Risks Facing America

The former Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee analyzes the present and future enemies facing the United States
| By Peter King | From Damian Lewis, January/February 2016
Risks Facing America
Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
Rep. Peter King, a 12-term member of Congress, once chaired the Homeland Security Committee.

A group of extremists who turned the quiet streets of Paris into a war zone. A nuclear state hoping to launch its missiles across the globe. A former empire expanding its territory. Cutting-edge technology aimed at countering our finest weapons. Terrorists who engineered the bloodiest attack in the history of the United States.

These are the myriad threats facing the United States today. The world has become an increasingly dangerous place. There are countries where the laws of dignity and democracy go unheeded, where barbaric acts are common and lives are lost every day. And as technology makes the world smaller, threats are inching ever closer to our own front door.

Few have the knowledge, experience and foresight to look around the globe and recognize the true dangers we face. We at Cigar Aficionado turned to Congressman Peter King of New York's Second District. He has chaired the Homeland Security Committee as well as serving as Chairman of its Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. He previously served on the Foreign Affairs Committee and is now a member of the Intelligence Committee. We asked Congressman King to map out the global threats that loom largest over America today.

Given my position I have an insider's understanding about the threats that face America. As a Congressman—and as an American—I worry for our country's safety. However, true insight into our national security situation comes from a professional approach. Our intelligence agencies evaluate threats in terms of enemies' capabilities and intentions. For example, a country may maintain considerable military capacity, but not intend to use it against us, while a terror group with limited means might seek to attack us whenever possible.

Viewed this way, I believe the most serious threats we face include Iran, the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Russia, North Korea and China. Our next president must prepare to confront these adversaries on his or her first day in office.

Religious extremists whose first act in power was to seize our embassy, with "Death to America" as their motto, were this spring within 90 days of a nuclear capability. This fall, they tested a long-range missile.

Few believe Tehran will abide by its accord with the Obama Administration, which went into effect in October over the objections of Congress. Iran is already violating this deal, which by its terms allows the ayatollahs to obtain nuclear arms in the future, and is fueling a regional arms race.

Ayatollah Khamenei describes America as the "Great Satan." In September he spoke again of annihilating Israel. Tehran's terror army, the Quds Force, and proxy groups such as Hezbollah, will receive their share of the hundreds of billions of dollars given to Iran under the nuclear accord.

Iran's terror activities have reached our shores. The FBI and New York Police Department have detected Iran conducting surveillance of potential terror targets in our country, including subways and the heliport used by President Obama in Manhattan. In 2011 Iran sought to car bomb a Washington restaurant, a plot foiled only because Iran's hit man unknowingly discussed his plan with a U.S. informant.

Yet the nuclear accord actually removed sanctions against General Qasem Soleimani, who leads Iran's terror machine. He recently flew to Moscow to confer with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Unless Israel or a future U.S. president act to stop the ayatollahs, Iran's demonstrated ability and willingness to kill Americans will be augmented in the future by nuclear missiles.

Islamic State (ISIS)
Far from the "junior varsity" team dismissed by President Obama in 2014, ISIS now controls territory larger in size than Great Britain, stretching across Iraq and Syria. In October ISIS demonstrated the capacity to destroy an airliner full of 224 passengers over Egypt. And in November it murdered 130 civilians in a series of complex attacks in Paris, including Nohemi Gonzalez, an American college student studying abroad.

ISIS has filmed beheadings of U.S. civilians such as James Foley, and captured and repeatedly raped American Kayla Mueller before her death in February 2015. It killed U.S. Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler in October.

ISIS has launched attacks in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and it destabilizes U.S. allies in Jordan and elsewhere. ISIS inspired or attempted attacks across the West—in Canada, Australia and Belgium and in Fort Worth, New York, Chattanooga and Boston, and elsewhere. It issued recent and specific threats against New York City and the White House, and regularly threatens to murder off-duty policemen and servicemembers and their families here at home.

Thousands of Europeans and hundreds of Americans have traveled abroad to fight for the Islamic State. They are returning, in numbers overwhelming the abilities of security services to track them.

This problem is compounded by the more than 800,000 refugees fleeing Syria headed to the West. Among them are Islamic State members, including some involved in the Paris attacks.

The Obama Administration proposed admitting 10,000 such refugees. It did so over bipartisan objections by Congress and governors, despite our government's utter inability to vet the possible terror ties of these refugees.

Meanwhile the number of radicalized Americans who are watching gruesome ISIS propaganda on the Internet is appalling.

ISIS threats to the Homeland are at higher levels than any terrorist threats since 9/11. More than 50 ISIS arrests have been made in 2015, including five ISIS operatives in the New York-New Jersey region prior to the Fourth of July.

Our best potential source of intelligence on the Islamic State inside the U.S. was the National Security Agency's metadata program, which flagged phone numbers in the United States in contact with known terrorists' numbers overseas. The program operated under Congressional and federal court monitoring, but was curtailed in response to ill-informed criticism after Edward Snowden and his coconspirator Glenn Greenwald disclosed the program.

Our ability to monitor ISIS is further limited by its operatives' use of commercially available encrypted communications, as they did in Paris. Law enforcement cannot access these discussions, even with a court order. Encrypted systems are sold to anyone, no questions asked. FBI Director James Comey and District Attorney Cyrus Vance of Manhattan have warned the business leaders responsible of the risks of terrorists using this technology.

The Islamic State has attempted or conducted several chemical weapons attacks in Syria, an indication that ISIS has a stockpile of poison gas. Potential Islamic State chemical attacks in the U.S. add a dangerous capability to their intent to kill Americans.

Every day this caliphate exists, it attracts and inspires radicals. The Obama Administration announced in October expanded operations against the Islamic State, but its efforts have been ineffective thus far.

The horrific attacks in Paris demonstrate just how deadly and effective ISIS can be. Yet the president refuses to acknowledge his failed policies and appears unwilling to change course. This is inviting disaster. The United States must commit to change policy and take whatever action is required to defeat ISIS. We cannot have the tragedy of Paris repeated on American streets.

Russia is still a significant power. Her proud leaders perceive Moscow as exploited and humiliated by a decadent West over the quarter-century since the Soviet Union fell. Now it is led by the cunning and tough former KGB First Chief Directorate Lieutenant Colonel Putin.

In 2014 Russia seized parts of southern and eastern Ukraine by force. In 2015 it began using combat forces in Syria and cemented alliances with Iraq and Iran. In so doing it established a line of Shia client states stretching from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Seas, a historic strategic coup. This year, Moscow may threaten one of our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies in the Baltic States, with which we have treaty obligations, triggering a crisis in the Western alliance.

Do not underestimate Putin's Russia, and not just because it is the only country that can destroy the U.S. within minutes. Moscow's intelligence services have penetrated the West in the past, and its special forces are highly effective. Putin has demonstrated his will by assassinating political opponents at home and abroad, even using a radiological device to kill a defector in London in 2006.

U.S. forces in Europe have diminished to only 65,000—down from more than 400,000 during the Cold War. We now muster only two maneuver brigades in Europe, down from two full corps. We only sent token forces, of a company each, to reassure Eastern European allies facing the Red Army during recent crises.

The United States Army will soon be its smallest since before World War II. We need to rebuild it, and also to arm our embattled allies in Ukraine, to deter the Russians from further invasions in Europe.

While I criticize President Obama's policies related to Iran, the Islamic State and Russia, his administration does deserve credit for its campaign against al-Qaeda.

The decisions to launch a Naval Special Warfare raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, and to kill American terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, made us much safer. Yet the al-Qaeda threat persists as long as 9/11 plotters such as Aiman al-Zawahiri remain alive.

Al-Qaeda has killed Americans for more than 22 years. Its first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 killed six, including my pregnant constituent Mrs. Monica Smith. Left unchecked in the intervening years, its 2001 attacks killed 2,977, including more than 150 friends, neighbors and constituents.

Between them, the FBI, NYPD and other agencies have stopped numerous attacks on the Homeland planned or inspired by al-Qaeda and its allies and affiliates since then, including the 2006 plot to destroy seven airliners en route to the U.S., and a 2009 plot to bomb the New York subway system. Attempted attacks on planes bound for Miami and Detroit, and a car bomb in Times Square, failed only at the last moment. Attacks in Little Rock, Fort Hood and Boston sadly succeeded, killing 18. Al-Qaeda-linked groups also attack Americans abroad, as in the 2012 attack in Benghazi.

Al-Qaeda remains fixated on multiple, simultaneous, mass-casualty attacks against symbolic targets in the West, often transportation targets. Regional affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, who implanted a bomb inside his own brother in an attempt to assassinate a Saudi security official, remain active.

Our best source of intelligence on al-Qaeda was the enhanced interrogation program. The Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military's rough questioning of al-Qaeda's senior members and those involved in 9/11 uncovered operatives in the U.S., ongoing plots, and the name of the courier who led to bin Laden. The program was discontinued in a fit of political correctness.

Al-Qaeda is not as dangerous as it was, due to the dogged efforts of our special operators and CIA. But it remains a threat, especially to destabilize an increasingly radicalized Pakistan. If al-Qaeda toppled the Islamabad government, it could seize that country's ill-secured nuclear arms and use them against us. We must keep our boot on their necks.

North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is armed with nuclear weapons, and missiles that can hit the western U.S. A young man of 32, he designs elaborate ways to publicly execute advisers who displease him, reportedly feeding them to dogs or obliterating them with heavy weapons. In 2014 his nation led a cyberattack against Sony Pictures in response to a silly movie that offended him.

North Korea remains poised to invade South Korea on short notice. The 30,000 American troops there would help our ally repel any invasion. Despite a network of tunnels dug under the Demilitarized Zone, the impoverished North lacks the resources to sustain a mechanized attack. But allied casualties would be severe. Seoul, a city of 10 million, lays within range of North Korea's dug-in artillery. And Kim would likely use weapons of mass destruction once his assault bogged down and battlefield failure threatened the survival of his regime.

The Obama administration is taking steps to counter the possibility that Kim may launch nuclear weapons at Alaska, Hawaii or California. Our next president must continue these efforts.

President Xi Jinping presides over a nationalistic country strengthened by an ancient culture, but also weakened by economic inequality, ethnic and religious tension, and official corruption.

Red China also maintains a small arsenal of nuclear missiles that can hit much of our country. But the threat from Beijing comes from its growing naval strength, and the cyber-espionage efforts of its sophisticated signals intelligence service.

Communist China is launching a "blue water" navy to exercise power in the South China Sea. It is militarizing artificial reefs near island chains, the ownership of which it contests with Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. As a maritime trading nation, we maintain a strategic interest in the freedom of the seas.

In response, China claims unprecedented, extraordinarily large maritime exclusion and air defense identification zones. It is developing cutting-edge guided missile and torpedo technology to counter our Navy, especially our aircraft carriers.

Hackers from China's "Third Peoples Liberation Army" ransack the U.S. of our intellectual property and state secrets. They copy commercial and defense technology from American companies on a vast scale. And they steal personal health, financial and personnel records to help blackmail American officials in sensitive jobs.

Beijing is diligently preparing for a future naval conflict with the U.S., and its cyber prowess is such that it might disable our weapons and wreck our economy and infrastructure in case of war.

We must expand our shrunken Pacific Fleet. The U.S. Navy is the smallest it has been since 1916, down to 272 ships from 1,113 at the height of the Cold War, and 594 as recently as 1987. We must not tempt China with weakness, leading them to miscalculate and start a war, which could spin out of control and wreck the world economy.

These threats will sit in our next president's in-box on January 20, 2017. He or she must think hard now about how to counter Iran, the Islamic State, Russia, al-Qaeda, North Korea and China—and keep us safe.

Rep. Peter King is a 12-term Republican Member of Congress from New York.