Inside the Ring: Obama reassesses al Qaeda

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President Obama has dialed back his earlier optimistic assessment of global efforts to defeat al Qaeda. Instead of nearing defeat, the terrorist group is planting new roots in North Africa and the Middle East.

While running for re-election two years ago, Mr. Obama suggested the war against al Qaeda was nearly won. U.S. counterterrorism efforts against the group led by Osama bin Ladenhad produced results, he said during his nomination speech on Sept. 6, 2012.

“A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al Qaeda is on the path to defeat and Osama bin Laden is dead,” the president told cheering Democrats.

In his fifth State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, Mr. Obama offered a pessimistic analysis in a five-sentence mention of al Qaeda.

Today, the al Qaeda danger “remains,” he said. “While we’ve 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. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable these networks. In Syria, we’ll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks.”

Counterterrorism officials tell Inside the Ring that the president’s policies have increased the danger of al Qaeda terrorism against the U.S. and its allies.

Libya and other parts of North Africa have become an “al Qaeda safe haven,” said one official. And al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to pose a serious threat to the Yemeni government, despite U.S. covert and overt support, including drone strikes.

Additionally, the Obama administration, fearing backlash from Muslims, has no ideological programs against Islamist extremism like those used during the Cold War to defeat the Soviet Union.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told a Senate hearing Wednesday that the al Qaeda threat is serious: “There are some five different franchises, at least, and 12 countries that this movement has morphed into, and we see sort of chapters of it, of course, in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, in Syria, etc.”

Crowdsourcing analysis

The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board has complimented a Georgetown University arms control project for “crowdsourcing” commercial imagery and other open source data to reveal secrets about China’s expanding nuclear arms program.

In a report made public last week on monitoring nuclear arms proliferation, the Board stated that commercial imagery analysis by nongovernmental experts should be used for identifying nuclear programs and the threat of proliferation. The report urged using the method despite concerns that crowdsourcing often produces lower quality data and analysis.

One example of a crowdsourcing success was the Georgetown University arms control project headed by Phillip Karber, who, with the help of students, exposed for the first time new details of China’s 3,000-mile-long network of tunnels for nuclear weapons.

The project began in 2008, and by late 2009, China for the first time went public with some details about what has come to be known as the “Great Underground Wall” of nuclear facilities.

“Using open source information for the past several years — the Internet, local Chinese news reports, Google Earth and online photos posted by Chinese citizens — the students have published a far-reaching paper that challenges assumptions made by the [intelligence community] on China’s nuclear weapons capability,” the report said.

The Board also noted that the crowdsourcing project triggered an extensive debate on the accuracy of the report, which was completed without access to classified data, and warned it could have “serious political and military implications.”

Some analysts challenged the Georgetown study because one of its sources was a fictional Chinese television program about the Second Artillery Corps, which runs China’s strategic nuclear forces.

“Whether the report is completely accurate or not, this event provides a ‘proof-of-concept’ on how crowdsourcing can be used to augment limited analytical capacity,” the Defense Science Board said, adding that U.S. intelligence should set up a process to support crowdsourcing that would “ensure that a non-prejudicial process is established whereby open source and mainstream intelligence assessments can be reconciled.”

The Georgetown study caught U.S. intelligence agencies off-guard and triggered a debate over the number of warheads in China’s nuclear arsenal. Official intelligence estimates put the number at some 200 to 300 warheads. Other analysts have challenged that estimate, based on China’s fissile material production capability and increasing number of nuclear missile and other forces.

Economic warfare threats

The U.S. remains vulnerable to cyberattacks on its economy by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, as well as by nation-states like China.

That’s the conclusion of a new book by financial analyst Kevin Freeman, “Game Plan: How to Protect Yourself from the Coming Cyber-Economic Attack.”

Mr. Freeman, who initially exposed in a Pentagon report the possible sabotage leading to the 2008 financial collapse, reports that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri threatened last year to “bleed America economically.”

Al Qaeda is not alone in recognizing America’s economic vulnerabilities,” Mr. Freeman writes. “Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and a host of other regimes have at one time or another suggested that America could be taken down by economic warfare.”

Mr. Freeman recounts another major indicator of strategic vulnerability to economic warfare, namely, the Syrian Electronic Army’s cyberattack on The Associated Press Twitter account that caused a temporary 1 percent drop in the stock market.

Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, outgoing head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, recently bolstered Mr. Freeman’s warning during a “60 Minutes” interview.

“I believe that a foreign nation could impact and destroy major portions of our financial system,” Gen. Alexander said, noting that “right now it would be difficult to stop [such a cyber attack] because our ability to see it is limited.”

Mr. Freeman’s book explores the variety of malicious economic and cyber warfare threats the economy faces, including hyperinflation, dollar failure, banking collapse and electromagnetic pulse strikes.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Mr. Freeman told Inside the Ring. “The next attack is coming and will be worse than 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse combined.”

China’s space weapons

Congressional testimony this week reveals that China is expanding its space warfare capabilities that are designed to kill U.S. satellites in a future conflict.

Ashley J. Tellis, a former State Department and National Security Council official, told a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing that China has an array of new weapons for attacking U.S. military and other satellites.

The arsenal includes “soft-kill” weapons, which disrupt satellite operations, and “hard-kill” missiles, which ram into satellites and create massive debris fields. China used the latter in January 2007, when it conducted a hard-kill test on a weather satellite. Thousands of shards continue to race about in orbit, threatening manned and unmanned satellites.

Mr. Tellis, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, listed the Chinese space arsenal in prepared testimony made public Tuesday. The weapons include:

A space-object surveillance and identification system using advanced optical and radar systems.

Ground-based and orbiting anti-satellite systems including missiles and robots with extender arms that can grab or disrupt satellites.

High- and low-power lasers and high-powered microwave weapons that disrupt satellite electronics.

Electronic jammers that can paralyze U.S. satellite communications on military and civilian wavelengths.

Computer network attack capabilities that can disrupt cyber systems of space-based and ground networks.

Military capabilities, including precision-strike missiles and special forces commandos that would attack ground stations and other control systems.

Additionally, Mr. Tellis said, China’s military can conduct the “Samson option” — nuclear explosions in space to destroy satellites or disrupt their electronics via the blasts and accompanying electromagnetic pulses.

Mr. Tellis offered a dire assessment of the space warfare threat during a joint hearing of the House’s strategic forces and seapower subcommittees:

“The dangers emanating from China’s counter-space investments are real and growing. And the diversity of Chinese counter-space activities ensures that almost every U.S. space component — the space systems in orbit, the links that control them and channel their data, and their associated ground facilities — will face grave perils as current Chinese counter-space programs mature and their technologies are integrated into the People’s Liberation Army’s warfighting arsenal.”

Former special operations forces commando Bill Cowan tells Inside the Ring that the U.S. military today depends heavily on Global Positioning System satellites and that disrupting the network would devastate global military operations.

“Our military today is totally reliant on the GPS system for targeting, navigating, maneuvering, positioning, battlefield and situational awareness, etc.,” Mr. Cowan said. “There is no backup. If the Chinese only knock out our GPS system, we become totally ineffective.”

Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.

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About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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