US security priorities switch from al-Qaida to cyberwarfare

This morning the Senate Select Intelligence Committee was briefed by Director of national intelligence James Clapper, and the heads of the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Counterterrorism Center, and the State Department regarding the intelligence community’s worldwide threat assessment.

As reported in a piece from the Danger Room, the heads of the US intelligence apparatus “focused on their budgets and on cyber attacks more than they did terrorism. Not only was that itself a big change in the annual exercise, what they said about the threat from al-Qaida was mostly cheerful news.” Most noticeably,  Clapper testified that with regards to the core al-Qaida (the one the US is in an non-international armed conflict with), “Senior personnel losses… have degraded core al-Qa’ida to a point that the group is probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West.”In fact, with the exception of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the intelligence community has concluded that all the other Al-Qaeda “affiliates” it reported on (Al-Qaida in Iraq; Syria-based al-Nusra front; Somalia-based Al-Shabaab; Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; Nigeria-based Boko Haram; Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayibba; and Lebanese-based Hizballah) are more focused on local issues than they are with targeting the US.

Moreover, the document also explicitly acknowledges the “dispersed and decentralized nature of the terrorist networks active in the region,” and recognizes that anti-US operations can still be conducted “even in the absence of official direction or guidance from leaders of established al-Qa’ida affiliates,” with the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi and the recent attack on the Algerian oil platform cited as examples of this. These points unambiguously corroborate the legal opinion drafted by UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston in his report on drone strikes, as I wrote about here:

Alston explains that the US cannot claim to be in a transnational non-international armed conflict with al-Qaeda beyond the context of Afghanistan or Iraq “without further explanation of how those entities [collectively] constitute a “party” under the [International Humanitarian Law] of non-international armed conflict, and whether and how any violence by any such group rises to the level necessary for an armed conflict to exist.” Moreover, Alston opines that to arbitrarily “expand the notion of non-international armed conflict” to these groups would be to do “deep damage to the IHL and human rights frameworks.”

But beyond the framework of international law, it is worth wondering aloud whether or not it makes sense to combat an ideology hostile to US government interests by playing a perpetual game of Whack-A-Mole. As I wrote about here regarding a 2004 Pentagon report on the topic, the issue at stake for those who adopt this ideology is not so much a whimsical and irrational hatred of America for it’s “freedoms” – it is US policy in the Middle East that engenders the sort of perspective we so easily dismiss in the West as uncivilized, animalistic, and barbaric. It does no one any good to ignore the historical precedents and continuing nature of US meddling in foreign nations that are the direct causes of anti-US sentiments abroad.

Surprisingly, violent and brutal imperialist policies don’t exactly endear the victims of such policies to the aggressor.

UPDATE: A simple illustration of this shift in priority concerns is the attention given to the threat of cybersecurity in the document. As reported by Kevin Baron at Foreign Policy, cybersecurity gets a whopping 18 “paragraphs of concern” in the briefing, while the issue of terrorism gets barely two pages worth of mention.

UPDATE II: A fascinating example of fear mongering in the mainstream media, from the Times

In his discussion of the terrorism, Mr. Clapper noted that while Al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan “is probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West,” a host of spinoffs still posed a threat [to whom?]. Listed first is the affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which Mr. Clapper said had retained its goal of attacks on United States soil, but he also noted militant groups in six other countries that still threaten local violence [so they are domestic problems for foreign nations?].

And the Post

Officials said al-Qaeda’s core leadership group is so degraded that it likely unable to carry out large-scale attacks in the West. A serious threat, said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, emanate from “homegrown extremists who may well be inspired or radicalized by the message that al-Qaeda sends.”

Contrasted with the aforementioned piece from the Danger Room at Wired on the same issue

Matt Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified that those attempts are and are likely to remain “unsophisticated.” Those al-Qaida manages to inspire may be “wayward knuckleheads,” Olsen said, but they’ll remain a challenge for the spy apparatus to monitor and disrupt.

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