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Economic Crisis Overlays all Threats Facing U.S., Intel Chief Says

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2009 – (Editor's note: This is the first in a series on the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment.)

The global economic crisis colors all other threats confronting the United States, the new director of national intelligence told the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Feb. 12.

Dennis C. Blair said the crisis raises the level of uncertainty in the world and places new areas of the globe in danger. Analysts are trying to understand the geopolitical implications of the crisis.

“The crisis has been ongoing for about a year, and economists are divided over whether and when we could hit bottom,” Blair said in prepared testimony. “Time is probably our greatest threat. The longer it takes for recovery to begin, the greater the likelihood of serious damage to U.S. strategic interests.”

The longer the crisis continues, the more likely the risk of instability in many areas of the world including Latin America, Central Asia and Africa. “Statistical modeling shows that economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one- to two-year period,” he said.

The overlay of the crisis makes known threats -- such as al-Qaida -- even more dangerous, he said. Extremist Muslim groups retain the greatest capability to threaten the United States and its interests.

Still, there has been progress countering al-Qaida, in particular. Blair said the indiscriminate attacks on fellow Muslims in Iraq and North Africa have caused many moderate Muslims to condemn the group.

Al-Qaida remains a threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group portrays itself as aiding Taliban insurgents who are fighting Western imperialism, Blair said.

In Pakistan’s tribal areas, the terror group lost many of its leaders in 2008, he said. While this has weakened the group in the area, the group in Pakistan remains the most dangerous and continues to plot against the United States and U.S. interests from havens in the region.

In Iraq, al-Qaida has been severely weakened, but still retains the ability to launch occasional attacks, he said.

The terror group is re-emerging in Yemen. A terror cell launched an attack on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa in September and has launched 19 attacks on Western targets in the country in 2008.

Blair forecasts more al-Qaida activity in East Africa, specifically in Kenya and Somalia.

Al-Qaida cells may grow in the United States, Blair said. “We remain concerned about the potential for homegrown extremists inspired by the al-Qaida militant ideology to plan attacks in the United States, Europe and elsewhere without operational direction from the group itself,” he said. U.S. agencies will focus on identifying ties between U.S.-based individuals and extremist networks overseas.

There are terror groups beyond al-Qaida. Hezbollah in Lebanon remains a dangerous terrorist foe, Blair said. The group could attack U.S. targets if it perceives the United States is threatening its survival, leadership or infrastructure. Due to the terror group’s sponsorship by Iran, should Hezbollah’s leaders think the United States is a threat to its benefactor, the terror group may launch attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Iran is at the heart of what Blair calls an “arc of instability” running from the Middle East to South Asia. Blair said Iran’s goal to be a regional power drives its efforts in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, North Africa, the Persian Gulf and beyond. It also is at the heart of the Iranian drive to develop nuclear weapons, he said.

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