ASPEN, Colo., July 24, 2014 —
Intelligence collection alone isn’t sufficient to secure the nation, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers said here today.
“What do you do with the intelligence?” he asked the audience at the Aspen Security Forum. It has to be applied to actions, Vickers said, and that falls into two categories: direct and indirect action.
Indirect action is when the United States works with international partners to build their capacity and to capture terrorists, the undersecretary explained. Examples run “from the French in Mali to individual host countries who help us critically,” Vickers said. “The Pakistanis and Yemenis, in particular, have done very important things in this regard.”
The Defense Department prefers to use indirect action because threats are distributed globally, he said, but it isn’t always possible.
“It depends on whether they're capable and then willing,” the undersecretary said. If a potential partner nation is willing, but not capable, capacity-building programs can come into play, he said.
Direct action involves special operations forces, such as those used in the bin Laden raid and capture operations in Libya, he said, as well as unmanned Predator strikes.
Since 2008, when the war against al-Qaida expanded into areas outside of armed hostilities, the single most important instrument in degrading al-Qaida has been Predator strikes, he said.
“Hands down,” the undersecretary said. “It doesn't mean it'll be the most important going forward in the future -- it's still essential today -- but it has been our most important.”
The Predator was instrumental in DoD’s single most important accomplishment over the past year, Vickers said.
“We had very, very serious threats emanating out of Yemen last summer, … and some very rapid action not only disrupted that threat, but set it back,” he said. “And again, that was largely Predator strikes that did that.”
The most significant threats to the United States emanate from Syria, Yemen and from the tribal areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, Vickers said.
“And then ISIS or ISIL also has aspirations,” he said, using acronyms for an organization known alternatively as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “It's focused on its area right now, but it is in a competition for leadership of the global jihad with al-Qaida, … and so they're a threat not to be discounted as well.”
But for now at least, most of the attacks attributed to groups holding Salafi jihadist ideology are focused on the “near enemy,” or the country they’re involved in, Vickers said.
Foreign fighters who hold Western passports -- including Americans -- pose a near-term threat, and they number in the thousands, the undersecretary noted. Many of them go overseas to fight a local war, but are “skimmed off” for external operations, he said.
Foreign fighters, both Western and non-Western, are going into Syria in much higher numbers than similar fighters were going to Iraq at the height of the Iraq war, Vickers said. It’s critical to take away these sanctuaries from groups who may be interested in attacking the United States, he added.
But military options generally are the last resort in counterterrorism, the undersecretary said.
“We prefer ‘capture and detain’ for intelligence purposes to lethal direct action,” he said. “We prefer indirect action -- working with partners -- to direct action. But when we have to do direct action, we do.”
Every situation requires its own response, Vickers said.
“When you look at our counterterrorism strategies as applied to specific groups or countries or a region, they're very tailored approaches,” he explained.
For example, in Mali, after al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb took over the northern half of the country, the French intervened, and the United States provided an important enabling role.
“That was the right solution for that,” Vickers said. “In other cases, it's a different set of instruments.”
(Follow Claudette Roulo on Twitter: @roulododnews)