By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 3, 2010 - The violent extremist threat is evolving, senior U.S. intelligence officials told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta told lawmakers that al-Qaida remains at the center of the extremist threat against the United States.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida, its affiliates, and other terror groups are changing as they continue to plot and attempt attacks, the intelligence officials said.
"My greatest concern and what keeps me awake at night is that al-Qaida and its terrorist allies and affiliates could very well attack the United States in our homeland," Panetta told the senators.
"We have made the complex, multiple-team attacks very difficult for al-Qaida to pull off," Blair, a retired Navy admiral, said. "As we saw with the recent successful and attempted terrorist attacks, however, identifying individual terrorists, small groups with short histories using simple attack methods, is a new degree of difficulty."
Al-Qaida is adapting to the new situation. "What's happening is that they are moving to other safe havens and to other regional nodes in places like Yemen and Somalia, the Maghreb and others," Panetta said.
Trends in the Muslim world show a decreasing minority of the population support violent extremism. "But even with a decreasing and smaller amount, al-Qaida's radical ideology still seems to appeal strongly to some disaffected young Muslims, a pool of potential suicide bombers and other fighters," Blair said. "And this pool unfortunately includes Americans."
Blair said the United States does not have the same high-level, home-grown threat that Europe faces now, but self-radicalizing people will continue to be a problem and may grow.
The threat to the United States comes more from "lone-wolf" terrorists, Panetta said.
"We are being aggressive at going after this threat," he said. "We've expanded our human intelligence. We are engaging with our liaison partners in other countries to try to track these kinds of threats. We obviously are checking and reviewing watch-lists and other lists to determine who among them could be that potential lone wolf. And we are taking the fight to the enemy, and we will continue to do that."
But this may not be enough. "However much we improve our intelligence – and we intend to improve it even more than it is – we cannot count on it to catch every threat," Blair said.
Mounting intensified counterterrorism efforts in the Afghan-Pakistan region as well as in places like Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, he said, will "be critical to further diminishing the threat."
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban has increased its influence and expanded the insurgency, Blair said. That's why the United States and its allies need to reverse the Taliban's momentum while reinforcing security elsewhere, he said.
Another goal is to improve Afghan security forces, governance and economic capabilities, Blair said, so security gains will endure and can be transferred to the Afghans.
"Early successes in places like Helmand, where Marines have been deployed for several months, where aggressive counter-drug and economic programs are in place, and where local governance is competent show that we can make solid progress even when the threat is high," he said.
Last year, Blair cited the global financial meltdown as a danger to the security of the world. "But an unprecedented policy response by governments and central banks around the world laid a foundation for global recovery that most forecasters expect will continue through 2010, although high unemployment and pockets of difficulty will still persist," he said.
Meanwhile, China is becoming a bigger world player thanks to its burgeoning economy, Blair said. China's economy, he said, "will grow from being a third of the size of that of the U.S. to roughly half by 2015, an earlier date than we had previously projected."
The Chinese, indeed, are playing a larger role on the world stage, with its naval forces helping anti-piracy efforts off Somalia and through contributions to the International Monetary Fund.
But there are worrying trends too, Blair said, as the Chinese continue their military build-up.
"Preparation for a Taiwan conflict involving a U.S. intervention continues to dominate their modernization and contingency plans," Blair said of China's efforts to bulk up its military capabilities. "And China also increasingly worries about how to protect its global interests."
Meanwhile, Iranian leaders are keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, Blair said. "One of the key capabilities Iran continues to develop is its uranium enrichment program," he told the senators.
"The United States and other countries announced last September that Iran for years has been building in secret a second enrichment facility near Qom," Blair said. "Overall, we continue to assess that Iran has the scientific, the technical and the industrial capacity to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for a weapon in the next few years if it choose to do so, and ultimately, to produce nuclear weapons. The central issue is a political decision to do so."
Iran also continues to test and build ballistic missiles, giving Tehran a means of delivering a possible nuclear payload, officials said.