Terrorist attacks and resulting deaths increased sharply last year, according to statistics made public Thursday by the director of national intelligence.
“When the final counting is done, 2014 will have been the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled,” DNI Director James Clapper told Congress, adding that about half of all attacks took place in three states: Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Last year from January to September, around 13,000 terror attacks were carried out, killing 31,000 people. By contrast, in 2013, 22,000 people were killed in terrorist violence in over 11,500 attacks, Clapper disclosed during a wide-ranging world threat briefing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
More than 3,400 foreign jihadists have joined the al Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State (IS) that is showing signs of establishing its own nation state, Clapper said.
The DNI also testified that IS (also known as ISIL or ISIS) is expanding outside Iraq and Syria into the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and South Asia. The group also is planning terror attacks on Western interests and against Shiite Muslims, he said.
Establishing chapters in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and South Asia are designed to project an image of a “global scale caliphate,” Clapper said, adding that the new affiliates do not appear under a central command of senior IS leaders.
“ISIL's rise represents the greatest shift in the Sunni violent extremist landscape since al Qaida affiliates first began forming, and it is the first to assume at least some characteristics of a nation state,” he said.
Of particular concern are IS supporters who can conduct terror attacks on their own. IS is “able to appeal to people who then can act on their own at a time, and place, and circumstance of their choosing,” Clapper said. “And that is a very worrisome challenge, particularly in this country.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said IS is expanding and its successes are increasing the risk jihadists will attack the West. “We are engaged in the generational fight for civilization against brutal enemies, and defeating these enemies requires significant intelligence resources and focus, given the diffuse and constantly evolving nature of the threat,” McCain said.
U.S. intelligence estimates of the number of fighters that have joined IS range between 20,000 to 32,000, the DNI said, including an estimated 3,400 from 90 foreign nations. At least 13,400 of the fighters have known ties to other terrorist groups.
The statistics were made public as British authorities revealed the identity of the video-taped IS executioner shown in the beheading murders of several foreign hostages as Kuwait-born Londoner Mohammed Emwazi.
Several of the estimated 180 American jihadists who traveled to Syria have returned and are under surveillance, he said, adding that that so far none of the American jihadists have not indicated planning for terrorist attacks.
FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that Islamic radicals linked to IS are being investigated in all 50 states.
“ISIL in particular is putting out a siren song with their slick propaganda through social media," Comey said.
"Troubled soul, come to the caliphate, you will live a life of glory, these are the apocalyptic end times, you will find a life of meaning here, fighting for our so-called caliphate. And if you can't come, kill somebody where you are," the FBI director said of the group’s recruiting pitch.
Recent shooting attacks by Muslim jihadists in France and Denmark highlight the threat posed by the resurgent al Qaeda offshoot.
Clapper said IS has launched a sophisticated propaganda and media operation that highlights the group’s success and that has been instrumental in attracting new recruits.
“So their success on the battlefield, or perceived success, or the way they're presented, certainly helps them in gaining recruits for the fight,” he said.
On funding, Clapper said IS was able to gain a large amount of money by overrunning Iraqi banks last year. Those funds, he said are “going to dry up.”
Air strikes against IS oil facilities also have forced the group to gain funds from smaller oil instillations, he said.
“And as a consequence of the brutality, the donations that they've received are tapering off,” Clapper said.
Asked about the rapid increase in IS fighters from around an initial estimate of 5,000 to now as many as 32,000, Clapper said the “mushrooming” was due to an early favorable reception by Sunnis opposed to the Shiite-leaning government in Baghdad.
As funds become short for the group, IS is turning to conscription to fill its ranks, especially after taking heavy losses—3,000 IS fighters killed—in the northern Syrian town of Kobani, he said.
The Obama administration’s strategy of air strikes combined with ground support for foreign militaries has degraded IS efforts to conduct large-scale offensive ground operations. But the terror group remains “a formidable and brutal threat,” Clapper said.
In Libya, terror groups linked to both al Qaeda and IS are using the country to conduct training and plotting for attacks, he said.
Clapper also said the conflict in Syria is increasing the danger of instability in the region, including in Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. And in Iraq, Sunni-Shiite conflict in growing and, if not curtailed, “will undermine progress against ISIL,” he said.
Clapper, appearing with Defense Intelligence Agency Director Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, came under critical questioning from McCain over the Obama administration’s refusal to supply arms to Ukraine in its battle against Russian separatists and Russian forces.
Clapper said providing arms to the Ukrainians would “provoke” Russian President Vladimir Putin to further aggression, and he also warned that a separatist attack aimed at taking over the key port of Mariupol, Ukraine, is “imminent.”
“This idea that somehow we will provoke Vladimir Putin—he's done everything he wanted to do, general,” McCain said to Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general.
“Well, I don't think he will view it happily if the United States provides lethal support,” Clapper said during the exchange.
Clapper said a lasting solution that allows Ukraine to pursue western integration “will be difficult to say the least.”
On other issues, Clapper outlined a series of international security threats, including:
- Cyber attacks from both states and groups that are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication, and severity of damage.
- Russia is among the most sophisticated cyber warfare states and is preparing to attack critical infrastructure such as power grids, air traffic control, and oil and gas distribution. The cyber threat posed by Moscow is “more severe than we have previously assessed.”
- Chinese advanced cyber espionage is “a major threat” and is continuing despite U.S. pressure on Beijing
- Sunni terrorists pose the most likely threat of conducting deadly attacks in the United States.
- North Korea is bolstering its nuclear weapons and missile forces that pose a “serious threat” to the United States.
- Russia’s new Iskander cruise missile violates the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
- China and Russia are increasingly threating U.S. strategic space systems with anti-satellite weapons.
On cyber threats to the financial industry, Clapper said the most pervasive threat comes from cyber criminals. “Criminals were responsible for cyber intrusions in 2014 in the JPMorgan, Home Depot, Target, Neiman Marcus, Anthem, and other U.S. companies,” he said.