and inaccurate information.

This general understanding of intelligence is often challenged by military organizations, which insist one should trust only confirmed information and adhere to total caution. These same organizations nonetheless demand that intelligence be predictive, as intelligence forms the basis for military operations.

Drawing conclusions from what the enemy has done before, or what he is doing now, is usually of relatively little use to a commander or military planner, since he usually is getting this information from forces already engaging with the enemy. What a leader needs most is the ability to anticipate the enemy, that is, to proactively direct his forces and exploit the enemy’s movements.

To do that, he must know the enemy’s likely intentions. He must pry into the minds of enemy commanders as they gather to make decisions. The best way to achieve this is through predictive intelligence. This does not mean that intelligence should ignore the past or the present, because studying these can predict future intentions. But intelligence reports should always be forward-looking.

Despite an awareness that predictive intelligence is important, strategic surprises (such as sneak attacks) have been common throughout history. The situation today suggests a major shift in the nature of these attacks, which often leave intelligence services facing embarrassing questions. How did it happen? When was it planned? How did the penetration occur? And sometimes the greatest question of all: Who are the perpetrators of the attack? 

In other words, in a strategic sense, a surprise attack is an intelligence failure for the attacked state and a success for the attacking state. All of this is due to the progress made in the intelligence world and special operations that are precise and subtle.

What happened in Iran in July 2020 confirms the truth of these assumptions. Numerous explosions took place in sensitive areas that were difficult to penetrate, indicating an element of surprise. This is irrefutable proof of the failure of Iranian intelligence. Therefore, “intelligence failure” studies of strategic surprises may yield important conclusions about what went wrong.

But the main problem is that the intelligence apparatus’s attempts to correct “what went wrong” constantly fail because they do not want to admit that their basic assumption, namely that intelligence can be predictive, is wrong. Intelligence cannot be rigorously predictive, which is why surprises cannot be avoided entirely.

This leads us to recognize the importance of adopting a risk-management approach, which cautions us to develop resilience to strategic surprises, first to minimize losses and then to improve our intelligence capabilities to limit further surprises. It may be useful to mention some of the most important causes of predictive error:

  1. Making poor assumptions.
  2. Having a bias.
  3. Making decisions under pressure.
  4. Changing targets and plans.
  5. Changing the environment.
  6. Overestimating personal ability.
  7. Failing to adopt new information.

In the end, intelligence services find themselves facing new challenges. The most serious of these challenges relates to the awareness of a changing security environment that is usually volatile, unknown and complex, and therefore outside control of the state. In many cases, the state no longer directs the loyalty of its citizens. All signs at present point to greater difficulty in navigating the intelligence future because of the number of elements no longer under the control of the state.  

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