Michael Morell says the risk is that the Syrian government, which possesses chemical and other advanced weapons, collapses and the country becomes al Qaeda’s new haven, supplanting Pakistan.
The threat from al Qaeda in Yemen in recent days—which shut down embassies across the Middle East—highlights the dangers for the U.S. as the terrorist organization tries to establish new beachheads. “It’s not so much that al Qaeda has fallen as a threat,” but that the threat from Syria has escalated, he said.
Mr. Morell’s stark assessment shows how much the U.S. has at stake as it reluctantly prepares to arm Syrian rebels in the coming weeks while continuing to confront an al Qaeda that has dispersed across the globe. His forecast is all the more worrisome because it comes from a top official who other officials say is skeptical of current administration plans to arm the rebels.
Mr. Morell detailed his strategic assessment of Syria and al Qaeda in an outline of the top threats facing the U.S. in an interview in his office at Langley as he prepares to end his 33-year tenure at the agency on Friday. Second on his list was Iran, followed by the global al Qaeda threat, North Korea, and cyberwarfare.
As he leaves the agency, Mr. Morell says he is weighing opportunities on corporate boards, with security-consulting firms, and on the speaker’s circuit. But Mr. Morell, 54 years old, who joined the CIA straight out of the University of Akron, still sees a potential return to government, saying he is interested in advising future presidential campaigns. Officials note he is close to Hillary Clinton, who is believed to be weighing a 2016 presidential bid.
“I don’t remember a time when there have been so many national-security issues on the front burner as there are today,” Mr. Morell said.
Still, Syria is his top concern. “It’s probably the most important issue in the world today,” he said, “because of where it is currently heading.” Its current track is toward the collapse of its central government, he said.
He said there are now more foreign fighters flowing into Syria each month to take up arms with al Qaeda-affiliated groups, than there were going to Iraq to fight with al Qaeda at the height of the war there.
The Syrian government’s weapons, Mr. Morell said, “are going to be up for grabs and up for sale” as they were in Libya. The violence in Syria has the potential to spill over into Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
In the case of Iran, Mr. Morell cited the merging of the regime’s nuclear ambitions with its desire to be a hegemonic power in the Middle East as cause for concern. “There is in essence today a Cold War going on in the Middle East between Iran and the moderate Sunni states and the West,” he said.
Iran, he said, is a major challenge for the U.S. and will remain so for the next 20 to 25 years.
With al Qaeda, Mr. Morell said, the threat has morphed into one in which there is less of a risk of a strike on the scale of the 2001 attacks but a greater likelihood that diplomatic posts would be attacked.
Both the U.S. and al Qaeda have had their share of victories over the past decade. The U.S. has “significantly degraded” the group’s capabilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said. He didn’t discuss the CIA’s role in killing off so many al Qaeda leaders through drone attacks.
“Al Qaeda has had its own victory as well,” he said. “The dispersal of al Qaeda is their victory.”
Not only has the group spread its ideology and geographic reach, he said, but it also has a less rigid command and control structure and less religious fidelity than in the past. That makes it more difficult for the U.S. to identify threats ahead of time.
“If we don’t keep the pressure on them, they will reconstitute,” he said. “I worry about complacency in the face of that.”
Meanwhile, North Korea has grown as a danger to the U.S. as it further develops both nuclear warheads and the missiles to carry them. Mr. Morell said that trajectory combined with North Korea’s inexperienced and insecure young leader, Kim Jong Un, is concerning.
“Eventually it becomes a threat in terms of their ability to target a nuclear weapon at the United States,” he said.
Rounding out Mr. Morell’s list of threats are cyberattacks, because U.S. adversaries are working hard to develop attack capabilities. Cyberattacks that destroy networks in the U.S., he said, could come in the next few years. Cyberattacks are “the thing I worry most about in the long term,” he said.