WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States faces growing threats on multiple fronts with Al-Qaeda still the top danger, while Iran is on the rise and on course to produce nuclear weapons early in the next decade, US intelligence chiefs said Tuesday.
Their survey of global threats also found Iraq in a “precarious” condition and the Taliban gaining strength in Afghanistan despite suffering heavy combat losses in 2006.
Some assessments such as those on Iraq had previously been aired in separate intelligence estimates, but taken together they formed a blunt appraisal of mounting threats faced by the United States on an array of fronts.
“Terrorism remains the preeminent threat to the homeland, to our security interests globally, and to our allies. And Al-Qaeda continues to be the terrorist organization that poses the greatest threat,” said retired admiral Michael McConnell, the new director of national intelligence.
McConnell said core elements of Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership are “resilient” and continue to plot mass casualty attacks against the United States and other targets.
“Indeed, Al-Qaeda, along with other terrorist groups, continues to seek chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons or materials,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
McConnell confirmed that Al-Qaeda is reestablishing training camps in Pakistan in tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. US officials said small groups of operatives are being trained at the compounds for attacks in the west.
“To the best of our knowledge the senior leadership, number one and number two, are there,” he said referring to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri.
While not comparable to Al-Qaeda’s network of training camps in Afghanistan before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, McConnell said “it’s something we’re very worried about and very concerned about.”
Vice President Dick Cheney, who met this week with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad, made the case “that we have to be more aggressive in going after Al-Qaeda in Pakistan,” he said.
“The balancing act, of course, is the president’s standing in that country with an election coming up this fall,” he said, referring to Musharraf.
McConnell said a major Al-Qaeda attack would most likely come from Pakistan, but he said elements of the network in Iraq, Syria and Europe “also are planning.”
McConnell also expressed worry about Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group backed by Iran, which he said had grown in confidence since last summer’s fighting against Israeli forces.
In a statement that accompanied his testimony, the intelligence chief said Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons and is more interested in dragging out negotiations over its atomic program than reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution.
“This is a very dangerous situation as a nuclear Iran could prompt destabilizing countermoves by other states in this volatile region,” he said.
“While our information is incomplete, we estimate that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon by early to mid next decade,” he said.
Rising oil income and perceived successes of its surrogates Hamas and Hezbollah has extended Iran’s influence in the Middle East, disturbing Arab states, he said.
Iran is using ballistic missiles and naval power to project power in the Gulf, he said.
“It seeks a capacity to disrupt the operations and reinforcement of US forces based in the region — potentially intimidating regional allies into withholding support for US policy — and raising the political, financial, and human costs to the US and our allies of our presence in Iraq,” it said.
Iranian influence in neighboring Iraq has increased “significantly” and it is “probable” — but not proven — that senior Iranian leaders are aware that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds have been arming and training Iraqi extremists, he said.
McConnell said Iran regards its ability to conduct terrorist operations as a key element of its national security strategy, and that Hezbollah plays a central role in it.
Though mainly focused on Lebanon, he said Hezbollah has made “contingency plans to conduct attacks against US interests in the event it feels its survival — or that of Iran — is threatened.”
The spy chiefs singled out North Korea, which tested a nuclear bomb in October, and Iran as the two states of greatest concern.
North Korea, meanwhile, is technically capable of building a long-range missile that can hit the United States despite a test failure last year, said Lieutenant General Michael Maples, Defense Intelligence Agency director.
Asked how long before North Korea would have a missile capable of reaching the United States, he said, “I would probably estimate it’s not a matter of years.”