Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Highlights of the Worldwide Threats Hearing

by Micah Zenko
February 28, 2015


Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, “Worldwide Threats,” witnesses: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, February 26, 2015.

CLAPPER:  2014 saw, for the first time, destructive cyberattacks carried out on U.S. soil by nation-state entities, marked first by the Iranian attack against the Las Vegas Sands Casino Corporation a year ago this month and the North Korean attack against Sony in November.

Russia and China continue to develop very sophisticated cyber programs. While I can’t go into detail, the Russian cyber threat is more severe than we have previously assessed, and Chinese economic espionage against U.S. companies remains a major threat, despite detailed private-sector reports, scathing public indictments and stern U.S. (inaudible).

Moving onto terrorism, in 2013, just over 11,500 terrorist attacks worldwide killed approximately 22,000 people. Preliminary data for the first nine months of 2014 reflects nearly 13,000 attacks, which killed 31,000 people. When the final counting is done, 2014 will have been the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled. About half of all attacks, as well as fatalities, in 2014 occurred in just three countries: Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Of the 13 attacks in the West since last May, 12 were conducted by individual extremists.

Since the conflict began, more than 20,000 Sunni foreign fighters have travelled to Syria from more than 90 countries to fight the Assad regime. Of that number, at least 13,600 have extremist ties. More than 3,400 Western fighters have gone to Syria and Iraq. Hundreds have returned home to Europe. About 180 Americans or so have been involved in various stages of travel to Syria. I should point out, this is those who’ve attempted to go, didn’t get there, those who got there and were killed, those who got there who fought and went to another country and some number have come back.

Home-grown violent extremists continue to pose the most likely threat to the homeland. Lone actors or (inaudible) groups who act autonomously will likely gravitate to simpler plots that don’t require advanced skills, outside training or communication with others.

CLAPPER:  The intelligence community view is that if we were to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine that this would evoke a negative reaction from Putin and the Russians. It could potentially further remove the very thin fig leaf of their position that they have not been involved in Ukraine and could lead to accelerating or promoting more weaponry and higher sophistication into the separatist areas to support the separatists.

CLAPPER: I’ve said every year, and this will be the fifth year in my 50-plus years in the intelligence business, I don’t know of a time that has been more beset by challenges and crises around the world.

CLAPPER:  The current [ISIL] estimate is — we’re standing on here is somewhere in the range between 20 and 32,000 fighters. Now, the difficulty here is assessing who’s a core fighter who does this whole time, who may be a facilitator or supporter and do it part time, and all that sort of thing. I will say that this is one effect of the air strikes has been substantial attrition. They lost at least 3,000 fighters in Kobani for whatever reason they wanted to do that. And as well, what that’s driving them to now we’re seeing evidence of conscription.


INHOFE:  We have language in our last Defense Authorization bill that we had $75 million where we were encouraging the president to use through the European Reassurance Initiative for weapons going into — to be of assist to our best friend in that area….I’m talking about sending lethal weapons [to Ukraine]. I can’t figure out why we don’t do it. Let me just ask the two of you. Would you recommend it?

CLAPPER:  I think, so, from an intelligence community perspective, that is a policy issue. We’re down in the engine room shovelling intelligence coal, and the people up on the bridge, to use a Navy metaphor, drive the ship and rearrange the deck chairs. I have a personal view, and that is only that, that I would favor it. But that’s a personal perspective

INHOFE: I appreciate that very much, and General Stewart?…

STEWART: We stand by the assessment that lethal aid couldn’t be delivered quickly enough or change the military balance of power on the ground.

INHOFE: So, you’re for lethal?

STEWART: It would not change the military balance of power, and it couldn’t get there quickly enough to make a difference, and that Russia will up the ante

MCCAIN: Quickly enough? What does that mean?

STEWART: Russia and the separatists have significant interior lines that they can resupply a lot faster with a lot heavier weapons than we could deliver — so it would be a race to see who could arm — and I think with their interior lines, they would have a significant advantage on the ground.

CLAPPER:  [Assad] maintains a control because of his control of the economic leverage to the extent that they have them. His focus is on what I would call the Western spine, say, from Aleppo to Damascus. That’s where most of the population is and the major commercial entities, to include the ports. So he has surrounded by people who are committed to preserving that, because they benefit from it. They are the minority. The Alawites are only 10 percent, so for them, this is an existential struggle. And of course, the irony is that we actually are in common in both Assad and his regime are opposed to fighting ISIL as we are. And so it’s a very, you know, complex array of factors there.


SHAHEEN: And are you optimistic that Turkey will be more engaged than they have been?

CLAPPER: No, I’m not. I think Turkey has other priorities and other interests. They’re more focused on what they consider to be a threat, the KGK, the Kurdish resistance, if you will, in Turkey. Public opinion polls show in Turkey they don’t see ISIL as a primary threat. They’re more focused internally on their economy and this sort of thing. And of course, the consequence of that is a permissive environment because of their laws and the ability of people to travel through Turkey en route to Syria. So somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 percent of those foreign fighters find their way to Syria through Turkey.

CLAPPER: The most troublesome from that standpoint just because of the conditions in Libya. You know, two competing governments fighting with each other. There are in addition, ISIL probably six or eight other terrorist groups that have gathered in Libya. So it’s a magnet because of essentially it’s ungoverned.

(UNKNOWN): What do you asses is Assad’s likely response to the introduction of our U.S. trained Syrians to move in against ISIL in Syria? And do you assess that Assad will attack them?

CLAPPER: As long as Assad believes somehow that this — once it gets up sufficient center of mass, you know, enough force, as long as he felt as though this were — something to be used only against ISIL, he’d probably be OK with it, but I think he’d have a hard time determining whether it’s a threat to ISIL or a threat to him. So, I could see a circumstance where, depending on what information he’s getting, and we wonder about that sometimes, that he could easily consider that force as a threat to him.

(UNKNOWN): Do you believe that you’re receiving good intelligence from Syria, from that are in regards to this?

CLAPPER: No, we have a lot intelligence gaps in Syria, principally because we’re not there. So no, I’m not satisfied with that. We’re working at it, obviously, to come up with more intelligence from Syria, but that’s a tough problem for us.

(UNKNOWN): Have you received any intelligence that would, I guess, give you comfort in that the moderates that would be trained by us would, in fact, be fighting ISIL and not Assad?

CLAPPER: I think a more fulsome response to that would be best in a classified environment, but I guess the short answer would be yes.

(UNKNOWN): And how would you assess Russia and Iran will be looking at these trained forces?

CLAPPER: Well, probably wouldn’t like it. Russia looks at Syria as a client, as an ally, someone that they provide support to. So, again, it would be almost the same perception problem with the Russians as it would be with Assad. If they could probably rationalize if it’s focused on ISIL, but it’s perceived as a threat to the regime, then I think that they would react negatively to it.

(UNKNOWN): And if they would perceive it as a threat, what type of force would they employ then? You said they’d react negatively.

CLAPPER: The Russians? Well, this is really speculative, hypothetical. I don’t think they would necessarily deploy combat forces to Syria. They would probably step up military-equipment support, which they’ve been doing, intelligence support if, in fact, they too perceive that what we were doing was a direct threat to Assad.

STEWART: The best propaganda victory that we could give ISIL is to make this a fight between the West and Islam, and ISIL. But being able to provide ISR, precision fires, some commanding control will certainly help those forces, Iraqi forces to be much more effective on the ground than left to their own devices.

MANCHIN: The rapid rise as far as when we first heard about ISIS, it was 3,000, 5,000, then it just seemed to leapfrog — 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 and 30,000. Were they paying their soldiers or attracting because of better pay than…

CLAPPER: The reason there was sort of a mushrooming growth there in the initial phases when they did their attacks in northern Iraq was because this is largely a Sunni region. They were very receptive, frankly, to joining up with ISIL, which, I think, many viewed as a better protector of themselves and their communities and their families then were the Iraqi government. So that’s what occasioned the joining-up.

CLAPPER: Well, I think our function in the intelligence community is to portray as accurately as we can what we see as the threats. We probably always occupy the half of the glass that’s empty, and policymakers and oftentimes military commanders will occupy the half of the glass that’s full. Probably the real truth is at the water line.

I think our instinct, frankly, is to perhaps — I’ve been criticized for this — worst-case — the situation, having been on the receiving end of virtually every post-event critique investigating intelligence failures since 9/11, I think we are much more conservative and much more cautious than others might be about the nature of the world out there. But I think we have a certain institutional responsibility which we try to discharge. If others don’t see it that way or others don’t agree, that’s certainly their prerogative.

CLAPPER:  I think aspirationally there is a threat that ISIL poses potentially to the homeland and those they might harbor in their area, particularly in Iraq and Syria, who would do us harm.

CLAPPER:  I would volunteer that I think because of the effectiveness of the media campaign, or the propaganda campaign that ISIL mounts, that we the U.S., and we the West, we who oppose ISIL, need to be, I think, much more aggressive in mounting the counter- narrative.

REED:  We are taking steps to interdict that communication so that they’re not able to put things up and attract recruits and communicate?

STEWART: Well, the problem there is their ubiquitous use of the media. And so the challenge is, how do you take down the Internet? Because that’s more and more what they’re doing.

In the day when Al Qaida or ISIL put these things out (inaudible) kind of channelized (ph) and we kind of watched it and could do that. They’ve gotten wise to that, and now they make it very difficult because of the universal forms, and the way they get things out so ubiquitously, very hard to control it. Ergo, what we must do, I believe, is counter the messages.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    I don’t understand what level of threat the DOD reckons ISIL represent it seems like a mixed message. On one hand they continue to inspire lone wolves or small unsophisticated cells who cannot be stopped entirely as has been evident and on the other hand they continue to slaughter and cause chaos and instability in an already unstable region. What is America’s message? You’re not willing to put boots on the ground properly and take these guys on there’s no mandate for it fine I get that and you can do the drone war which can hurt and attrit ISIL and disrupt their operational freedom but yet not limit their spread and growth in sheer numbers which simply means somebody’s going to have to get on the ground and fight these guys so who is going to do that if not Turkey and if the Iraqis are years away from being good enough to do it? Air strikes will not stop these guys without HUMINT ground intelligence scaling up by multiples which ain’t happening so what’s the message ? Internationally America is seen as weak in the face of a bunch of guys with stolen humners! What’s the plan? Nobody is standing up with a solid plan to take down this group and the world is looking to America. If the decision is – look we ain’t gona do this for you you’ll just gave to get in the fight yourselves and beat these guys then say it loud n clear. Of course America IS IN FACT MASSIVELY effected by the consequences of the spread and growth of ISIL numbers in a lot of different ways so doing essentially nothing but drone strikes and raptor runs is not serving America’s interests enough here. The indecision is a weakness, the lack if clarity is being perceived as a major weakness. These guys need to be beaten down and its America’s ethical and global responsibility to get it done with partners .. Not enough in this case is as bad as nothing at all.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required