Intelligence Director: ‘Arab Spring’ Has Benefited Islamists

By Patrick Goodenough | March 13, 2013 | 4:25 AM EDT

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (AP Photo, File)

( – The “Arab spring” has benefited Islamists rather than democracy advocates, while political transitions and unrest in the region have provided opportunities for terrorists to mount attacks against U.S. interests, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers Tuesday.

Delivering the intelligence community’s annual report on threats facing the United States, Clapper gave what amounted to a downbeat assessment of the upheavals that many initially viewed as a promising movement towards greater democracy in a region dominated by long-ruling autocrats.

“Islamist actors have been the chief electoral beneficiaries of the political openings, and Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco will likely solidify their influence in the coming year,” he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in a written statement.

“Although some countries have made progress towards democratic rule, most are experiencing uncertainty, violence, and political backsliding. The toppling of leaders and weakening of regimes have also unleashed destabilizing ethnic and sectarian rivalries.”

Clapper said the transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and unrest in Syria and Mali had offered opportunities for terrorists to target American interests.

“The turmoil in the Arab world has brought a spike in threats to U.S. interests in the region,” he told the committee in verbal testimony, citing attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya last September, and on an Algerian oil facility earlier this year.

He described the al-Nusra Front, called a Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, as “one of the best organized and most capable of the Sunni terrorist groups.”

“The dispersed and decentralized nature of the terrorist networks active in the region highlights that the threat to U.S. and Western interests overseas is more likely to be unpredictable, “ Clapper said.

“Weakened or diminished counterterrorism capabilities, border control mechanisms, internal security priorities, and other shortcomings in these countries – combined with anti-U.S. grievances or triggering events – will sustain the threats to U.S. interests throughout the region,” he assessed.

Clapper highlighted three specific issues in the region which he said would affect U.S. interests:

--The risk that the conflict in Syria, and the struggles of new governments to extend control in Libya and Yemen, will permit extremists to take advantage of ungoverned areas, using them to destabilize governments and prepare attacks against Western targets in those countries.

--Economic hardships and a failure to meet heightened expectations could set back progress in transitioning countries and destabilize vulnerable regimes like the one ruling Jordan.

--Negative views of America, with skepticism among some transitioning governments about cooperating with the U.S. having the potential to hamper U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

In her opening remarks committee chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also raised concerns about the region, citing “the instability that seems to be festering across northern Africa, from Mali to Egypt to Libya and beyond, breeding and harboring a new generation of extremists.”

“Some of the governments in the region are unable or unwilling to take action against these terrorist groups,” she said, “meaning the rest of the world will need to focus energy and attention to preventing a safe haven and launching-pad for future attacks.”

Other issues raised during the hearing included the decentralized nature of the jihadist threat, Syria’s chemical weapons program, North Korean belligerence, developments in the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, Iranian and Hezbollah terrorism, the growing danger posed by cyber-attacks, and threats arising from competition and scarcity involving natural resources.

Sequester’s ‘insidious’ effects

Clapper began his verbal testimony by delivering what he described as “blunt” comments about the effect of budget cuts mandated by the sequester.

“Sequestration forces the intelligence community to reduce all intelligence activities and functions, without regard to impact on our mission,” he told the panel.

“In my considered judgment as the nation’s senior intelligence officer, sequestration jeopardizes our nation’s safety and security and this jeopardy will increase over time.”

Some of the cuts’ effects, he said, would include:

--A reduction in human, technical and counterintelligence operations.
--An increase in the risk of strategic surprise.
--A cutback in critical analysis and tools, meaning the agencies “may risk missing early signs of a threat.”

“Unlike more directly observable sequestration impacts, like shorter hours at public parks or longer security lines at airports, the degradation to intelligence will be insidious,” Clapper argued. “It will be gradual and almost invisible, unless and until, of course, we have an intelligence failure.”

Also taking part in Tuesday’s hearing were FBI Director Robert Mueller, Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and new CIA Director John Brennan.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow