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U.S. braces for 'new' terror threats

Monday - 1/16/2012, 5:16am  ET

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Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin says the State Department is concerned about new groups hooking up with al-Qaida. (WTOP/J.J. Green)

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Evolving terror threats will remain an immense challenge well into the 21st century, according to U.S. government officials.

State Department documents indicate that combating far-flung, well connected "new terrorist threats will require innovative strategies, creative diplomacy and stronger partnerships."

The department's answer is the newly minted Bureau of Counterterrorism, formerly known as the Office of Combating Terrorism. It is designed to utilize a strong hybrid of diplomatic, intelligence, investigative and protective tools to neutralize some of the exotic blends of terror threats that may be coming.

The unveiling of the bureau comes at a pivotal time in the war against violent extremism.

"We're very concerned about indigenous groups like Boko Haram [a Nigerian group] hooking up with al-Qaida affiliates, learning greater tradecraft for bombings and other types of attacks," said Daniel Benjamin, ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism.

Almost two months after killing al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the White House released its national strategy for counterterrorism. Among the top goals was "degrading links between al-Qaida, its affiliates and adherents."

"For all the very impressive blows that have been dealt to that group, it still remains capable and eager to carry out attacks against the United States," Benjamin said.

Much of that capability rests with al-Qaida's ability to influence others.

"There's no question that as al-Qaida's senior leadership has found it harder to operate. They've tried to step up their own ability to influence," Benjamin said.

Once al-Qaida successfully attracted the attention of groups such as Boko Haram, it has a full range of terrorism services it can provide to franchisees.

Benjamin says those services include "tips on how to do their messaging more effectively, their recruitment, their finances and so forth. We really don't want al-Qaida affiliates to fund and support groups farther afield, and we're very concerned about the spread about this kind of terrorism."

The prevailing wisdom in U.S. diplomatic circles is that upgrading the Office for Combating Terrorism to its current form puts more teeth into the effort to defeat terrorism.

But experts ask a key question: Why now?

"It seems to me it's probably a move that should have been done immediately after 2001," said Dennis Pluchinsky, a retired State Department counterterrorism agent.

"If at the time, the threat was serious and increasing, then maybe that was the time to promote the State Department's office into a bureau. Doing it now, some 10 years after 2001, personally, I don't understand the rationale."

Benjamin says he can't answer what a previous administration did or didn't do.

"I can say this was done as part of the larger reorganization that the [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] called for in her major policy document, the quadrennial diplomacy and development review.

"[The review] was her major assessment of the department, what we should be doing, where our major focus should be," Benjamin said.

Pluchinsky says all of the intelligence he and other experts have seen suggests the terrorism threat is has been significantly set back, for now and wonders if "the State Department must be looking at a different threat assessment."

He wonders if the change is just an "administrative" move to increase the State Department's visibility on counterterrorism. He points out the new bureau is not much different from the small office it replaced.

"We're doing the same work but we're now doing it on a better platform, with better infrastructure for having the kinds of effects that we want to have and really having the voice that we need to on this important subject," Benjamin said.

Al-Qaida, the Taliban and other violent extremist groups represent just one category of threats facing the U.S. There are nation-states that pose imminent danger to the U.S. That's part of the reason President Barack Obama announced a shift in the U.S. defense policy during a Pentagon news briefing on Jan. 5.

"We'll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces," the president said. "We'll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities that we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access."

Later at the same briefing, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, "Even though the Iraq war is over and a draw down is underway in Afghanistan, the United States still faces a complex and growing array of security challenges across the globe."

At the top of Panetta's list of challenges is "the proliferation of lethal weapons and materials; the destabilizing behavior of nations like Iran and North Korea; the rise of new powers across Asia; and the dramatic changes that we've seen unfold in the Middle East."

NEXT: Difficult diplomacy with Iran and North Korea

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)