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U.S. Intelligence Chief: IS, 'Assertive' Russia Among Unprecedented Challenges

U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clappe testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on February 9.
U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clappe testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on February 9.

U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper says that Russia remains intent on pursuing an "assertive foreign policy" in 2016, including hampering Ukraine's Western aspirations.

U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper says the United States faces an unprecedented array of security challenges including cyberattacks, "homegrown" terrorists, Islamic State (IS) extremists, North Korea's nuclear saber-rattling, and Russia's "assertive" foreign policy.

"In my 50-plus years in the intelligence business, I cannot recall a more diverse array of challenges and crises that we confront as we do today," Clapper told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on February 9 while discussing his agency's annual worldwide threat assessment.

In his prepared statement to the committee, Clapper said disruptions in cyberspace and attacks by U.S.-based supporters of violent extremists are the most imminent security threats faced by the United States in 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking $19 billion to boost the security of cybernetworks across the U.S. government in his 2017 budget proposal, a 35 percent increase compared to this year.

Clapper cited terrorism as the other most imminent threat the United States faces in 2016, calling IS militants the "pre-eminent terrorist threat" in the world because of the territory they control in Iraq and Syria.

He added that Al-Qaeda affiliates are "positioned to make gains in 2016" despite Western counterterrorism efforts that have damaged the network's core operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Extremist organizations like IS and Al-Qaeda will continue to plan attacks on U.S. interests abroad that could motivate homegrown terrorists to replicate them on American soil, Clapper said.

"Homegrown violent extremists…will probably continue to pose the most significant Sunni terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland in 2016," he said.

'Assertive' and 'Paranoid' Russia

Clapper said that Russia remains intent on pursuing an "assertive foreign policy" in 2016, including hampering Ukraine's Western aspirations.

Despite reduced violence between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin will continue to maintain "long-term influence over Kyiv" and frustrate "Ukraine's attempts to integrate with Western institutions."

"Events in Ukraine raised Moscow's perceived stakes for increasing its presence in the region to prevent future regime change in the former Soviet republics and for accelerating a shift to a multipolar world in which Russia is the uncontested regional hegemon in Eurasia," Clapper said.

The United States and the European Union have targeted Russia with several rounds of sanctions following Moscow's takeover of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 9,000 since April 2014.

Washington, Brussels, Kyiv, and NATO accuse Russia of supplying the separatists with weapons, money, training, and soldiers, allegations the Kremlin denies despite substantial evidence of such support.

Clapper told lawmakers during the February 9 hearing that Russia is "paranoid" about being challenged by NATO, and that its efforts to challenge American power could drive it into a new Cold War.

"They're greatly concerned about being contained," he said.

Clapper added that Russia in 2016 will raise pressure on neighboring states to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, which former Soviet republics Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have already joined.

Russia's Nervous 'Periphery'

Clapper said in his agency's threat assessment that Russia's "willingness to covertly use military and paramilitary forces in a neighboring state continues to cause anxieties in states along Russia's periphery."

In Belarus, he said, authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues a "geopolitical balancing act, attempting to curry favor with the West without antagonizing Russia."

These overtures to the West, Clapper said, included the August release of several high-profile Belarusians imprisoned on charges seen as politically motivated, as well as Lukashenka's reelection in an October vote conducted "without cracking down on the opposition as he has in previous elections."

Turning to Moldova, Clapper said thattheex-Soviet republic, which has actively pursued EU membership, "faces a turbulent year in 2016" and that "continued unrest is likely."

A corruption scandal that led to the downfall of the previous government last year has raised concerns about Chisinau's ability to enact reforms needed to bring the country in line with EU standards, and street protests broke out last month after lawmakers approved a new pro-European government.

Antigovernment demonstrators are calling for early elections that could boost Kremlin influence in Moldova, an outcome that may complicate Chisinau's efforts to become an EU member state.

Clapper said that Russia is also likely to leverage Central Asian governments' concerns about rising extremism and instability in Afghanistan to boost its security involvement in the region.

He added, however, that Central Asian states face a greater threat from "economic challenges" stemming from "official mismanagement, low commodity prices, declining trade and remittances associated with Russia's weakening economy."

In the Caucasus, Clapper said that tensions between Georgia and Russia will remain high and that "Moscow will raise the pressure on Tbilisi to abandon closer EU and NATO ties."

"Rising frustration among Georgia's elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration and increasingly effective Russian propaganda raise the prospect that Tbilisi might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration," he said in the assessment.

Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway, Armenian-held Nagorno-Karabakh region, meanwhile, risk escalation in 2016 due to Baku's "sustained military buildup coupled with declining economic conditions in Azerbaijan," Clapper said.

"Azerbaijan's aversion to publicly relinquishing its claim to Nagorno-Karabakh proper and Armenia's reluctance to give up territory it controls will continue to complicate a peaceful resolution," he said.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
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