The publicly released version of the National Intelligence Estimate that Laura mentions below is only a page and a half, so it should come as no surprise that there is nothing terribly insightful in it. (“Breaking news! Al Qaeda is dangerous!”) But let’s take a look, shall we?
Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland… We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership.
The FATA referenced here include places like Waziristan, which Mother Jones profiled in an essay and stunning photo shoot in 2004, where the Pakistan government (usually) respects local tribes’ claims to sovereignty and keeps only a loose leash on things. Because of the lack of control, the areas are often perfect for terrorist hideouts, a fact the U.S. has known for years — in fact, the emphasis on the FATA in this NIE matches policies from the beginning of the war on terror. Back then, we paid locals for turning in alleged al Qaeda operatives, which merely gave the locals a more powerful weapon in tribal conflicts and filled places like Gitmo with harmless and bewildered individuals who happened to have a well-connected enemy.
Other thoughts from the NIE (which is available here):
We assess that al-Qa’ida will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material…
It’s nice to know it doesn’t have them yet.
We assess Lebanese Hizballah, which has conducted anti-US attacks outside the United States in the past, may be more likely to consider attacking the Homeland over the next three years if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran.
This is critically important, particularly because it is a subtle warning about Cheney and Co.’s saber-rattling about Iran. If we attack Iran, or even appear to pose a “direct threat” to Iran, we can expect a violent reaction from radical Shiite groups across the world. The folks who expected Iraq to be conventional warfare (and were wrong) may make the same mistake again — airstrikes against Iran, or heaven forbid, a ground invasion, would definitely not be quick and clean. A war with Iran could have thousands of fronts, including some here at home.
The main takeaway from the NIE, however, is this: terrorism remains out most important security concern, particularly because we haven’t even dented al Qaeda’s capabilities, and we need all the resources we can to fight it. That means not having huge portions of our military, intelligence community, and national security apparatus wrapped up in the Iraqi civil war.