(Matthew Levitt is a Senior fellow and Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).
I do not think we are concentrating too much on terrorism, it legitimately belongs at the very top of the list of national security threats we face today. True, the nature of the transnational threats facing the world today is far different than the ones the U.S. and its allies faced on 9/11. But al-Qaeda itself remains a formidable opponent, with a resurgent core in Northwest Pakistan and affiliates and homegrown cells pose a growing threat as well.
Today, the US and its allies face a three fold threat.
The first is from core al Qaeda. While al Qaeda was on its “back foot” from 2004-2007, it has now “regained its equilibrium,” according to DHS Undersecretary Charlie Allen. NCTC Director Michael Leiter echoed this, warning that “I regret to say that the Al Qaeda threat still looms large.” Deputy DNI Donald Kerr offered a similar assessment, stating that “Al Qaeda remains the preeminent terror threat to the United States at home and abroad.” There are several reasons, in Dr. Kerr’s view, why core al Qaeda continues to pose such a serious threat to the US.
The group has “retained or regenerated key elements of its capability, including its top leadership, operational lieutenants, and a de facto safe haven in…the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to train and deploy operatives for attacks in the West.” Al Qaeda has successfully expanded its reach with partnerships with other organizations throughout the Middle East and North Africa, which Dailey referred to as the “franchising of al Qaeda.” These affiliates include al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
Finally, there are today more local groups with less direct ties to al Qaeda. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, there were almost 300 different groups involved in terrorist attacks in 2006 – most of them Sunni. In fact, according to the State Department, the terrorist threat has been transformed to the point that it now is a “form of global insurgency.”
That said, and harking back to an earlier portion of this discussion, I do think it is critical that we leverage all elements of national power to combat this threat at both tactical (thwarting plots) and strategic (engaging in the battle of ideas) levels. It is also true that our focus on the terrorist threat has come at the expense of other important national security priorities, including promoting Arab reform, empowering Arab democrats, and more. Sadly, that did not have to be the case and rectify this imbalance will be a priority for whoever next occupies the White House.
Finally, other issues are creeping up immediate national security threats even as the terrorist threat remains. Consider, for example, the not-unrelated issues of the price of oil, the larger energy crisis, and the state of the economy. But Iran is likely to be the most critical national security threat facing the next administration. The possibility that Iran could reach the point of nuclear weapon self-sufficiency and be able to produce and nuclear weapon to go with its existing ballistic missile delivery systems within the term of the next administration will force this issue even further onto the font burner than it has been over the past few years.
— Matthew Levitt
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.