- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2013

President Obama’s plan to carry out a new round of nuclear-warhead cuts will be announced soon, U.S. officials say.

The coming round of warhead-reduction talks with Russia was put on hold partly as a result of the Senate delay in confirming Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel, an outspoken proponent of the Global Zero anti-nuclear weapons group that called in a report last year for radical denuclearization steps.

According to one defense official, the president will propose that the United States and Russia initiate talks aimed at reaching a further one-third cut from the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) target level of 1,150 deployed warheads.

That could leave the United States with about 1,000 warheads, a level that many in the military and defense communities say would weaken strategic nuclear deterrence that has kept the peace for more than 50 years. It also would take place at a time when Russia and China are modernizing or expanding their nuclear arsenals.

Asked about the coming cuts, a White House official told Inside the Ring: “Nothing to announce.” The official then referred to Mr. Obama’s statements in Seoul in March. The president said at the nuclear summit there he thinks the United States can maintain a strong deterrent and “still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal.”

In the months ahead, the president said he would “continue to seek discussions with Russia on a step we have never taken before — reducing not only our strategic nuclear warheads, but also tactical weapons and warheads in reserve.”

The summit was also the site of the now-famous conversation overheard on an open microphone when Mr. Obama told then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that, after his re-election, Moscow could expect more flexibility toward Russian demands to limit U.S. missile defenses. Russia has been demanding those limits as a precondition for further warhead cuts.

Rose Gottemoeller, the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, was in Moscow last week for talks that included discussion of the new arms cuts.

Ms. Gottemoeller traveled to Moscow a day after two Russian nuclear-capable Tu-95 Bear H bombers made an unusual long-range strike-simulation flight over the western Pacific island of Guam on Feb. 12.

It was the third flight near U.S. airspace by Tu-95s since June. Two Bears flew close to the California coast on July 4, and in June, two strategic bombers made passes near Alaska in what a Russian general said at the time were simulated strikes against U.S. strategic missile-defense bases.

THREAT GROWS IN AFRICA

U.S. intelligence officials say the center of gravity for al Qaeda’s global jihad has shifted from South Asia and the Middle East. The new battleground: Africa.

Plans are under way to shift intelligence and military resources to the African continent, where al Qaeda is moving into large, ungoverned areas. The terrorist network also is expanding its influence and operations within the Muslim Brotherhood-governed Egypt and neighboring Libya, where the interim government is struggling to maintain order as hundreds of local militias, many of them Islamist and al Qaeda sympathizers, control large parts of the country.

“Terrorists already are in eastern Africa,” one U.S. official said of the trend. “Now they are moving west.”

Of immediate concern is Mali, where French troops were dispatched last month to oust terrorists linked to the offshoot al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is becoming more active in North Africa and central Africa in recent months.

Said a second U.S. official: “The increase of the AQIM threat can be traced back to the group’s taking advantage of an extremist safe haven in northern Mali in 2012. How AQIM responds to pressure from the French-led campaign in Mali will help set the parameters for its next evolution.

“The area in which AQIM operates extends across the borders of several resource-constrained countries,” the official said. “So naturally, it will take a coordinated, multinational counterterrorism effort to combat AQIM.”

The Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was the work of al Qaeda-linked militants called Ansar al Shariah, which is being used as a cover name for al Qaeda groups.

Recent U.S. government monitoring of jihadist websites also reveals that terrorist groups are shifting their focus to Africa.

The State Department on Tuesday updated its worldwide caution to all Americans overseas to be on alert for terrorist attacks, including in Africa.

“Current information suggests that al Qaeda, its affiliated organizations, and other terrorist organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East,” the advisory said. “These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, including suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings and bombings.”

On Africa, the warning said a number of al Qaeda operatives and extremists are operating in and around the continent, noting in particular the recent alliance between al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri and the leader of the Somalia-based al-Shabab.

AQIM “has declared its intention to attack Western targets throughout the Sahel, an area that stretches across the African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea to include Senegal, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea,” the notice said.

The group has conducted kidnappings and killings of several Westerners in the region, including southern Algeria. “AQIM and related extremist groups have threatened to attack and kidnap Westerners in Mali and the region in response to the U.S.-supported French intervention in northern and central Mali, where the political conditions remain fluid, and the Malian government has yet to reassert control over its northern provinces.”

The terrorist attack last month at the natural-gas plant in Amenas, Algeria, was thought to be linked to al Qaeda. It resulted in the deaths of dozens of people, including three Americans.

KIM’S SMARTPHONE

U.S. electronic intelligence-gathering agencies were energized last month following the disclosure by the official North Korean KCNA news agency for the first time that supreme leader Kim Jong-un is using a smartphone.

The device appeared in a photograph of Mr. Kim near his right hand during a meeting of officials, and U.S. officials identified it as a Taiwan-made HTC model smartphone.

The smartphone is now expected to become a major target of the worldwide eavesdropping capabilities of several countries interested in getting intelligence from the new communist leader, who probably ordered the country’s third underground nuclear test last week.

Those countries include the United States, China, Japan and Russia — all of whom have sophisticated or growing cellphone spying capabilities.

In the past, electronic eavesdropping against North Korea was carried out by an array of U.S. collectors, including offshore ships, aircraft and satellites. The chance of intercepting Mr. Kim’s personal phone calls remains remote.

Among the world’s electronic spying powers, the United State remains a leader. The U.S. government scored many intelligence coups for decades. One example was the 1970s program code-named “Gamma Guppy” that intercepted mobile telephone calls from Soviet leaders, including Communist Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev.

North Korea has limited cellular communications technology: Its first mobile phones were introduced in the early 2000s and then banned in 2004. In 2008, Egypt’s Orascom began limited cellular service in the country.

By 2011, 1 million people used mobile phones in North Korea, according to Reuters, although calling in or out of the country is restricted, and Internet connections on the 3G network reportedly are blocked for most people.