The Defense News Leadership Poll, underwritten by United Technologies, last month identified cyber attacks as the leading threat facing the United States.
But in his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama made clear terrorism tops his list, arguing that while America can’t remain on a permanent war footing, it must remain vigilant against a determined and resilient global threat.
It’s not that Obama doesn’t see cyber as a threat — he does. It’s that terrorism is still a leading worry for the US and its international allies.
And he’s right.
Despite a dozen years of war and devastating attacks on its leadership, al-Qaida and affiliated groups are both battle hardened and capable, active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Mali, North Africa, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.
Indeed, the movement has metastasized, spawning new branches populated by a new generation of talent trained in real action across Afghanistan and the Arabian peninsula to North Africa.
Now, according to James Clapper, the director of US national intelligence, Syria has emerged as a key al-Qaida training ground. Worse, many hundreds have left their homes in Western Europe to fight on behalf of hardcore groups such as al-Nusra, raising questions whether they should be allowed to return home.
Terrorists are like flood waters, flowing easily across borders and seeping through cracks in international security systems.
When Syrian rebels have expelled al-Qaida affiliates from their towns, the groups have simply shifted across the border to territory in Iraq.
In Mali, al-Qaida grew strong enough to nearly take over the nation, and when French forces ultimately brought stability to that country, insurgents found a haven in Libya.
In Europe, Italy’s defense minister says al-Qaida is involved in the flood of refugees seeking asylum from the Middle East and North Africa. Al-Qaida, he said, is profiting from human trafficking as a means to buy weapons and to underwrite terror operations, and it appears to be smuggling terrorists into Europe among the countless innocents seeking a new life there.
Worse is the confluence of terror, criminal groups and cyber, magnifying the threat.
In the case of human smuggling in the Mediterranean, al-Qaida is engaged in a criminal enterprise and remains interested in using all weapons at its disposal to achieve its aims, from suicide bombers to computer malware.
The United States alone has spent more than $3 trillion in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere over a dozen years of war, with more than 6,600 US service members killed and tens of thousands of others wounded. It is weary of war.
But it cannot simply quit.
Obama is wise to call not only for shifting responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to Afghans but also to retain a small American footprint there to “aggressively pursue terrorist networks.”
The free world must remain vigilant against terrorism and collectively develop a new, sustainable long-term strategy to combat and defeat this persistent and ever evolving danger. ■