The chattering class is abuzz over today's scheduled release of key findings from a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the terrorist threat to the United States. Excerpts from the document were leaked to the press last week, which breathlessly reported that Al Qaida had reconstituted its core structure, and may be stronger now than it was a year ago.
Now, the Associated Press has obtained copies of the NIE's key findings, which will be released to the public shortly. In reading the wire service account, we were struck by the relatively small amount of new information in the published finding. In many respects, this estimate reads like previous assessments on the subject. However, much of the report remains classified, so our understanding of the NIE (and its assessments) is limited, at best.
More disturbing is the apparent political slant of the report--or at least in the findings that will be made public. As you'll see, the NIE expresses concern over potential CONUS strikes by Al Qaida's Iraqi affiliate, but refuses to acknowledge to potential value of the troop surge in mitigating that threat. More on that in a moment. Listed below are key findings from the NIE, and our observations on those assessments:
--"Of note," the analysts said, "we assess that al-Qaida will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the homeland."
Nothing particularly revelatory there. Intercepted letters and other communications from late 2005 and early 2006 indicate that Senior Al Qaida leaders were imploring their top lieutenant in Iraq, Musab al-Zarqawi, to launch strikes against the United States. Zarqawi was unable to fulfill that request before his death, and the recent troop surge in Iraq would (arguably) make it more difficult for AQI to conduct operations in the CONUS.
--[The analysts also found that] al-Qaida's association with its Iraqi affiliate helps the group to energize the broader Sunni Muslim extremist community, raise resources and recruit and indoctrinate operatives — "including for homeland attacks"
Such observations have long been used as a rallying cry against the War on Terror, but they also ignore another reality of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. If those campaigns have energized the "broader Sunni Muslim extremist community," they have also served as something of a furnace, forcing terrorists to expend resources that might have otherwise been utilized in attacks on our homeland. Al Qaida's resources are not unlimited; with Iraq still identified as their "central front" in the war against the Crusaders, the jihadists will be forced to expend a disproportionate amount of their personnel and weapons in that conflict, limiting their options for attacking the United States.
--Al-Qaida is likely to continue to focus on high-profile political, economic and infrastructure targets to cause mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, economic aftershocks and fear. "The group is proficient with conventional small arms and improvised explosive devices and is innovative in creating new capabilities and overcoming security obstacles."
That "finding" could have been easily lifted from previous terrorism NIEs. Al Qaida's pre-occupation with mass casualty "spectaculars"--as well as its ability to evolve and adapt--are well-documented.
--The group will continue to seek weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological or nuclear material — and "would not hesitate to use them."
Evidence of Al Qaida's interest in WMD dates back to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. And, if you don't believe the group is interested in those types of weapons, just ask Jose Padilla, currently on trial in a U.S. court, in connection with an Al Qaida "dirty bomb" plot.
--Lebanese Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim extremist group that has conducted anti-American attacks overseas, may be more likely to consider attacking here, especially if it believes the United States is directly threatening the group or its main sponsor, Iran.
Again, nothing really new here. The intelligence community has long believed that Hizballah would attack U.S. targets (at home and abroad) under the circumstances described by the NIE. Ironically, some analysts believe that Hizballah has refrained from striking the CONUS in the past because of the group's successful fund-raising activities within the United States.
--Non-Muslim terrorist groups probably will attack here in the next several years, although on a smaller scale. The judgments don't name any specific groups, but the FBI often warns of violent environmental groups, such as Earth Liberation Front, and others.
In some respects, this "finding" is the most interesting, because it acknowledges a threat that has been largely ignored in past terrorism assessments. Environmental extremist groups--including Earth First--have demonstrated a consistent ability to carry out high-profile attacks, while maintaining impressive operational security (OPSEC). Law enforcement agencies have been unable to penetrate these groups, leaving us vulnerable to future strikes.
More disturbingly, the views of these groups toward western society and culture are not incompatible with those of Islamic terrorists. It would be interesting to learn the FBI's views on a potential "alliance" between home-grown, environmental terrorists, and those from the Muslim world.
The other bit of "new" information information in the findings concerns Al Qaida's successful efforts to reestablish safe havens along the Afghan-Pakistan border, a topic we discussed at length last week.
--The group has been able to restore key capabilities it would need to launch an attack on U.S. soil: a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal areas, operational lieutenants and senior leaders
A significant development (to be sure) but hardly surprising. Perhaps the real story here is the MSM's lack of previous interest in this topic. A number of terrorism analysts (including Bill Roggio) warned last fall about the dire consequences of the "Waziristan Accords," but most media outlets paid little attention, until those developments found their way into the NIE.
While many of the findings have been previously expressed in other intelligence reporting, it should not be an excuse to downplay or dismiss the terrorism threat. Indeed, the U.S. has been facing a domestic threat from Al Qaida since before 9-11, and the group has never lost interest in attacking our homeland.
But it's not surprising that the AP elects to couch that menace a bit differently, focusing on the potential threats to the CONUS from Al Qaida in Iraq. Yet, in pursuing that angle, the wire service (and public portions of the intelligence estimate) fail to connect all the dots. The War in Iraq is very much a part of the "worldwide counter-terrorism efforts" that, in the words of the NIE, "have constrained Al Qaida's ability to attack the U.S. and convinced terror groups that our soil is a tougher target." Using that criteria, Al Qaida in Iraq may find it more difficult to strike the CONUS, given the fact that they are under attack--by our troops--on a daily basis.
The failure to make that obvious connection leads us to question both the wire service story and the published conclusions of the NIE. As we've noted before, national intelligence estimates are often rooted in agency turf battles and internal politics. By refusing to note that the troop surge could impair AQI's ability to hit the CONUS, this report reflects the fine hand of the anti-war, anti-administration faction at the CIA, assisted by their willing stenographers at the Associated Press.
ADDENDUM: We welcome comments from anyone who's seen the "full" NIE. We'd particularly like to know if the estimate acknowledges the impact of the troop surge on AQI, including its prospects for attacking the U.S. homeland.