Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate panel today that the geographical dispersion of the al Qaeda ideology through its affiliates makes the terrorist group a “formidable threat.”
This comes more than a decade after the U.S. launched a war to defeat al Qaeda.
Talking about the spread of al Qaeda ideology during a Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked the witnesses from the U.S. intelligence community, “Isn’t this diffusion of their presence and power, isn’t this an even bigger and more complex challenge than when their core was centralized in one place?”
“Actually it is because of the dispersal and the growth of the so-called franchises into many other areas of the world–much more globally dispersed,” responded Clapper.
“That plus… they’ve gone to school on us on how we try to track them so the combination of those factors, the geographical dispersal and the increasing challenges in collecting against them makes al Qaeda in all of its forms a very formidable threat,” he continued.
Before asking the question, Sen. Rubio pointed out that President Obama, during his State of the Union address yesterday, mentioned that core al Qaeda leadership was on the path to defeat.
“While we have put al Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world,” said Obama in his prepared remarks.
In responding to Sen. Rubio’s question, Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, defended the president’s comments.
“I agree wholeheartedly with director Clapper. I think it is important to think about the threat in a number of different ways. So there is a group core al Qaeda and as the president said last night that group is on the path to defeat. That is the group that brought forth 911…Operationally that group is not what it was 10 years ago,” Olsen said.
“It is the ideological leader of a movement that has spread and that movement has spread both in terms of the geographic presence in a number of different countries across the middle east and North Africa. It [has] spread in terms of the diversity of actors. A number of those actors have a largely local or regional agenda,” he continued. “In other words they don’t generally pose a threat to us here at home, at least not now.”
“It has also changed…In that they’ve innovated and they’ve sought out ways to carry out attacks that are not as complicated. And they’ve promoted the idea of lone attacks or smaller scale attacks that would be harder for us to detect,” Olsen stated. “So, in all those ways it’s a more complicated and more challenging threat.”
According to the World Threat Assessment that members of the U.S. intelligence community made public during the hearing today, while core al Qaeda is “degraded” and on a “downward trajectory,” al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains a threat to the U.S. homeland.
From its safe haven in Yemen, AQAP “has attempted several times to attack the U.S. homeland. We judge that the group poses a significant threat and remains intent on targeting the United States and U.S. interests overseas,” states the assessment.
Core al Qaeda “probably hopes for a resurgence following the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2014,” adds the intelligence community.