The List: The Middle East’s Most Powerful Spooks
In a region known for cutthroat espionage, these five intelligence chiefs have leveraged their skills and connections to gain influence far above their pay grades.
Position: Director of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service
Career: The archetypical Arab intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman has risen from anonymous government apparatchik to serious candidate for the Egyptian presidency in less than a decade. Dubbed “one of the world’s most powerful spy chiefs” by London’s Daily Telegraph, Suleiman was born in 1935 in a poverty-stricken fundamentalist stronghold in southern Egypt. Choosing the military as his profession, he excelled academically, collecting degrees in Egypt and abroad and earning a transfer to military intelligence. His selection as director of Egypt’s intelligence service in 1993 came just as the regime was reeling from extremist attacks against tourist sites and other critical infrastructure.
In 1995, he famously insisted that President Hosni Mubarak’s armored Mercedes be flown to Ethiopia for a state visit; The car saved the Egyptian leader’s life during an assassination attempt the next day. In response to the attack, Suleiman helped dismantle Mubarak’s Islamist opponents, a campaign that earned him a reputation for ruthlessness. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Suleiman’s experience with combating Islamist terrorists has made him a favorite of Western intelligence services hungry for insights into al Qaeda and affiliated organizations.
Influence: More than from any other single factor, Suleiman’s influence stems from his unswerving loyalty to Mubarak. Of Suleiman’s allegiance, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer told Haaretz, “His primary task, perhaps his only one, is to defend the regime and protect the life of the president.” In a sign of presidential gratitude, Egypt’s secret warrior has also recently served as its diplomatic face, traveling throughout the region as Mubarak’s personal emissary. This charge includes working as a mediator during ongoing Israeli and Palestinian negotiations and as Cairo’s interlocutor to dozens of Palestinian groups, including Hamas. Whether this unofficial promotion is a trial run for a Suleiman presidency remains to be seen.
Position: Director of Israel’s Mossad
Career: Meir Dagan’s path to the leadership of Mossad was not a traditional one for an espionage chief who had spent most of his career in military operations, not intelligence. Born in the Soviet Union in 1945, Dagan served as a paratroop commander in the Six Day War, worked in special undercover units in the 1970s, and commanded an armored brigade in the 1982 Lebanon war. Highly decorated and wounded twice, Dagan benefited from his relationship with future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. During Sharon’s term in office, Dagan was steadily promoted through the national security ranks leading to his appointment as Mossad chief in 2002. Sharon reportedly informed his old friend that Israel required a spy service “with a knife between its teeth.” Dagan, the veteran operator, seems to have obliged.
Influence: Dagan’s sway was on full display in June when the Israeli cabinet met to consider extending his term to a near-record eight years. No vote was required as senior politicians including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raced to praise Dagan as “an excellent Mossad chief” who had done much to reform the service following a period of decay. Such unanimous acclaim is especially impressive at a time when Israel is relying heavily on its vaunted intelligence service to counter several threats, including that “existential” one from Iran. Dagan has clearly sought to bolster Mossad operations against Tehran with some apparent success; a parade of Israeli journalists has recently hinted at Mossad’s clandestine campaign against the Iranian nuclear program.
Additionally, the assassination of Hezbollah security chief Imad Mugniyah — widely credited to Mossad — has only strengthened Dagan’s hand. It was reportedly Dagan’s intelligence and advice that coaxed Israeli political leaders to approve airstrikes against a possible Syrian nuclear facility in September 2007. Finally, Tel Aviv’s reliance on Mossad-derived intelligence to guide its greater Iranian policy grants Dagan considerable influence over his country’s foreign policy.
Position: Commander of the Quds Force, the external wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps
Career: Referred to as “the tip of Iran’s spear” by American journalist David Ignatius, Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani was an unknown until he assumed command of the Quds Force, the unit responsible for supporting Iran’s regional allies and proxies. A decorated veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Suleimani attracted the attention of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who appointed the young war hero to a command position within the Revolutionary Guard following the war. Since his promotion to Quds Force chief in 2000, Suleimani has been omnipresent, representing the interests of the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Central Asia.
U.S. commanders in Iraq have charged the Quds Force with passing an array of sophisticated weapons to Iraqi militia groups, leading to Suleimani’s designation as a terrorist supporter by the U.S. State Department in 2007. In early 2008, he reportedly traveled to Basra, where he negotiated a cease-fire between militias and government forces, a testament to his influence within Iraq’s Shiite power circles.
Influence: Suleimani’s key role in overseeing Tehran’s regional strategy and his relationship to the senior leadership make him a major player in shaping Iranian foreign policy. Former Western intelligence officials have suggested that Suleimani maintains a close connection to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with former U.S. counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke stating that the Quds Force “reports directly to the Supreme Ayatollah.” Former CIA official Robert Grenier has echoed that sentiment, referring to Suleimani as “an extremely important and influential guy.”
Although little is known about his political views, Suleimani’s exploits indicate he is aligned with Iranian leaders who seek to aggressively counter any U.S. presence in the region. With Khamenei relying heavily on the Islamic Republic’s security organs during the current political crisis, the fortunes of well-connected and capable regime stalwarts such as Suleimani can be expected to rise.
Position: Former commander of Syria’s military intelligence agency, current deputy chief of staff of the Syrian military
Career: Few paths to power have been as unlikely — or as oddly romantic — as Assef Shawkat’s. Born in the coastal town of Tartus, Shawkat served in the Syrian military while pursuing a graduate degree in history, a subject for which he has a deep affinity. Shawkat moved easily within elite circles, socializing that paid off spectacularly when he captured the heart of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s daughter, Bushra. His dogged pursuit of Bushra — her father initially opposed the relationship — earned him some measure of respect: “Anyone who could go into the home of Hafez Assad and take his daughter away without his permission has the power to do anything,” a Syrian newscaster who had met Shawkat many times told the New York Times in 2005.
By the late 1990s, Shawkat had joined the inner sanctum, assuming command of military intelligence in February 2005 — the same month former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated. The initial findings of a U.N. commission cast suspicion on Shawkat, leading many observers to suggest that President Bashar al-Assad would hand his brother-in-law over for questioning or possible trial. In January 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department added to the avalanche of condemnation by freezing Shawkat’s assets and dubbing him “a key architect of Syria’s domination of Lebanon.
Influence: By 2008, having successfully avoided the calls for his extradition, Shawkat appeared poised to continue the consolidation of his power base. However, his ascension may have been stalled by the death of Hezbollah security chief Imad Mugniyah in February 2008. Killed in the heart of Damascus, Mugniyah’s death was viewed as an embarrassing breach of security or even an indication of Syrian involvement. Tellingly, Shawkat was barred from participating in the joint Hezbollah-Syrian-Iranian investigation into Mugniyah’s death. Additionally, just this month, Shawkat was “promoted” to deputy chief of staff of the Syrian military, a transfer that may signal a deterioration of the Assad-Shawkat relationship. However, given Shawkat’s marriage to Bushra and his long-standing ties to senior members of the security apparatus, it is way too early to count him out of the Syrian power game.
PRINCE MUQRIN BIN ABDUL-AZIZ
Position: Director general of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency (GIP)
Career: The youngest son of the Saudi kingdom’s founder, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz lived in relative anonymity for the first 60 years of his life. Born in 1945 and educated in the West, Prince Muqrin served in the Royal Saudi Air Force and as governor of several Saudi provinces, including al-Madinah, whose capital is the holy city of Medina. In 2005, he was tapped by his half brother King Abdullah to head the GIP, a daunting task given his lack of intelligence experience and the long shadow of his predecessors, among them legendary chief Prince Turki bin Faisal.
Influence: Despite his inexperience, Muqrin’s star has risen quickly in the past three years as he has become a versatile point man for King Abdullah. Muqrin’s responsibilities include managing Riyadh’s critical Pakistan and Afghanistan portfolio. He has been a regular visitor to Islamabad, maintaining the kingdom’s relationships with a wide array of Pakistani political leaders. As for Afghanistan, Muqrin was dispatched to Kabul in January to meet leading officials, including President Hamid Karzai.
The prince might have had an ulterior motive: News reports suggest that the trip was part of Muqrin’s overall campaign to bring Taliban leaders into talks with Kabul, suggesting that Muqrin is continuing his predecessor’s policy of maintaining contact with Taliban leaders. A month later, Muqrin was sent to Damascus to personally deliver overtures to the Assad regime as part of the larger Arab campaign to reengage Syria. Involvement in critical Saudi foreign-policy efforts and his relative youth have positioned Muqrin well for greater responsibilities in the near future.