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Intelligence Chief Describes ‘Pervasive Uncertainty’ of Worldwide Threats

By Jim Garamone DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, February 27, 2015 — “Unpredictable instability” is the new normal, the director of National Intelligence told the Senate Armed Services Committee here yesterday.

James R. Clapper testified on worldwide threats facing the United States and gave his best advice on what he considers to be the dangers Americans need to be aware of.

He said 2014 had the highest rate of political instability since 1992, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Last year also saw the most deaths as a result of state-sponsored mass killing and the highest number of refugees and internally displaced persons since World War II.

“This pervasive uncertainty makes it all the harder to predict the future,” he said.

The North Korean cyberattack on Sony, the Ebola epidemic, and dramatic terrorist attacks in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France and the United States mean 2015 promises to be as unstable as 2014, Clapper said.

Cyber, Terror Concerns

Cyberattacks are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication and severity of impact, he said. The U.S. government must be prepared for a massive cyberattack, he added, but the truth is the nation is already living with a constant and expanding barrage of cyberattacks.

Nations, criminal networks, terror groups and even individuals can launch these attacks, Clapper said. He highlighted the actions of North Korea, Iran, Russia and China in the cyber realm.

The terrorist threat grew last year, also, the director said.

“In 2013, just over 11,500 terrorist attacks worldwide killed approximately 22,000 people,” he said. “Preliminary data for the first nine months of 2014 reflects nearly 13,000 attacks, which killed 31,000 people.”

About half of all attacks, as well as fatalities occurred in just three countries: Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Clapper said. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant conducted more terror attacks than any other entity in the first nine months of 2014.

A new terror threat comes from “radicalized” individuals who travel to fight with ISIL in Syria or Iraq and then return to their home countries and launch attacks there, Clapper said. He estimates more than 20,000 Sunni foreign fighters have traveled to Syria from more than 90 countries to fight the Assad regime. Of that number, at least 13,600 have extremist ties, he said.

“About 180 Americans or so have been involved in various stages of travel to Syria,” Clapper said.

Rise of ISIL

ISIL is increasing its influence outside of Iraq and Syria, seeking to expand its self-declared caliphate into the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and South Asia and planning terrorist attacks against Western and Shia interests, Clapper said.

“ISIL’s rise represents the greatest shift in the Sunni violent extremist landscape since al-Qaida affiliates first began forming, and it is the first to assume at least some characteristics of a nation state,” the director said.

Iran is exerting its influence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, he said. Iranian leaders have provided robust military support to Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad and to the Iraqi government. This includes arms, advisers, funding, intelligence collection, electronic warfare and cyber support and combat support, Clapper explained.

“More broadly, Iran will face many of the same decision points in 2015 as it did in 2014,” Clapper said. “Foremost is whether the supreme leader will agree to a nuclear deal. He wants sanctions relief but, at the same time, to preserve his options on nuclear capabilities.”

Yemen’s political future and stability are, at best, uncertain. Iran has provided support to the Houthis -- a group that now controls the government -- for years,” Clapper said. “Their ascendancy is increasing Iran’s influence.”

Russia’s Intentions in Eastern Europe

Clapper discussed problematic relations with Russia, as the country seems intent on a revanchist strategy with Ukraine squarely in the cross hairs.

“Moscow sees itself in direct confrontation with the West over Ukraine and will be very prone to overreact to U.S. actions,” he said. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin's goals are to keep Ukraine out of NATO and to ensure separatist control of an autonomous entity within Ukraine. He wants Moscow to retain leverage over Kiev, and Crimea, in his view, is simply not negotiable.”

China Modernizes its Military

China is an emerging power and China’s leaders are primarily concerned with domestic issues, the Communist Party’s hold on power, internal stability and economic growth, Clapper said.

“Although China is looking for stable ties with the United States,” he said, “it is more willing to accept bilateral and regional tensions in pursuit of its interest, especially on maritime-sovereignty issues.”

The Chinese government continues a robust military modernization program directly aimed at what they consider to be U.S. strengths, Clapper said.

“Their military training program last year included exercises unprecedented in scope, scale and complexity to both test modernization progress and to improve their theater warfare capabilities,” he said.

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @garamoneDoDNews)