July 19th, 2013
12:00 AM ET

Upheaval and the redrawing of terrorist lines in the Arab world

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.

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  6. Hammerfall

    When the Soviet Union fell, the Military Industrial Complex
    desperately needed a new boogy man to fight.
    So they created Al Queda.
    The new, never ending war,
    because it could "pop up" anyplace.
    Very well planned by the NEOCONS.
    Just proves how stupid people are,
    they think NEOCONS are Republicans, so they keep voting for them.
    NEOCONS don't care about "America".
    America is just a tool they use to rule the rest of the world.
    It works.

    July 19, 2013 at 11:45 am | Reply
  7. Silverado

    Muslims develop an obsessive compulsive disorder to kill people after reading their Qran. They are compelled to kill somebody to satisfy their blood thirst. The upheaval and subsequent chaos which started with Arab Spring is a boon to the civilized people. This chaos has given violent Muslims a chance to kill other equally violent Muslims. Arab Spring keeps Muslims busy with each other - so, non-Muslims can get some relief.

    July 19, 2013 at 8:09 am | Reply
  8. John McKane

    Now this idiot John McLaughlin along with Matthew Olsen are trying to scare us into believing that we should stay in the Middle East where we definitely don't belong! Let the Middle East take care of itself! No wonder we're the most hated country in the world!

    July 19, 2013 at 7:58 am | Reply
  9. Powder

    The dynamics of power and Life in the Arab world are complicated by religion. It is now evident that extremist groups like al-qaeda and taliban have sympathies amongst mainstream Preachers. Actually had it not been for the war mongering,murderous, violent, terrorist nature of this groups, symbolised by their attacking and killings of their own countrymen even Children (e.g Malala), i reckon they could have been having support even at high levels in Muslim Countries.
    Can they be redeemed? I don't know, but surely they are hard nuts to crack who look down upon their more conventional bretheren and feel that they are the ones who need redemption. To add salt to injury, an average Person is terrified of them in the muslim world, and would likely do as they want! Sad indeed

    July 19, 2013 at 4:11 am | Reply

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