Addressing a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum earlier this week, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers detailed a laundry list of national security threats that the United States faces today, the American Forces Press Services reports, including:
...several permutations of al-Qaida and its affiliates, homegrown violent extremists, unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, Russian revanchism, cyber threats and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
But when it came to naming the top three threats, al Qaeda swept the rankings:
"But the three biggest threats are al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- centered in Yemen -- and the growing al-Qaida threat in Syria and al-Qaida's affiliates, … who are spread elsewhere and who are taking advantage of what we call metastasization … across the Middle East and North Africa. … And so this really remains job one for the intelligence community and our special operations forces," he told the audience.
Vickers repeated the Obama administration's contention that "core" al Qaeda has been severely degraded, but he acknowledged that even that core group remains a viable threat:
"While we've had a lot of success in severely degrading the Al-Qaida core in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, they continue to pose a threat, in particular a [constitutional] threat down the road," Vickers said.
Vickers noted that the war in Syria has presented a particular challenge as it is "giving rise to a significant terrorism threat." The complicating factor is that while the Obama administration is seeking to support the opposition, the opposition finds itself in de facto alliance with al Qaeda linked groups who also oppose Bashar Assad's government.
A report in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal underscores Vicker's warnings. According to the Journal, the Rand Corporation will release a report on Thursday showing the "number of [global jihadist] groups increasing by more than 50% and the estimated number of militants doubling." The war in Syria is said to be responsible for the greatest growth in recent years with "more than half of the number of al Qaeda-sympathizing jihadists world-wide" located in Syria.
Undersecretary Vickers also alluded to the continuing challenge of balancing the risks and rewards of intelligence, an issue that has caused a number of headaches for President Obama throughout his tenure:
Intelligence is a significant source of advantage for the United States. … It's an advantage that's very important to us, but it's also one that has to be used aggressively, but also prudently, to make sure we're helping our leaders solve problems and not adding to their problems," Vickers said.