Al Qaida affiliates still at fore of threats to U.S.: Clapper

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 10, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Terrorism, the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and espionage, especially cyber attacks and the theft of U.S. technology, are the leading U.S. national security threats, the top U.S. intelligence official said Thursday.

Delivering the U.S. intelligence community’s annual threat assessment to Congress, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said the country faces “numerous” other “potential dangers over the long term."

“It is the multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats — and the actors behind them — that constitute our biggest challenge,” Clapper said in the report submitted to the House Intelligence Committee.

Testifying before the committee, Clapper was flanked by the heads of other U.S. intelligence agencies, including CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Clapper said that the al Qaida leadership based in Pakistan’s tribal region bordering Afghanistan has been “damaged” by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.

But, he continued, Osama bin Laden’s inner circle and affiliated groups in the Middle East and North Africa will remain “at the forefront of our national security threats over the coming year,” plotting attacks on the U.S. homeland and targets overseas.

Apparently referring to the deaths of operatives in U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Clapper said that, “In light of the loss of experienced personnel, we judge that it (al Qaida) will seek to augment sophisticated plots by increasing its operational tempo with smaller, simpler ones to demonstrate its continued relevance to the global jihad.”

He warned that al Qaida “affiliates” in North Africa, Somalia and Yemen “probably will grow stronger” in the absence of “more effective and sustained activities to disrupt them.”

“The result may be that regional affiliates conducting most of the terrorist attacks and multiple voices will provide inspiration for the global jihadist movement,” Clapper said.”

Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group behind the failed 2009 Christmas Day bombing of an airliner over Detroit and last year’s foiled plot to ship bombs disguised as printer cartridges to the United States, “is increasingly devoted to directing and inspiring attacks on the U.S. homeland and other targets in the West, he continued.

In a related development, Clapper said that “a small, but growing number of Americans have become involved in the global jihadist movement” over the last five years, many of them inspired by extremist propaganda on the Internet.

“They have occupied a variety of roles with extremist groups overseas, such as foot soldiers and front line combatants, operational planners, propagandists, attack operatives for Homeland plots, and even senior leaders, with some American extremists combining multiple roles,” he said.

“American extremists will likely remain a small part of the jihad, but play a disproportionately large role in the threat to US interests because of their understanding of the U.S. homeland, connections to compatriots back in the United States, and relatively easy access to the homeland and potentially to US facilities overseas,” he warned.

Clapper indicated that U.S. intelligence analysts don’t believe that Iran has begun developing a nuclear weapon yet.

“We assess that Iran is keeping open the option” by forging ahead with its uranium enrichment program in defiance of U.N. Security Council demands to suspend the effort, he said.

“We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” said Clapper. There is “a real risk,” he warned, that Iran’s refusal to halt its program “will prompt other countries in the Middle East to pursue nuclear options.”

Although North Korea has twice tested nuclear devices during the last six years, Clapper said that the U.S. intelligence community assessed that it “would consider using nuclear weapons only under certain narrow circumstances.”

The United States “remains the highest priority intelligence target” for many foreign intelligence services,” Clapper said. “The cyber environment provides unprecedented opportunities for adversaries to target the U.S. due to our reliance on information systems.”

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