- Military Intelligence and the Arab Revolt: The First Modern Intelligence War
Film and television in recent years has conditioned scholars and the general public alike into thinking about “ghost wars” in the greater Middle East. Stories of lone British, American, or French officers fighting clandestine battles in desperate and exotic lands now abound in both fiction and non-fiction. This trend, as exemplified by the TV series 24 or Steve Coll’s study of the CIA in Afghanistan (Ghost Wars), seems to confirm that this kind of highly specialized and seemingly precise manner of warfare represents the mainstream of present and future Western armies. If shadowy “intelligence wars” are to be understood as a vital part of our contemporary reality, what is their history?
Polly Mohs puts forth a provocative answer to this question in her book, Military Intelligence and the Arab Revolt. Through her rather exhaustive use of British archival sources, she convincingly depicts the organization of Sharif Hussein’s revolt during the First World War as the first truly modern intelligence war. She portrays this revolt, which engulfed much of the Ottoman Hijaz between 1915 and 1918, as the first military campaign that paired the latest techniques in intelligence gathering with the employment of a small, highly specialized expeditionary force tasked with organizing and leading local fighters. Much of her discussion of the revolt centers on the creation and ascendancy of the Arab Bureau, the subdivision of the British Foreign Office that was specifically invented to coordinate imperial operations in the Ottoman Arab lands. The Arab Bureau combined resources drawn from various [End Page 1354] wings of the colonial administration, the military and the academy in its effort to bring Sharif Hussein’s rebellion to life. Able hands such as the famed T.E. Lawrence embodied the Arab Bureau’s unique mandate and origins. As a collective, Mohs argues, the Bureau’s men in Cairo and in the field demonstrated great flexibility and foresight as administrators, intelligence officers, and battlefield commanders.
Although couched within the narrowly defined field of intelligence studies, Mohs’s work possesses a much broader series of implications. For scholars of the First World War and the modern Middle East, we see in this account of the Arab Bureau an important contribution to our understanding of Great Britain’s policy towards the Arab world. Doctor Mohs emphasizes that British decision makers were far from united in implementing a common, let alone winning, strategy in the Ottoman Arab lands. Bureaucratic and territorial infighting between officers based in Egypt, India, the Sudan, and London nearly prevented the creation of the Arab Bureau and repeatedly threatened to undo British support for Sharif Hussein. Mohs’s intimate rendering of British exploits in the Hijaz provides interesting insights into the complexities of employing and reacting to multiple sources of intelligence. Operationally speaking, British involvement in the Arab Revolt represents a historical coup that would be mimicked time and again throughout the twentieth century and beyond.
While this book admittedly speaks to the narrow field of intelligence studies, one is still left to wonder where the Arab Revolt fits in the history of British intelligence practices and operations. There is a much broader history Doctor Mohs could have addressed, such as the origins of intelligence practices in India, the rivalry between the India Office and the other sectors of the imperial administration and the longer story of British involvement in domestic Ottoman affairs. One could also take issue with the seeming assuredness with which a British victory against the Ottoman Empire was viewed during the Great War or the conflation of the multi-ethnic Ottoman government with the “Turks”. All this aside, Mohs’s work is still to be admired as an expert contribution on the operational innovation and evolution of British intelligence practices during the First World War.