The US warns Spain of a terrorist attack in Barcelona?? That is how intelligence sharing is supposed to work

Spain has been the target of two significant jihadi attacks in the post 9/11 period. In what has become known as 4-11, four bombs went off on the Madrid transit system in 2004, killing 191 and injuring more than 1,800. Al Qaeda (AQ) was responsible for that act, despite initial the Spanish government’s initial awkward attempt to blame the Basque terrorist group ETA. In August 2017 a terrorist drove a van into the crowded Las Ramblas market area of Barcelona, killing 13 and wounding 130. The Islamic State (IS)-inspired attack could have been even deadlier: an explosion at a home the day before destroyed what could have been used to manufacture bombs to be used in other acts of terrorism.

Fast forward to Christmas this year. Barcelona is on alert, in part due to a US State Department warning of possible terrorist action over the holiday period (the warning read: “Exercise heightened caution around areas of vehicle movement, including¬†buses, in the Las Ramblas area of Barcelona during Christmas and New Year’s. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations,¬†transportation hubs, and other public areas.”)¬†. Catalan authorities are hunting a 30-year Moroccan old man identified as B. L. Nothing bad has happened yet, but when it comes to terrorism it is better safe than sorry.

What is interesting about this story is the fact that it was the US that issued the warning, not the Spanish nor the Catalans. Is this odd? Not really. The US intelligence apparatus, which in all likelihood is behind the State Department memo, is vast and competent. It keeps and eye (and an ear) out for threats all over the world, in part to preserve US interests and to protect US citizens living or traveling abroad. What is not known is how much actual classified data the Americans shared with Spain.

This leads to the other issue: the sharing of intelligence. Spy agencies have a reputation for hoarding data and being overly secretive. In many ways, of course, they are, since any intelligence service that treats sources and methods cavalierly doesn’t stay in business very long – or if it does it is not a very good intelligence service.

At the same time, however, sitting on intelligence is rarely a good idea. Our spies are there to collect, analyse, and advise in order to PREVENT bad things from occurring. These agencies act as early warning systems that can provide information in a timely fashion to governments so that preemptive action can be taken.

We in Canada are fortunate indeed to be part of the world’s premier intelligence sharing club: the so-called 5 Eyes. Consisting of the main agencies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, this quintet has been collaborating on intelligence matters since WWII. While not everything is held in common, a lot is and we Canadians benefit immensely from what our closest allies share with us.

Spain is not part of the 5 Eyes, but that does not mean we do not share with that country. In fact, CSIS has a provision within its legislation that allows for this kind of relationship. Section 17 of the CSIS Act says (in part): “For the purpose of performing its duties and functions…the Service may…enter into an arrangement or otherwise cooperate with the government of a foreign state or an institution thereof ..” This is legalese for allowing CSIS, with the approval of the Ministers of Public Safety and Global Affairs Canada, to exchange intelligence with any foreign state. The exact number of countries with which this relationship exists is classified, but I know from experience that it is a lot.

In a world where threats and threat actors know no barriers, exchanging timely information is a necessity. Yes, it has to be done carefully – we have certainly been burned in Canada by some sharing in the past – but we are fooling ourselves if we think any one state can go it alone. Allies and friends are there to help, and that includes in the realm of intelligence.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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