Vickers Sees Terrorism and Cyber Attacks as Top Threats to US

There is a “heightened risk” of terrorist attacks in the West by groups that have proliferated as a result of the war in Syria and the influence of social media, according to the Pentagon’s top intelligence policy official.

Terrorist attacks in Paris this month underscored the fact that there are multiple groups sponsoring such violence and “attacks on the West, in particular, are high on their list and increasing in priority,” Michael G. Vickers, under secretary of defense for intelligence, said at the Atlantic Council on January 21.

Officials in the United States and Europe are particularly worried about the prospect of their citizens returning from conflict zones to wage jihad in the West.

The United Nations says foreign jihadists are traveling to Syria and Iraq on “an unprecedented scale.” A UN Security Council report put the number of these foreign fighters at 15,000. In Europe, a majority of these foreign fighters come from France, Germany, and Britain.

The Kouachi brothers who killed 12 people in an attack on the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7 were trained by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. AQAP said US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the group’s spokesman, was the mastermind of the attack. Al-Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike in 2011.

“Like a lot of terrorism operations, some of these things take time to germinate. There is a lag between the conception of the operation and its execution,” said Vickers.

“It may be dormant for a while, that doesn’t mean it goes away,” he added.

On January 9, Amedy Coulibaly, who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), killed five people, including four in an attack on a kosher grocery store in Paris.

Days after the Paris attacks security forces in Belgium killed two men in a counterterrorism operation in Verviers in the eastern part of the country. Prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said police had targeted a group that had returned from Syria and was about to launch “large-scale” attacks.

“The number of Sunni violent extremist groups, the members who comprise those groups, and the safe havens across the wide areas of the world that these groups enjoy is now greater than at any time in our history,” said Vickers.

“There is heightened risk now of continued attacks from this proliferation of groups,” he added.

Sunni extremist groups have gained momentum because of a diffusion of the global jihad, the expansion of social media, instability across the Middle East and North Africa, ISIS’ success, and competition for leadership of the global jihad between al Qaeda and its affiliates and ISIS, Vickers said.

Besides terrorism, Vickers listed cyber attacks as “our most immediate threat.” These are “increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication, and severity of impact,” he said.

“If you look out at America’s next decade there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic… but there are lots of storm clouds internationally and a major source of our intelligence advantage is something that we can’t take for granted,” said Vickers.

Several of the threats faced by the US today are likely to be enduring, most of them are asymmetric, and some are costly, he added.

Vickers listed China’s rise, Russia’s actions in its neighborhood, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by North Korea and Iran as some challenges facing the United States. The US government also is keeping a close eye on regional threats like Boko Haram, the terrorist organization that controls vast swathes of territory in Nigeria and reportedly massacred as many as 2,000 people earlier this month.

“In some respects they look like [ISIS] two years ago, so how fast their trajectory can go up is certainly something we are paying a lot of attention to,” he said of Boko Haram.

Vickers said the US defense intelligence enterprise has undergone a transformation to face these challenges. This includes improvements in global coverage through investments in advanced crypto analytics systems and strengthening of strategic human intelligence capabilities; projecting power into denied areas; expansion of counterterrorism capabilities; modernizing security systems; and strengthening insider threat systems.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

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