Moving forward to this millennium, we have the notorious failure of Western intelligence agencies to accurately forecast, based on available evidence, the likelihood that Saddam Hussain’s Iraq possessed an operational WMD programme. The prediction that he did became one of the key justifications for a military conflict that spelled the end of the road for Saddam’s government, and continues to have repercussions for the region today.


The debate about what exactly went wrong continues (as of writing there is hope that the Chilcot Report may finally be published next year), and remains politically charged. Some believe that the prediction was never genuine, that we were knowingly taken to war under false pretences. Others say there was no intent to mislead, but that enthusiasm and political pressure simply skewed judgments and led to the cherry-picking of evidence. Or that it was a failure of methods of intelligence gathering and analysis. It is not our place to comment, but something clearly did go wrong.

It’s not the last time that we were wrong-footed by events in the region. We failed to anticipate the Arab Spring in 2011 – a wave of popular revolutions that spread rapidly and unpredictably, thanks in part to the mediating role of social media and other new forms of communication. We were similarly caught off guard by the rapid rise of ISIS in 2013. Is there something fundamentally wrong in our assumptions regarding the region? There has been speculation, for instance, that an over-reliance on aerial reconnaissance played a part in our failure to anticipate the threat posed by ISIS.

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