Any discussion of a threat estimate from the vaunted U.S. intelligence community must begin with an acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence often, perhaps more often than not, has gotten things wrong.
Even before the failure to “connect the dots” prior to 9/11 and the “slam dunk” on Saddam’s supposed WMDs, U.S. intelligence missed several key developments during the Cold War and failed to forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire.
This is not necessarily a condemnation. Intelligence work in a world where hostile powers and entities work hard to keep their secrets, dispense disinformation and produce surprises is more art than science, always involving more guesswork based on inherently incomplete information than is widely acknowledged.
Even when not influenced by the desires of political leaders (which it usually is) intelligence estimates are just that — estimates.
Nonetheless, the declassified brief summary of the National Intelligence Estimate — the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies produced after painstaking review — on terrorism made public recently is deeply troubling.
Its key findings: “the U.S. homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years”; “the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment”; al-Qaida “has protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability” and “will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaida in Iraq.”
These findings are consistent with news reports and the work of independent groups that monitor terrorism, such as the Rand Corp. and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Bottom line: Nearly six years after the 9/11 attacks, after the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars and a long and costly (in so many ways) war in Iraq, al-Qaida is almost as strong as it was just before 9/11 and certainly stronger than it was a year or two ago.
This is quite remarkable; most authorities (and many al-Qaida lieutenants) believed that al-Qaida was on the ropes in 2002, with its operational base in Afghanistan denied, two-thirds of its leaders killed, its finances disrupted and Muslim clerics around the world criticizing it.
The NIE notes that part of the reason for al-Qaida’s resurgence is its ability to re-establish core leadership and training facilities in the wild and woolly North West Provinces of Pakistan, probably aided by Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to negotiate a truce with tribal leaders in the region rather than continuing a military assault.
But the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and the chaotic aftermath of that conflict have been at least as important.
The report identifies al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) as the terrorist organization’s “most visible and capable affiliate” and “the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the (United States).”
The public version doesn’t say so, but AQI has raised significant money through criminal activities and is now subsidizing al-Qaida central.
The U.S. presence in Iraq has been a significant motivating and recruiting tool for al-Qaida and other jihadist groups. A steady stream of recruits from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria and Europe have flowed back and forth into and out of Iraq, gaining invaluable hands-on experience in terrorism and guerrilla warfare in an urban environment.
Lessons? Recognizing the danger that a too-hasty U.S. withdrawal could multiply the chaos and violence (though that’s not certain), the U.S. should begin planning a withdrawal from Iraq.
We should also pressure Pakistan’s government to intensify its anti-terrorist efforts in the North West Provinces and permit more U.S. participation.
Increase the use of financial, police and paramilitary resources against terrorist activities worldwide and learn that conventional military actions are of limited utility and can backfire.