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Intelligence report cites strides, threats

By Joe Sterling and Pam Benson, CNN
updated 10:50 AM EST, Tue January 31, 2012
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's rhetoric isn't resonating in the countries of the Arab uprisings, the report says.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's rhetoric isn't resonating in the countries of the Arab uprisings, the report says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. intelligence community's treat assessment sees al Qaeda weakening
  • Report says Iranian nuclear aspirations remain a major peril
  • Insurgents remain "resilient" in Afghanistan, report concludes

Washington (CNN) -- The al Qaeda terror network is weakening and the embattled Afghan government is making modest strides, but cyber security threats are on the rise and Iranian nuclear aspirations remain a major peril.

These are among the main themes in the annual U.S. intelligence community's threat assessment, a sweeping 31-page document released Tuesday that touches on a range of issues across the globe.

"The United States no longer faces -- as in the Cold War -- one dominant threat," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in prepared testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which will meet on Tuesday to discuss the report.

He said "counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber security and counter-intelligence are at the immediate forefront of our security concerns" and that the "multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats -- and the actors behind them ... constitute our biggest challenge."

Al Qaeda -- the terror network that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 -- "will continue to be a dangerous transnational force," but there have been strides, the report concludes.

The deaths of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and top lieutenants under its new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has made a dent in the Pakistan-based core of the group, the report said.

"These losses, combined with the long list of earlier losses since CT (counter-terror) operations intensified in 2008, lead us to assess that core al Qaeda ability to perform a variety of functions -- including preserving leadership and conducting external operations -- has weakened significantly," the report said.

"We judge that al Qaeda's losses are so substantial and its operating environment so restricted that a new group of leaders, even if they could be found, would have difficulty integrating into the organization and compensating for mounting losses."

They expect the leadership to have "sustained degradation, diminished cohesion and decreasing influence in the coming year." Al Qaeda will try to "execute smaller, simpler plots to demonstrate relevance."

The death of bin Laden and other leaders has affected their influence in the Arab uprisings, the report says.

"They probably will struggle to keep pace with events," the report said. "Rhetoric from Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's successor, has not resonated with the populations of countries experiencing protests."

"Prolonged instability" in the Arab world could work in al Qaeda's favor.

But, "if over the longer term, governments take real steps to address public demands for political participation and democratic institutions -- and remain committed to CT (counter-terror) efforts, we judge that core al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement will experience a strategic setback," the report said.

The report cites al Qaeda affiliates al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb in northern Africa, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia as dangers. They "will remain committed to the group's ideology, and in terms of threats to U.S. interests will surpass the remnants of core al Qaeda in Pakistan."

It says that despite the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the AQAP "transnational operations chief" last year, AQAP "remains the node most likely to attempt transnational attacks." However, the death "probably reduces" its "ability to plan attacks."

The report also says al Qaeda's impact on the insurgency in war-torn Afghanistan is "limited."

"Al Qaeda is committed to the Afghan jihad, and the propaganda gains from participating in insurgent attacks outweigh their limited battlefield impact," the document says.

As for the government, it "will continue to make incremental, fragile progress in governance, security and development."

The Taliban-led insurgents have "lost ground in some areas," but mainly where NATO-led "surge forces are concentrated." Insurgents remain "resilient" and senior Taliban leaders "enjoy safe haven in Pakistan."

There have been improvements in "extending rule of law" and most provinces have established basic governance structure." President Hamid Karzai's government "did achieve some successes" last year, citing security transition to Afghan leadership.

Only brief references were made to Pakistan, despite its importance in the war against terror and the deep U.S. rift with the government, accentuated after Navy Seals assassinated bin Laden in Abbottabad. It cites al Qaeda's increasing reliance on "ideological and operational alliances with Pakistani militant facts to accomplish its goals within Pakistan and to conduct transnational attacks." It said the country's leaders have had "limited success against the group's operatives." It also said the country's "economic recovery" is at risk for various factors.

As for Iran, the report said it will attempt to "undermine any strategic partnership between the United States and Afghanistan" and it continues to play a destabilizing role across the globe. The report cites the plot last year to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and concern about "Iranian plotting against U.S. or allied interests."

It isn't known if Iran will build a nuclear weapon, but "we assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

It would most likely use missiles to deliver nuclear weapons, saying that the country has "the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East."

"It is expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload," it said.

"Iran's technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so. These advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, if it so chooses."

The report cities Iran's economic problems and notes the international sanctions against the regime because of its nuclear aspirations.

"Despite this, Iran's economic difficulties probably will not jeopardize the regime, absent a sudden and sustained fall in oil prices or a sudden domestic crisis that disrupts oil exports," the report said.

Iran was cited in the report's section about the "evolving and strategic concern" of cyber threats. The country's increasing intelligence operations against the United States include "cyber capabilities." It said Russia, and China, as well as Iran, will be top espionage threats in "coming years."

Entities in China and Russia "are responsible for extensive illicit intrusions into U.S. computer networks and theft of U.S. intellectual property."

Foreign intelligence services have launched operations targeting U.S. entities and "we assess many intrusions into U.S. networks are not being detected." It also cites "insider threats" to classified information, saying "trusted" people are using access to computer networks for "malicious intent."

The report says strides in information technology are "increasing exponentially" and "emerging technologies are developed and implemented faster than governments can keep pace."

It cites the "failed efforts" to censor social media during the Arab Spring and denial of service attacks and website defacements by hackers against governments and corporations.

"The well-publicized intrusions into NASDAQ and International Monetary Fund networks underscore the vulnerability of key sectors of the U.S. and global economy," the report says.

It says the U.S. government and the private sector must work together to counter the threat.

The report touched on other places: India, Pakistan, North Korea, China, Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, Venezuela, Central Asia, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Central Africa's Great Lakes region, Russia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Ukraine, Belarus, and Turkey and the Kurds.

It also dealt with the subjects of space, energy, world financial markets, water security, health threats, and mass atrocities.

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