Though badly weakened as a result of a concerted campaign by the United States, the terrorism organization al-Qaeda and its offshoots continue to pose a primary danger to the United States, the nation's top intelligence official told members of Congress on Tuesday (see GSN, Nov, 23, 2011).
The militant network behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States was last year battered by the killing of leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces and an ongoing series of drone strikes in the Afghanistan/Pakistan tribal region. The decimation of al-Qaeda's brain trust and its most experienced leaders has left the group operationally ineffective and unable to launch further highly coordinated, large-scale attacks on the United States, U.S. antiterrorism officials have said.
"The intelligence community sees the next two or three years as a critical transition phase for the terrorist threat, particularly for al-Qaeda and like-minded groups," U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said during a Senate intelligence committee hearing on global threats. "With Osama bin Laden's death, the global jihadist movement lost its most iconic and inspirational leader. The new al- Qaeda commander [Ayman al-Zawahiri] is less charismatic, and the death or capture of prominent al-Qaeda figures has shrunk the group's top leadership layer."
Testifying alongside Clapper, CIA Director David Petraeus noted that in October 2011 alone, four of al-Qaeda's top 20 leaders in its Pakistani command were either killed or taken into custody.
Still, Clapper cautioned that al-Qaeda continued to pose a danger to the United States with its new emphasis on smaller-scale terrorist attacks that are easier to develop and carry out.
"As long as we sustain the pressure on it, we judge that core al-Qaeda will be of largely symbolic importance to the global jihadist movement. But regional affiliates ... and to a lesser extent, small cells and individuals will drive the global jihad agenda," he continued.
Al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch is now viewed as the al-Qaeda branch most likely to attack the United States, according to previous reporting. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has to date developed several ultimately unsuccessful plots such as the failed bombing of a passenger plane as it prepared to fly into Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 (see GSN
, Oct. 12, 2011).
"Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, [Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate] al-Shabaab, other organizations have sustained important losses as well," Petraeus said. "Having said that, the threat of terrorism remains significant, and we must sustain the campaign, we must maintain the pressure on al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and other violent extremist organizations wherever they may be."
The United States has stepped up its activities in Yemen against al-Qaeda operatives. Last October, one of al-Qaeda's most prominent propagandists and strategists, U.S.-Yemeni dual citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a targeted U.S. airstrike. On Tuesday, new air attacks against al-Qaeda fighters were carried out in the country, with between six and 12 deaths reported
"The removal of bin Laden and al-Awlaki was a huge benefit to the security of the United States," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate committee. "By the same token, there are still leaders in both Yemen and Afghanistan-Pakistan border area that have the capability of launching attacks domestically."
The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction continues to represent a "major global strategic threat," Clapper said, singling out for particular note Iran's progress in enriching uranium and North Korea's efforts to sell ballistic missiles and related technology to nations such as Syria and Iran (see related GSN story, today).
However, the overall opinion of the U.S. intelligence community is that "no nation states have provided WMD assistance to terrorist groups and that no nonstate actors are targeting WMD sites in countries of unrest; however, as governments become unstable and transform, WMD-related materials may become vulnerable to nonstate actors if the security that protects them erodes," Clapper said in his provided statement.
While violent extremists continue to look at acquiring unconventional weapons capabilities, "we assess that a mass attack by foreign terrorist groups involving a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon in the United States is unlikely in the next year, as a result of intense counterterrorism pressure," the intelligence chief added in his prepared comments. "Nevertheless, given the compartmented nature of CBRN programs, the spread of technological information, and the minimal infrastructure needed for some CBRN efforts, the intelligence community remains alert to the CBRN threat."
The security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and materials has been noted as a potential worry as the South Asian nation wrests with extremists within its borders. Officials in Islamabad and Washington, though, have played down worries about diversion of sensitive materials or technology to terrorists.
U.S. defense officials are also closely monitoring developments in the Arab world, where several countries that possess WMD-related materials have experienced uprisings and revolts in the last year. Ongoing massive protests and fighting in Syria has raised concerns in some quarters about the security of the Assad regime's large stockpile of chemical warfare materials (see GSN
, Jan. 18). During the successful 2011 uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, the United States went to considerable effort to monitor the North African nation's small stockpile of mustard blister agent to ensure it did not fall into the hands of extremists (see GSN
, Aug. 25, 2011).
The U.S. intelligence community "judges that lone actors abroad or in the United states -- including criminals and homegrown violent extremists inspired by terrorist leaders or literature advocating use of CBR materials -- are capable of conducting at least limited attacks in the next year," Clapper stated, "but we assess the anthrax threat to the United States by lone actors is low."
On North Korea, Clapper said, "We don't expect Kim Jong Un, North Korea's new young leader, to change Pyongyang's policy of attempting to export most of its weapons systems."
The Stalinist state has conducted two nuclear tests to date and is understood to have enough processed plutonium to fuel about six warheads. The isolated country is also enriching uranium though it is not known to what levels. Warhead-grade uranium requires an enrichment level of around 90 percent. While Pyongyang is thought to be several years away from fielding a ballistic missile capable of striking the continental United States, it not believed to have yet constructed a nuclear warhead small enough to be delivered on such a system (see GSN
, Jan. 3).
"We judge that North Korea would consider using nuclear weapons only under narrow circumstances," Clapper's statement said. "We also assess, albeit with low confidence, Pyongyang probably would not attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or territory, unless it perceived its regime to be on the verge of a military defeat and risked an irretrievable loss of control."