WASHINGTON // A dangerous al Qa'eda is strengthening and expanding its network, top US intelligence officials said yesterday. Delivering a national security threat assessment on Capitol Hill, they cited some progress last year in fighting violent extremism, but Lt Gen Michael Maples, the director of the defence intelligence agency, said al Qa'eda was further cultivating its relationships with "compatible" regional terrorist groups, including in east Africa, allowing it to expand its "financial and operational reach".
"Al Qa'eda retains the operational capability to plan, support and direct transnational attacks despite the deaths of multiple senior-level operatives," Gen Maples said. "Al Qa'eda continues efforts to acquire chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials and would not hesitate to use such weapons if the group develops sufficient capabilities." In testimony before the Senate armed services committee, Gen Maples and Dennis Blair, the retired navy admiral who is director of national intelligence, touched on threats ranging from Iran's nuclear programme and insurgent groups in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas to the "geopolitical implications" of the global economic crisis.
On Iran, Mr Blair said intelligence officials did not believe that country possessed any highly enriched uranium, and had not made a decision yet as to whether it would produce any. But "at a minimum", he said, Iran is "keeping open the option" to develop a nuclear weapon. "We assess convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult," Mr Blair said, "given the linkage many within the leadership see between nuclear weapons and Iran's key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran's considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons."
Both intelligence officials spoke of significant challenges in Afghanistan, where 17,000 more American troops are scheduled to arrive this spring and summer and where the US has conceded it is losing the war. Gen Maples said militant attacks there had increased by 55 per cent from 2007 to last year, even despite the fact that several key Taliban commanders had been killed. Suicide bombings and small-arms attacks were up by 21 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively.
The assessment of the situation in Iraq was somewhat more encouraging. Violence there had decreased significantly, Gen Maples noted, and Iraqi security forces had stepped up their ability to plan and execute counterinsurgency operations independent of US troops. Although the Iraqi government will face multiple and serious obstacles as the US presence diminishes, he called a "rapid degradation" of the security situation this year unlikely, but there could be some deterioration "over time".
His remarks came on a day when a suicide attack on Iraqi army personnel killed more than 30 people on the outskirts of Baghdad. Mr Blair began his testimony by citing the implications of the global economic crisis as a top US security threat, as he did in separate testimony last month, saying financial instability can "loosen the fragile hold that many developing countries have on law and order". "Economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they are prolonged for a one- or two-year period," he said. But he also spoke at length, in prepared testimony and in answering questions, of threats caused by terrorism.
There had been notable progress, he said, in turning public opinion in the Muslim world against extremist groups. Moreover, al Qa'eda in Iraq "continues to be squeezed" and counter-terrorism efforts in Saudi Arabia had made that country a "harsh operating environment" for the group, he said. Still, he called Yemen a "jihadist battleground" and cited al Qa'eda's expanding reach in the region, including in Somalia. He said the United States remained concerned about the potential for home-grown domestic attacks.
Pressed on the recent appointment of Charles "Chas" Freeman as head of the national intelligence council - an appointment that has been challenged by some in Congress and the pro-Israel lobby - Mr Blair defended his choice. Critics have questioned the impartiality of Mr Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and called for a review of his financial ties to foreign governments, in large part because of his past work as head of the Middle East Policy Council, a think tank that receives Saudi funding.
Mr Blair said an independent inspector general was looking even more closely than normal at Mr Freeman's past associations. He said Mr Freeman was indeed a man of "strong views" and an "inventive" analytical mind, but suggested that some of his past statements on Israel and China, as reported recently in the media, had been taken out of context. Mr Blair said he would be better served by getting strong and varied views rather than "pre-cooked pablum judgements".