Al Qaeda remains a number one terrorism concern to the U.S. intelligence community despite overwhelming media attention focused on the Islamic State, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center said Thursday.
"The fact that you see ISIS on the headlines every day and you read about ISIS being at the forefront of this global terrorism problem, it shouldn't detract from the idea that the government, we as an intelligence community, is still focused—I would argue as a matter of first priority—on al Qaeda as a threat to the U.S interests," Nick Rasmussen, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center director, said at a national security forum on Capitol Hill.
Rasmussen said affiliates of the terrorist group operating in ungoverned territories such as Syria and Yemen represent the most immediate threat to the United States, particularly al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
The Department of Homeland Security reflected this concern in March after banning large electronics in carry-on luggage from 10 airports in the Middle East in North Africa. The Trump administration said the restriction was born from general intelligence showing a persistent desire from terrorists to attack commercial flights by smuggling explosives in certain electronics.
U.S. officials raised particular concerns about AQAP after collecting intelligence that the group was perfecting techniques to hide explosives in batteries and battery compartments of electronics, including laptops.
Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul (R., Texas) defended the administration's restrictions on Thursday, saying aviation attacks against the United States remain the "crown jewel" of al Qaeda operations.
"I've had the threat briefings," he said. "The threat is real … they've gotten to a level of sophistication where I think [the administration] is taking exactly the right precautions to protect Americans."
The administration is expected to roll out new aviation security policies in the coming weeks that will enable airports to avoid being subject to the ban by enacting precautions, including tests to combat insider threats.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said the end goal of the restrictions is to pressure the 270 international airports with direct flights to the United States to implement stricter security measures.
"My desire is that all airports raise their minimum security to the level that we say it should be, and if they do, then … passengers can travel with their electronics," he said. "If not, that's their decision, we'll simply ask them to not have large electronics travel in passenger compartments."