China Eclipses Terrorist Groups as Top U.S. Security Threat, Intelligence Chiefs Say

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The national security threats that top intelligence officials laid out for lawmakers on Wednesday were dominated by China’s efforts to expand its global influence and the “cascading crises” and “looming disequilibrium” facing the Biden Administration as existing security challenges are exacerbated by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Their warnings, coupled with a written annual threats assessment released on Tuesday, signaled a diminishing focus on non-state terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State over the past two decades. The report details Washington’s shifting priorities, as evidenced by President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, with the U.S. turning from its fight against international terrorism to countering China, Russia and Iran, as well as increased attention on domestic extremism, climate change, cyber threats, and transnational organized crime.

In Wednesday’s hearing—the first on global threats in two years — Beijing’s expansionism topped the list of threats that intelligence officials gave the Senate Intelligence Committee. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines called China an “unparalleled priority” for the intelligence community. FBI Director Christopher Wray noted that his agency opens a new investigation that links back to the Chinese government every 10 hours.

“I don’t think there is any country that presents a more severe threat to our innovation, our economic security and our democratic ideals,” he told lawmakers.

Intelligence agencies also focused on three other authoritarian adversaries in the Tuesday report. “Russia is pushing back against Washington where it can globally, employing techniques up to and including the use of force,” the report says. “Iran will remain a regional menace with broader malign influence activities, and North Korea will be a disruptive player on the regional and world stages.”

U.S. intelligence chiefs’ outlook for the war in Afghanistan—coming just hours before Biden officially announced his decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from the country by September—was grim. Biden’s CIA Director, William Burns, told lawmakers that the presence of U.S. and coalition forces on the ground, working with intelligence provided by the CIA and its partners, had kept the threat posed by al-Qaeda and ISIS in the country at bay. The planned withdrawal would hurt the agency’s “ability to keep that threat in Afghanistan in check,” he said. “When the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” he said. “So all of that, to be honest, means that there is a significant risk once the US military and the coalition militaries withdraw.”

The written intelligence assessment, issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), maintains that “prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year” and that “the Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

It is also notable what the annual report does not say. It does not, for instance, mention a significant risk of ISIS or al-Qaeda attacking the U.S., including from Afghanistan, a threat that dominated these assessments for most of the past two decades. It notes that the U.S. and its allies have “broadly degraded their capability to do so,” leading to the “diffusion of the terrorist threat globally.” While the authors note that the order of threats listed in the report do “not necessarily indicate their relative importance,” the section devoted to global terrorism barely takes up more than one page at the bottom of the 27-page assessment.

Instead, the greater immediate threat is posed by U.S.-based lone actors and small groups with “a broad range of ideological motivations”, it says, which includes both homegrown extremists inspired by those terrorist groups and domestic extremists influenced by other motivations like “racial bias and antigovernment sentiment.”

The report also includes an entirely new threat: the economic and political fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which “will be felt for years,” according to the intelligence report. It says the effects of the global health crisis “will continue to strain governments and societies, fueling humanitarian and economic crises, political unrest, and geopolitical competition as countries, such as China and Russia, seek advantage through such avenues as ‘vaccine diplomacy.’”

On Wednesday, Wray also described how the pandemic has fueled online extremist movements which in some events, including the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, have crossed into violence. “The effects of COVID anxiety, social isolation, financial hardship…all exacerbate people’s vulnerability to those theories and we are concerned about the potential that those things can lead to violence,” he said. “Social media has become, in many ways, the key amplifier to domestic violent extremism just as it has for malign foreign influence.” Wray promised lawmakers a declassified threat assessment about QAnon would soon be released to the public.

In a separate report released last month, intelligence agencies warned that domestic violent extremists pose an “elevated threat” in the aftermath of the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which will “almost certainly spur some [extremists] to try to engage in violence this year.”

Wednesday’s hearing was the first public global threats assessment since January 2019, when intelligence chiefs’ testimony before Congress provoked an angry outburst from then-President Donald Trump. He slammed them on Twitter as “passive” and “naive” and wrote that “perhaps Intelligence should go back to school” after they seemed to contradict him on several foreign policy issues. Not wanting to be seen as publicly disagreeing with the commander-in-chief on top priorities like Iran, North Korea and Russia, intelligence leaders did not release a global threats assessment or hold an open hearing last year.

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