The Globalization of Covert Action

There is no reason to believe that the propensity of states to utilize covert action will decrease with time; rather, it is sure to increase, particularly given the number and complexity of regional conflicts and the rise of non-state actors.
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FILE- In this Monday, April, 9, 2007 file photo, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaks at a ceremony in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 Kilometers (186 miles) south of capital Tehran, Iran. The U.S. has plans in place to attack Iran if necessary to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, Washington's envoy to Israel said, days ahead of a crucial round of nuclear talks with Tehran. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian, File)
FILE- In this Monday, April, 9, 2007 file photo, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaks at a ceremony in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 Kilometers (186 miles) south of capital Tehran, Iran. The U.S. has plans in place to attack Iran if necessary to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, Washington's envoy to Israel said, days ahead of a crucial round of nuclear talks with Tehran. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian, File)

One of the less discussed impacts of the tectonic shift under way -- pitting the ancien régimes in the Middle East with powerful new political forces and the established post-World War powers against the 'rise of the rest' -- is a covert competition for influence and power. To achieve this, nations are using covert action and secrecy to achieve their security goals more than ever before. Intelligence agencies and paramilitary organizations have become the weapons of choice for countries seeking to gain comparative advantage among their political and economic competitors, while at the same time seeking to manage the cost of open warfare and blowback from other regional power players.

There are several reasons behind the developing shift toward the increasing use of covert action:

  1. It is a natural choice for nations compelled by events to take action against their rivals in a world where information and sophisticated armaments are increasingly available to any nation with the money and infrastructure to support it.
  2. The costs of warfare are continually increasing, particularly in regions of the globe where the materiel required to wage war is at a premium.
  3. The global 24-hour news cycle and explosion of social media make 'managing' the international community's response to conflict impossible.

Given that that information has truly become globalized, that the degree of sophistication of weaponry has risen dramatically over the past decade, and that more countries have access to this information and weaponry, the playing field has thus been leveled. Those nations that can master the ability to deploy covert action in the most clever and effective way will secure the comparative advantage needed and achieve their objectives.

Iran vs. Israel

As a tactic used in conflict against a rival, covert action not only controls blowback by being deniable, but also reduces the magnitude of an enemy's reaction, as well as that of its allies. This can be very useful if, as in the case of Iran, conventional military power is severely limited relative to its neighbors. Iranian acts of espionage and subversion around the region are well documented and part of a broader goal of buttressing its allies while expanding regional influence.

The arrests in July of Iranian Quds members in Cyprus targeting Israelis, and the Bulgarian bus attack, are recent examples of Iran's subversive operations. Iran's relationship with Hezbollah is well-established. Homegrown Iranian intelligence and offensive covert operations are increasingly elaborate as well. The arrest in New York City of Iranian nationals accused of enlisting Los Zetas cartel members to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. with a bomb suggests that Iran is becoming as risk-tolerant as Israel when acting covertly against its rivals. For its part, Israel is presumed to be responsible for the numerous assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and, perhaps in conjunction with the U.S., for the Stuxnet computer virus, designed to inhibit Iran's ability to proceed apace with the development of its nuclear program.

Israel has deployed other means of achieving its objectives. In March of this year, The Sunday Times reported on Israeli intelligence missions into northern Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan, aimed at gathering information on nuclear facilities in Qom, Fordow, and Parchin. Le Figaro also reported this year on the intimate relationship between the Mossad and the PKK in Iraq. Other reports indicate that Israel conducts airborne surveillance missions across the Iranian border using unmanned drones. These operations are inherently offensive in targeting a peer competitor and effective beyond the expected utility of open warfare since, as a tool of foreign policy, covert action is unlikely to be as costly as military operations or an opponent's possible retribution.

Iran in the GCC

Iran's ability to disrupt the global economy does not end at the Strait of Hormuz, but includes the financial centers of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Dubai. Despite the network of relationships between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the U.S., Iran is undeterred from quietly interfering in the internal affairs of Bahrain and Qatar. As if anticipating the social upheaval following the Arab Awakening, Iran quietly established strong relationships with the Shi'a populations throughout the GCC over the past two decades and was completely equipped to intensify opposition protests. According to a Stratfor report from March of last year, Bahraini opposition movements -- such as al-Haq, Bahraini Hezbollah and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain -- received strong financial and organizational support from the Iranian Quds force. Additionally, training in urban warfare made these organizations incredibly effective during the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa over the past 18 months.

So much so, that despite $20 billion in financial aid to the Bahraini monarchy in 2011, Saudi Arabia was compelled to crack down on protest movements by sending troops. This can be interpreted as both a clear defeat for Iran's covert efforts to overthrow the Al Khalifa monarchy and proof that covert action is relatively weak in the face of overt military force. However, Iran's ability to stoke unrest is a clear victory, and evidence of how useful and effective covert action can be against seemingly overwhelming odds.

Iran's covert activities in the Gulf are an attempt to counter the influence of its main competitors, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, with low risk and high potential reward. Strong cultural and ideological connections with the local populations around the Gulf, which can be essential for successful intelligence operations, are an advantage that the U.S. simply cannot match. Iran knows this, and has used it very effectively in Iraq to influence the political process in Iraq, and to attempt to influence the outcome of the Syrian conflict.


Russia is similarly able to wrestle well above its weight-class in international politics by accomplishing covertly what it cannot otherwise accomplish through soft power, economic force, or military conflict. During the Cold War, diplomatic regimes could be relied upon to provide a framework to peacefully resolve disputes between nations, but these diplomatic channels no longer exist. Matching Russia's financial and military resources with its security goals prompted President Putin to see covert action as a natural strategy for limiting U.S. competition in the former Soviet Union, and for keeping old rivals in check.

It took relatively little effort to reactivate old intelligence networks and reestablish relationships throughout the West and elsewhere. An article in 2009 from the Daily Mail quotes the director-general of Britain's MI5, describing Russian intelligence activity in Britain as at the same levels now as they were at the height of the Cold War. Russia maintained good relationships throughout the 1990s with the intelligence services of regimes inimical to U.S. intentions and it now has a vibrant relationship with Venezuela and Bolivia, for example, due to their shared antagonism towards U.S. influence.

In 2005, The Moscow Times published an article outlining Russian weapons smuggling to the FARC and ELN rebels in Colombia, who were fighting the U.S.-backed Colombian military. Russia has also been linked to the sale of missile technology to Iran. The $1.2 billion Bushehr nuclear reactor was built with Russian technology and is protected by weapons sold by Russia. The arrest of a network of suspected Russian spies in New York in 2010 illuminated Russian attempts to use intelligence operations to infiltrate businesses in the West while simultaneously using national corporations to improve Russia's influence in regional military affairs. Over the past ten years, Rosoboronexport -- Russia's agency for the exportation of military technology -- opened offices in India, China, Myanmar, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Venezuela, Indonesia, and Sudan.

The conflict in Georgia in 2008 showed the effectiveness of Russian covert action to pave the way for wider political action. The Guardian published a report in 2010 revealing the extent of Russia's pre-war covert action campaign to destabilize internal politics in Georgia and reverse President Mikheil Saakashvili's pro-Western orientation. An aggressive program of disinformation, industrial sabotage, and political assassinations started in 2004, four years ahead of open conflict. During the campaign of disruption, Russian intelligence was linked to the assassination of Georgia's Prime Minister as well as the police chief later tasked with investigating the killing.

Russia is relying on intelligence to achieve similar influence in Central Asia as well. The creation in 2004 of the Regional Anti-terrorist Structure -- an intelligence-sharing forum within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- eased the transference of Russian power throughout the region and eventually led to Uzbekistan's expulsion of a U.S. military base there. Ukraine's Orange Revolution was another theater for Russia's covert offensive and left President Yushchenko permanently disfigured from what is believed to have been an assassination attempt by Russian intelligence agents.

Covert Action in Africa

Of course, covert competition and the use of secrecy as a tool of foreign policy are certainly not exclusive to regions of the world where contests for supremacy have developed over many decades, based on historical, cultural, or political changes. The potential loss of future economic growth can be as significant an existential threat as international conflict. Increased interest in Southern Africa during the early 2000s as a source of raw materials ushered in some intense peer competition.

South Africa and Angola are two rivals with a history of antipathy and mutual distrust that continues to impact their relationship. While South Africa is well on its way towards political stability, Angola's situation is more adolescent, and the question in Johannesburg is how Angola's rise will change South Africa's vision for regional stability. The government in Luanda, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with maintaining the internal status quo, as oil and gas revenues allow the ruling MPLA to counter domestic opposition from UNITA. This month's presidential election results in favor of the MPLA are a step in a more stable direction, but the government is rightly concerned with subversive elements jeopardizing its future.

Angola's paranoia is directed at South Africa and its history of interfering in Angolan affairs by taking advantage of the difficult geography surrounding the country; dense mountain forests make it easy for South African intelligence to aid cross-border incursions. Throughout the 1980s, South African Special Forces used neighboring Namibia to train UNITA, which could attack their targets across the border unopposed. On the other hand, Angola supported the South West Africa People's Organization in removing South African sovereignty over Namibia. Today, South Africa still has an edge over Angola in terms of military capacity, but the detrimental effects of war on economic growth force dyadic competition into the theater of covert action, thus flattening the power differential and playing to Angola's strengths in using intelligence to counter internal subversion. Revenue from the export of oil gives Angola the financial resources to compete with South Africa in that arena.

South Africa is attempting to bring Angola into the regional economic fold by signing agreements aimed at reducing barriers against foreign corporations in Angola. Progress is ongoing but subterfuge remains, and covert conflict leading to wider economic instability for businesses and commodities is possible. As South Africa continues its economic rise, its ability to influence regional affairs through the use of covert action can only grow.

India, China, and Submarines

Covert action and secrecy as tools of foreign policy are just as fungible in the realm of military affairs. In South Asia, the increase of submarine fleets is having a similar effect on competition between China, India, and other nations around the South China Sea. The security environment around the South China Sea and the broader regional rivalry between India and China imply the need to deploy covert action in order to achieve national objectives. According to a report in the New Zealand Herald last month, China maintains its interests in the South China Sea as paramount to its resource security. China appears poised to win the battle for supremacy in that regard, and has not hesitated to use whatever means at its disposal to attempt to wrestle control of natural resources in the region, and beyond.

Since submarines can be deployed in secret, they are less likely to increase tension and are an affordable alternative to large surface fleets. Submarines can perform special operations, gather intelligence, and deny large areas of the ocean to rival navies. Just as covert operations expand a nation's ability to target internal political mechanisms, submarine fleets provide small nations with the capability to challenge naval power and allow smaller nations in Asia the ability to expand their influence into the maritime environment. Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia have either acquired or taken steps to acquire conventional diesel-electric powered submarines over the past ten years. Thailand is planning to purchase six German-made submarines, the Philippines is planning on buying one in the next few years, Vietnam plans to purchase six Kilo-class Russian-built submarines, and Malaysia has purchased two French Scorpene-class submarines.

The viability of submarine tactics is reflected in current Chinese and Indian military strategies, which emphasize a combination of medium- to long-range missiles, along with submarine forces. China is investing in mobile missile launchers and attempting to build nuclear-powered submarines. India is preparing for future security requirements by extending the range of its missiles and recently announcing a global tender for six domestically produced submarines. Reports from regional news outlets suggest that the race for submarine technology is heating up. India alleges that its naval command was hacked by China, and hackers breached Mitsubishi's submarine manufacturing facilities in Japan, infecting roughly forty computers at eleven factories and the shipyard at Kobe. Japanese investigators suggest the hacks emanated from servers in China.


Covert action and secrecy are certainly not new means of achieving foreign policy objectives, but have become increasingly important tools for waging economic, political, and military conflict throughout the world in the 21st century. In the Middle East, Africa and Asia in particular, the use of covert action has risen consistently over the past decade, with increasingly dramatic impact. The globalization of information and access to sophisticated military resources has leveled the playing field among nations, while the competition for natural resources and desire for economic supremacy have been added to the mix of incentives nations may utilize to employ covert action and achieve their objectives.

There is no reason to believe that the propensity of states to utilize covert action will decrease with time; rather, it is sure to increase, particularly given the number and complexity of regional conflicts and the rise of non-state actors. Only those nations that successfully combine skill, cunning, and the element of surprise will be the victors in the evolving globalization of covert action.

Daniel Wagner is the CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". John Margeson is a research analyst with CRS in New York City.

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