US intelligence chief provides a chilling ‘Worldwide Threat Assessment’ for 2016
February 11, 2016
Director of US National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee at the Hart Senate Building on February 9, 2016 in Washington, D.C. The committee met to hear testimony about worldwide threats to America and its allies.(Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
The director of US national intelligence James Clapper gave a chilling threat assessment to the US Senate Armed Services Committee this week.
Clapper’s testimony reflected the US Intelligence Community’s (IC) Worldwide Threat Assessment for the coming year.
Based on the insights of the various branches of the IC, Clapper provided a rundown of the major global and regional threats.
Based on his released statements, we have summarized the main global threats facing the world below:
The rise of smart devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) will lead to further opportunities for hackers to gain access to personal information. On the flip side, the IC will be able to use the IoT for “identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment.”
An increasing reliance on “Narrow AI” systems that perform specialized tasks can increase efficiency but leave systems open to disruption. Overreliance on these systems, or a lack of securing them properly, could lead to “disruptive or deceptive tactics.” As an example, stock market fluctuations have happened because of automated-trading systems taking in false data, Clapper notes.
Hackers and foreign-military cyber actors will seek to exploit the integrity of networked and online information. This runs the gamut from modifying and transmitting false data to public utilities and market firms to implanting false information on online media.
Foreign nations are increasingly buying and exploiting aggregated online personal data to “inform a variety of counterintelligence operations.”
There is still little impetus for countries to restrain themselves in cyber operations. “Many actors remain undeterred from conducting reconnaissance, espionage, and even attacks in cyberspace because of the relatively low costs of entry, the perceived payoff, and the lack of significant consequences.”
Principal threats: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and non-state actors.
Sunni Muslim extremist groups remain on the upswing from the 1970s. This rise in Sunni Muslim extremism has been met by a rise in Shiite groups backed by Iran, which has lead to a deepening in sectarian tensions.
ISIS remains the dominant global-terrorist threat. The group has shown that it is able to conduct operations abroad, hold territory, create affiliates around the world, and lure foreign fighters into either joining their ranks abroad or carrying out homegrown attacks domestically.
Although ISIS attracts the most attention, Al Qaeda is once again a growing threat. The group has proven able to conduct and inspire attacks abroad, while also seizing and holding territory — particularly in Yemen and Syria.
The main threat to the US will be US-based homegrown violent extremists. These individuals will likely try to plot and carry out attacks like the San Bernardino and Chattanooga shootings in 2015. Such incidents may either be inspired or directed by ISIS or Al Qaeda.
Terrorists and insurgencies around the world have increasingly become intermixed. No single paradigm exists to explain this, but terrorists are taking advantage of civil unrest in some capacity from Mali in West Africa to Afghanistan.
Social and online media will continue to aid and abet terrorists with spreading their messages and reaching new generations of recruits. ISIS is particularly adept at using social media to influence opinion.
Principal threats: ISIS and affiliated groups, Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, and Shiite groups backed by Iran, including Hezbollah.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
North Korea has continued to advance its nuclear program. It has committed itself to developing long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons to the US. Pyongyang is also believed to have restarted and expanded its plutonium-production reactor.
Pyongyang has also proven willing to proliferate its nuclear technologies to other rogue regimes, having supplied Iran and Syria with technology and expertise in the past.
The IC believes that North Korea’s drive for nuclear weapons is aimed at deterrence and “coercive diplomacy.”
China has modernized its nuclear forces. It has invested in road-mobile and silo-based systems that are hard to target, as well as nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, which provide Beijing with its first long-range, sea-based nuclear capability. This provides China with a nuclear deterrent.
Russia has developed a ground-launched cruise missile. The US believes that this weapon capability violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a charge Moscow denies.
Syria has continued to use chemical weapons against the opposition forces. It was determined that the regime used chlorine against the opposition multiple times in 2014 and 2015. ISIS is also believed to have used chemical weapons in multiple attacks across Iraq and Syria.
Iran continues to not face any “insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon” despite the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But the treaty does make significantly slow any potential development of a nuclear weapon as well as making it more likely that the international community will detect weapons development in Iran.
Because of the increasing speed and ease of genome editing, there is an increased risk of the creation of dangerous biological agents.
Principal threats: North Korea and Iran.
Space and Counterspace
Russia and China are beginning to rival the capabilities of military and intelligence satellites.
Because of the inherent advantages that the US gains from its space-satellite systems, Russia and China will likely “progress in developing counterspace weapon systems to deny, degrade, or disrupt US space systems.”
Electronic-warfare systems capable of jamming communications and GPS satellite systems will continue to proliferate across the world, eating away at a potential US advantage. Russia has admitted to developing systems that can blind US intelligence and ballistic-missile defense satellites.
Russia and China are continuing research into developing antisatellite missile systems.
Principal threats: Russia and China.
Foreign intelligence communities will make it a top priority to penetrate the US IC. Additionally, groups will target US companies and research institutions to gain access to critical information related to “defense, energy, dual-use technology, and other sensitive areas.”
Insider leaks remain a significant cause of concern for the IC.
Non-state actors, ranging from terrorists to organized crime, will use counterintelligence to try to avoid detection and capture.
Principal threats: Russia and China globally, Iran and Cuba regionally, and various non-state actors.
Transnational Organized Crime
Mexican drug traffickers have increased their operations throughout the US. These various organizations have rapidly increased their production of heroin and methamphetamine to meet growing US demand.
Andean traffickers have drastically increased their output of cocaine.
Designer drugs have spiked in use throughout the US. These drugs, often produced in Asia, are psychoactive and quickly redesigned before they are made illegal.
Organized criminals have used their profits to co-opt local governments. In Africa, transnational groups exploit regional instability to purchase arms, poach endangered animals, and influence political processes.
Human trafficking continues to occur in every country. Organized crime takes advantage of porous borders to sell individuals, and terrorist groups — including ISIS and Boko Haram — use trafficking to gain recruits and as a source of funding.
Principal threats: Non-state actors.
Economics and Natural Resources
A continued economic downturn in China has caused decline in world energy and commodity prices. This has helped prompt a global slowdown in trade that affects the world economy.
Falling energy and commodity prices will foster instability across the world. Venezuela is particularly hard hit and will have to struggle to avoid a default. Nigeria and Angola are now also struggling, increasing both countries’ instability.
The Arctic could become a point of competition and potential confrontation between Russia and the West if Russian-Western ties continue to deteriorate. Russia is continuing its process of militarizing its northern Arctic coastline.
Principal threats: Weakening economic conditions.
Infectious diseases will pose a national-security risk to the US. Increasing globalization and land-use changes will increase the chances for new epidemics that the international community “remains ill prepared to collectively coordinate and respond to.”
“Risks of atrocities, large-scale violence, and regime-threatening instability will remain elevated in 2016.” Spillover from wars, such as Syria, is likely to increase throughout the year. Seven states as of 2015 were also unable to project authority through more than 50% of their territory.
An unprecedented number of displaced peoples will strain the international community’s ability to respond. This will lead to increased tensions and augment further issues. The UN is also expected to be underfunded for its 2016 global-assistance fund.
Principal threats: Infectious diseases, government instability, and global displacement.