There has been a subtle shift taking place in the intelligence community in recent months.
Intelligence and law enforcement officials say analysts and experts who have been tracking al-Qaida for more than a decade have been quietly reassigned. Some are being moved completely out of al-Qaida units. Others are being asked to spend less time watching al-Qaida and more time tracking more traditional foes — like state-sponsored terrorists.
U.S. officials declined to provide specific numbers or detail which intelligence units have changed priorities, but they did say that a goodly portion of the analysts who have been reassigned from their al-Qaida duties are being asked to focus on one country: Iran.
Officials said that with the relative threat from al-Qaida declining, it made sense to reallocate resources, and with the increase in terrorism-related activity linked to Iran, it also made sense to focus on it.
The concern tore into public consciousness last fall, when FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General Eric Holder and a roster of high-level Justice Department officials announced that the U.S. had uncovered a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
U.S. officials didn't mince words. They said the scheme could be traced — through money transfers — to the top ranks of the Iranian government.
"As a career intelligence analyst, I always look at problems from two perspectives, that is capability and intent," said Philip Mudd, a former top counterterrorism official in both the CIA and the FBI. "Clearly the Iranians have had the capability since the revolution in 1979 to assassinate members of the opposition in Europe, which they did in the 1980s. The question now is intent. ... Do they want to do this?"
Iran denied that it had anything to do with the plot and demanded an apology. But just months later, there were other suspicious episodes that suggested that the intelligence community's concern about Iran was well placed.
In February, two bombs exploded in India and the country of Georgia, and they appeared to be targeting Israeli diplomats. It is unclear who was responsible, but India issued warrants for three Iranian citizens. They stood accused of helping several men attach a magnetic bomb to the back of an Israeli diplomatic vehicle in New Delhi. The same day, a similar attack was launched against an Israeli diplomat in Georgia. Again, the Iranians denied any involvement.
Mudd says he's suspicious.
"When I saw those attacks, to me the light that went on in my head was the intent light. Iran's intent is back," he says.
Now a senior adviser at the consulting group Oxford Analytica, Mudd says that after years of relatively low-level operations by Iranian-backed terrorists, Teheran appears to be back on the offensive.
"There is no way you conduct that number of attacks without having senior leadership saying this is what we want to do," he says. "So, that's a problem." And that goes a long way toward explaining why Iran is fast becoming such a priority in the U.S. intelligence community.
Not A New Problem
To be sure, this is a problem with some history. Iran assassinated political opponents in Europe in the 1980s. Closer to home, the Justice Department has long suspected that Iran was behind the 1996 truck bombing of a U.S. military dormitory in Saudi Arabia known as the Khobar Towers.
The U.S. government handed down more than a dozen indictments in that case in June 2001, and specifically said it would continue the investigation to track down just how the Iranian government was involved. But just months later, the Sept. 11 attacks happened, priorities changed overnight, and al-Qaida became the focus. U.S. officials say the pendulum is starting to swing back again in the direction of state-sponsored terrorism.
"There is no question in the current environment, with a diminished al-Qaida core, that state sponsorship and in particular Iranian state sponsorship grows in relevance and importance for counterterrorism officials," says Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"And that will be a major focus over the next couple of years," Zarate says. "The challenge is that going after state-sponsored terrorist organizations, especially those that are well-funded and well-organized and sponsored by Iran, is a very different proposition than chasing a metastasized nonstate network like al-Qaida. It takes a different set of skills."
The difference is that al-Qaida, while hiding out in third-world countries, was brazen in its attacks. They were showy plots for which the group proudly took credit. Iran, on the other hand, has been known to use proxies and groups like Hezbollah to launch attacks that are difficult to trace back to their source.
So the blunt instruments that worked so well in dismantling al-Qaida — like drone strikes — won't work on this kind of terrorism, says Brian Fishman, a terrorism fellow at the New America Foundation.
"If you're going to deal with state-sponsored terrorism, what you need is not just those drones but very skilled operators," says Fishman. "You need people who can insert themselves into a wide range of societies and wide range of organizations and networks to gather intelligence and in some cases operate offensively against these kinds of groups."
Put simply, analysts say the U.S. will have to go back to basics. They will need to find ways to collect better human intelligence, recruit more spies inside Iran, and use the carrots and brickbats of diplomacy and sanctions. The trick, they say, will be adding those methods to the tools the U.S. has developed fighting al-Qaida.
"The way the U.S. government chases people now is light years different than it was a decade ago," says Mudd. "The capabilities we have now to look at data and understand an adversary, the kind of data that let us break foreign fighter networks in Iraq, I think some of those skills will really come into play if we have to deal with the Iran problem."
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