By Elise Labott and Dan Merica
Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.
The instability and changing governments in the Middle East have redrawn lines in the region and created instability that has provided a breeding ground for terrorism, the former head of the CIA said Thursday.
John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA, also told the Aspen Security Forum that the terrorist threat facing the United States has undergone a sea change, posing challenges to U.S. agencies seeking to understand and dismantle them.
“The changes in terrorism and not whether there is an end point are so transformational as to compare plausibly with the changes of the Berlin Wall coming down,” McLaughlin said.
The withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan has given the U.S. less insight into those countries, which still face instability. Additionally, the uprising that swept across the Mideast as the Arab Spring unfolded has left vast swaths of the region ungoverned.
Although the U.S. did not always approve of the authoritarian regimes that were ousted in uprisings across the region, McLaughlin said those leaders had control over the Arab street.
“That wasn’t our values but that in some ways was in our interests,” he said.
Terrorists today, he said, “have the largest safe haven and area of operational territory in ten years.”
The crisis in Syria, for instance, presents “a dream come true” for groups like al-Qaeda, who are looking for potential territory to hold in the Middle East.
McLaughlin said the U.S. has done a relatively good job of denying terrorist groups safe haven and going after their leadership, it has not done well in changing the conditions that create extremism and promote terrorist activity.
“The only way you can attack that is not through kinetic means or intelligence,” he said, suggesting a combination of U.S. foreign assistance, strengthening local governments and working on issues like health, food security and education could help address the poverty and hopelessness that breeds extremist activity.
McLaughlin's viewpoint on the ever changing face of terrorism was echoed by another panelist in Aspen – Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
"The threat from core al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is really significantly degraded," Olsen said. "We really don't face the same threat of the type of attack that we experienced on 9/11. The group is really struggling to survive, to recruit, train or operate."
Even in light of a diminishing al Qaeda, Olsen acknowledged that the recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa have changed the scope of the United States' counterterrorism efforts.
"The whole expanse of unrest and turmoil in North Africa and parts of the Middle East have led to the rise of loose networks and temporary groups," Olsen said.
That said, those groups are more powerful in the region and less likely to carry out attack within the United States.
"Overall, I would say it remains persistent, but it increasingly complex and diverse and that is why it is so challenging," he concluded.