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WASHINGTON (Agencies): Russia, China and Opec oil-producing countries have a
worrisome potential to use their growing financial clout to exert political
pressure, the top US spy chief told Congress on Tuesday. US National
Director of Intelligence Michael McConnell voiced the concern to Congress in
his annual assessment of potential security threats to the United States.
McConnell also told the Senate Intelligence Committee in prepared testimony
that the global threat of terrorism remained, but that al-Qaeda had suffered
setbacks and its international reputation was diminishing.
He voiced continued concern over Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons
despite its halt to nuclear warhead design, and said political uncertainty
in Pakistan had not threatened the military’s control of that country’s
nuclear arsenal.

In listing top threats, McConnell cited “concerns about the financial
capabilities of Russia, China and Opec countries and the potential use of
their market access to exert financial leverage to political ends.” Russia
was positioning itself to control an energy supply and transportation
network spanning from Europe to East Asia, and China’s global engagement was
driven by a need to access markets and resources, McConnell said. He voiced
concerns about the impact of a weaker US dollar on global oil suppliers,
some of whom have asked to be paid in currencies other than dollars, or
delinked their currency pegs to the dollar. “Continued concerns about dollar
depreciation could tempt other producers to follow suit,” McConnell said.

Al-Qaeda
Al-Qaeda is improving the last key aspect of its ability to attack the US-
the identification, training, and positioning of operatives for an attack in
the Homeland,” the report said.
“We assess that al-Qaeda‘s Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus
on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets designed to
produce mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic
aftershocks, and/or fear among the population,” it said.
US intelligence chief Mike McConnell, who delivered the report to Congress,
said US intelligence also saw threats to the United States emanating from
al-Qaeda in Iraq and from homegrown terrorists inspired by military Islamic
ideology.
But al-Qaeda‘s central leadership, based in the border areas of Pakistan,
“is its most dangerous component,” his report said.
It noted that in July the intelligence community warned that al-Qaeda‘s
leadership has over the past two years been able “to regenerate the core
operational capabilities needed to conduct attacks in the Homeland.”

It is using safe havens in the tribal areas “as a staging area for training
new terrorist operatives, for attacks in Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa,
Europe and the United States,” the report said. A cadre of skilled
lieutenants operating from the tribal areas are capable of directing
operations around the world, it said. “Al-Qaeda‘s top leaders Osama bin
Laden
and Ayman al-Zawahiri continue to be able to maintain al-Qaeda‘s unity
and its focus on their strategic vision of
confronting our allies and us with mass casualty attacks around the globe,”
it said. Although not involved in day to day operations, bin Laden and
Zawahiri regularly pass inspirational messages and specific operational
guidance to their followers through public statements, the assessment said.

McConnell said al-Qaeda in Iraq has suffered major setbacks at the hands of
US forces, but remains al-Qaeda‘s most capable affiliate. “I am increasingly
concerned that as we inflict significant damage on al-Qaeda in Iraq, it may
shift resources to mounting more attacks outside of Iraq,” he said. Captured
documents suggest that fewer than 100 AQI terrorist have moved from Iraq to
establish cells in other countries, he said. “It will probably continue to
devote some effort towards honoring bin Laden’s request in 2005 that AQI
attempt to strike the United States, affirmed publicly by current AQI leader
Abu Ayyub al-Masri in a November 2006 threat against the White House,”
McConnell said.

The admiral also expressed concerns about other al-Qaeda affiliates in
northern Africa and Lebanon.
Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, the most active group in
northwestern Africa, “represents a significant threat to US and European
interests in the region,” he said in the report.
“Over the next year, attacks by ‘homegrown’ extremists inspired by military
Islamic ideology but without operational direction from al-Qaeda will remain
a threat to the United States or against US interests overseas,” he said.
“Our European allies regularly tell us that they are uncovering new
extremist networks in their countries,” McConnell said. “While the threat
from such homegrown extremists is greater in Europe, the US is not immune,”
it said. He said plots uncovered in New Jersey and Illinois this year
“highlights the diverse threat posed by Homeland-based radical Muslims
inspired by extremist ideology.”

Hacking
Preventing terrorists from hacking into computer systems that run the
nation’s power grid and other vital networks gets a new emphasis in
President Bush‘s proposed budget for homeland security.
The president would spend at least $294 million (198 million euros) for the
Homeland Security Department to protect federal networks from hackers,
including $83 million (56 million euros) to deploy a program that monitors
intrusions on federal networks. That is a nearly 40 percent increase over
what has been spent for that purpose this year. An additional $39 million
(26 million euros) would be dedicated to cyber security programs at the
Federal Bureau of Investigation. Much of the funding for the
administration’ s cyber security initiative is part of the classified
Intelligence budget.
“An unfortunate consequence of living in a networked,
technological- dependent world is that terrorists and others seek to use our
own technology against us, including the Internet,” Homeland Security
Secretary Michael Chertoff said Monday.

Last month Chertoff told The Associated Press that the department would also
offer the private sector an Internet monitoring and protection program which
companies could participate in voluntarily.
President Bush is proposing a 6 percent increase in spending for homeland
security next year in a spending plan that devotes more than a third of the
security budget to securing the nation’s borders and transportation systems.
The president’s $68 billion (46 billion euros) request includes money to
continue building a fence along the southwest border and to hire 2,200 more
Border Patrol agents. It seeks $131 million (88.34 million euros) to enhance
security measures at airport passenger checkpoints. And it includes a new
surcharge of up to $1 (.67 euros) for each airline trip, to help pay for
improvements in baggage screening. The Homeland Security Department itself
would get $40 billion (27 billion euros), a 2.5 percent decrease from its
2008 budget.

Sanctions
The UN Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against al-Qaeda and
the Taleban said Monday it has started identifying possible cases of
non-compliance for possible action. In a report to the council, the
committee also said it would develop recommendations on what could be done
to prevent non-compliance, including identifying the difficulties faced by
states in implementing the sanctions. “The overall objective of this
exercise is to improve the effectiveness of the sanctions regime,” the
committee said. The Security Council imposed sanctions against the Taleban
in November 1999 for refusing to send Osama bin Laden to the United States
or a third country for trial on terrorism charges in connection with two
1998 US embassy bombings in Africa. The sanctions – a travel ban, arms
embargo and assets freeze – were later extended to al-Qaida. In July 2005,
the council extended the sanctions again to cover affiliates and splinter
groups of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In the report, the committee – headed by
Belgium’s UN Ambassador Johan Verbeke – said it achieved “tangible progress”
during 2007, particularly in improving the quality of the list of some 480
individuals and businesses linked to al-Qaeda and the Taleban subject to
sanctions, and in strengthening its outreach to member states.

Militant groups
Nearly 400 militant groups now operate around the world and the greatest
proliferation has been in the border regions between Afghanistan, Pakistan
and India, an annual military report showed on Tuesday. The number of
violent “non-state” groups has grown about 10 percent in the past year,
according to the 2008 Military Balance report by the International Institute
for Strategic Studies. Iraq and India, with more than 30 active guerrilla
groups each, are the most volatile countries. The Afghan/Pakistan border and
the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan are the worst affected areas,
with a total of 65 groups in operation. “It reflects the changing nature of
conflicts over the past 10 to 15 years,” said Nigel Inkster, the director of
transnational threats and political risk at IISS.

“We’re seeing less and less inter-state conflict and more and more
intra-state conflict involving a wide variety of armed groups – the number
just keeps on spiralling.” Inkster, a former director of operations with
Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, said the fastest growing threat came
not from al Qaeda or any of its offshoots in Iraq, but probably
Tehrik-a-Taleban, a Pakistani Taleban movement.
Led by Baitullah Mehsud, an ethnic Pashtun tribal warlord, the group has a
base in Waziristan, in the Pakistan/Afghanista n border region, and has
recently expanded to align itself with global struggles.
“It has its roots in localised issues but very recently they have shown an
inclination to link themselves to a wider agenda,” Inkster told Reuters.
“Because of the wider ramifications of unrest in the region, the Pakistani
neo-Taleban, as it is called, has become a potent and growing threat.
“Mehsud has linked himself formally with the Afghan Taliban and has been
quoted about the need to annihilate the United States and Britain, so he is
adopting a wider political agenda.”

GICNT
The number of countries participating in the Global Initiative to Combat
Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) has grown fivefold in the past two years,
according to a US official for non-proliferation. “At that first meeting
here in Rabat, we were a small but strong partnership of 13 nations. Today,
our partnership has 65 nations from all over the world, 22 of which are in
attendance today,” said Patricia McNerney, deputy assistant secretary of
state for international security and nonproliferation, at a GICNT seminar in
Rabat. Launched in June 2006 by US President George W. Bush and Russian
President Vladimir Putin, the GICNT programme aims to reinforce control of
nuclear facilities and materials in order to prevent terrorist groups from
accessing them. “The growing use of radioactive sources for peaceful ends in
a large number of states (…) is considerably increasing the risk of their
accessibility and their use by terrorist groups,” said Omar Hilale,
representing Morocco’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs. McNerney congratulated
what she said was a large group of attendees prepared to discuss “issues in
the context of the threats and challenges in the Maghreb region and beyond”.
Addressing these challenges, she said, involves “preparing for and
responding to a nuclear or radiological incident”. Hilale called on the
observer states in attendance Tuesday to participate in an “unprecedented
partnership against terrorism that is as blind as it is highly destructive” .
The meetings conclude Wednesday in Rabat.

 

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