As happens now and then, in one of those moments of serendipity, yesterday I was attending the Director of National Intelligence sponsored Open Source Conference. During a morning session the DNI Director Mike McConnell gave a speech, which drew in part on the newly released National Intelligence Estimate of the key judgments for the current threat and terrorism to the United States homeland, an unclassified version of which was posted online.
And what does the two-page declassified summary of key judgments of a National Intelligence Estimate titled “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland” say? See for yourself.
We judge the US Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years. The main threat comes from Islamic terrorist groups and cells, especially al-Qa’ida, driven by their undiminished intent to attack the Homeland and a continued effort by these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.
We assess that greatly increased worldwide counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained the ability of al-Qa’ida to attack the US Homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the Homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11. These measures have helped disrupt known plots against the United States since 9/11.
• We are concerned, however, that this level of international cooperation may wane as 9/11 becomes a more distant memory and perceptions of the threat diverge.
Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qa’ida senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al-Qa’ida will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.
• As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment.
We assess that al-Qa’ida will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the Homeland through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups. Of note, we assess that al-Qa’ida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate [emphasis added] and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland. In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qa’ida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.
There is a bit more, but you get the idea. How should we think of this? One way to look at this is that it a typical desperate stretch on the part of the administration. Let’s go back to “al-Qa’ida in Iraq”, which is billed as al-Qaida’s “most visible and capable affiliate.”
The administration is trying to depict a monolithic picture of terrorism when the evidence points to isolated groups with specific interests operating without any real central control, except perhaps a kind McQaeda franchise label to make them bigger than they really are.
This is consistent with past administration efforts at its tried link the original Al Qaeda to Iran, to the Iraqi insurgency, to Hezbollah, to the Taliban, to Anwar al-Islam and even to Hamas and various North African splinter groups.
Lumping these groups together is not just a rhetorical mistake. it would be a grave mistake operationally. None of these groups can be approached with the same strategies and tactics that must be applied to the others. They don’t have the same ideologies, leadership, nor political survival strategies.
For example, Hamas and Hezbollah are political groups in their own countries. The Iraqi insurgency is rebelling against its own central government and the United States. The Taliban once hosted Al-Qaeda, but they are primarily interested in regaining control over Afghanistan.
Let’s also remember that this was the second government report in the past week that pointed to a heightened risk from al-Qaeda. The other, written by the National Counterterrorism Center, was titled “Al-Qaida Better Positioned to Strike the West.”
So what the NIE really confirms is that that the strategy for fighting Osama bin Laden’s leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan had failed. And isn’t the justification for continuing to stay in Iraq is that it would help in the fight against al-Qaida?
In fact, if you change the date the current NIE seems quite similar to past ones, such as the one in July 1995, which predicted terrorist attacks in the United States, specifying Wall Street, the White House and the Capitol as potential targets. It described “a worldwide network of training facilities and safe havens.”
So, al-Qaeda remains strong and is getting stronger, our occupation of Iraq is not making us safer, and America “faces a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years.” This is what the Bush administration calls progress.