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Feb. 26, 2015
Notes from the Pentagon

State Department doubts mall terror threat
A recent threat by the al Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group al-Shabab to attack shopping malls in Europe and the Mall of America in Minnesota was not credible, according to an internal State Department security report.

The threat was based on an al-Shabab video released Friday through Twitter that said the group would conduct shooting attacks at seven “American or Jewish-owned shopping centers across the world.” The attacks would be similar to the slaughter in September 2013 at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, where 71 people were killed by 10 to 15 al-Shabab terrorists.

In addition to the Mall of America, the largest shopping center in the United States, others said to be targeted included the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta; the Oxford Street, Westfield London and Westfield Stratford malls in London; and two Paris malls, the Les Quatre Temps and the Forum des Halles.

The report said the video and threats appeared to be attempts by al-Shabab to recapture the spotlight from the Islamic State spreading from Syria and Iraq to Libya and Afghanistan.

“When it comes to influence abroad, al-Shabab’s success has been limited to the recruitment of foreign fighters from countries in the West; however, the group has never conducted an attack outside of East Africa, leaving the likelihood of a successful al-Shabab attack outside of the region questionable at best,” said the report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a State Department-sponsored security group that supports U.S. businesses overseas.

The report contradicts statements by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who said Sunday that he takes the al-Shabab threat seriously.

“Anytime a terrorist organization calls for an attack on a specific place, we’ve got to take that seriously,” Mr. Johnson told CNN in an apparent bid to lobby for congressional funding for his agency. “So, through our intelligence bulletins, through working with state and local law enforcement, through working with the FBI, we take this kind of thing very seriously.”

Congress is holding up funding for the Department of Homeland Security to oppose President Obama’s amnesty plan for illegal immigrants.

The State Department report said U.S. drone strikes against al-Shabab leaders have resulted in “significant” weakening of the group.

Ahmed Abdi Godane, the group’s leader, was killed in a September drone strike, and in late December, Abdishakur Tahlil, an al-Shabab intelligence chief, was killed in a drone attack. In early February, the al-Shabab chief of external operations and planning, Yusef Dheeq, and other senior leaders were killed in a drone strike.

The strength of America’s strategic nuclear forces is marginal, and weapons and infrastructure need greater funding and new policies for modernization, according to a report on U.S. military capabilities.

“The common theme across the services and the United States’ nuclear enterprise is one of force degradation resulting from many years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration (i.e., cuts in funding) on readiness and capacity,” the report by The Heritage Foundation states.

The 330-page report, released Tuesday, identifies major problems in U.S. nuclear forces, which are needed to deter states like China and Russia and extend deterrence to U.S. allies in Asia and Europe.

“Modernization, testing, and investment in the intellectual/talent underpinnings of this sector are the chief elements plaguing the United States’ nuclear enterprise,” the report says. “Its delivery platforms are good, but the force depends on a very limited set of weapons (in number of designs) and models that are quite old, in stark contrast to the aggressive programs of competitor states.”

While U.S. nuclear forces are declining, Russia and China are building up their nuclear forces.

Marine Corps. Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress this month that Russia has placed its highest priority on building up and maintaining strategic nuclear forces.

“Priorities for the strategic nuclear forces include the modernization of its road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles and upgrades to strategic forces’ command and control facilities,” Gen. Stewart said in a world threat briefing. “In the next year, Russia will field more road-mobile SS-27 Mod-2 ICBMs with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.”

Other Russian nuclear force improvements include development of the RS-26 ballistic missile, which has been identified as a violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and the Dolgorukiy ballistic missile submarine and its SS-N-32 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile. Russia also is building advanced air- and ground-launched cruise missiles.

China is building up its nuclear forces with new road-mobile missiles and nuclear-missile submarines.

“China is adding more survivable road-mobile systems, enhancing its silo-based systems and developing a sea-based nuclear deterrent,” Gen. Stewart said.

The Heritage report, “2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength: Assessing America’s Ability to Provide for the Common Defense,” grades U.S. nuclear forces as marginal on a 5-point scale ranging from very week to very strong.

The report warns that the consensus in Congress for funding nuclear weapons modernization has begun to unravel.

The administration promised to invest $85 billion for modernization prior to Senate ratification in 2010 of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

But because of defense cuts under the Budget Control Act and increased costs for nuclear infrastructure and bomb life-extension programs, “the [Obama] administration’s budget requests since 2010 have not reflected the commitment to fully fund key nuclear programs on the schedule that it specified to the Senate in November 2010,” the report states.

Congress has gone along with the funding delays and some program cancellations. The report quotes Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s acting undersecretary for arms control and international security, as saying: “We’re not modernizing. We’re not modernizing. That is one of the basic, basic, I would say, principles and rules that have really been part of our nuclear posture view and part of the policy.”

A policy of banning development of modern nuclear warheads also is weakening U.S. strategic forces.

“These policies will also make it more difficult to preserve the agility within the United States’ knowledge and technology base that is necessary to adjust rapidly to surprise developments in other nations’ nuclear weapons programs,” the report says. “The U.S. will continue to face challenges presented by its aging stockpile, a lack of funding for nuclear weapons modernization and infrastructure recapitalization, and policy constraints on yield-producing experiments.”

China’s development of anti-satellite weapons is destabilizing and threatens strategic U.S. systems used in communication, navigation and intelligence-gathering, according to a State Department arms control official.

Frank A. Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, said the United States would not cooperate with China on its space program until Beijing halts its anti-satellite weapons activities.

“The continued development and testing of destructive ASAT systems is both destabilizing and threatens the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment,” Mr. Rose said, noting that Beijing’s 2007 ASAT test created thousands of pieces of dangerous floating space debris.

Space systems provide a wide range of services including communications, navigation, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and meteorology — producing what Mr. Rose said are vital national, military, civil, scientific and economic benefits.

Without mentioning China, Mr. Rose said other nations understand the strategic benefits of space systems and are seeking “to counter the U.S. strategic advantage by pursuing capabilities to deny or destroy our access to space services.”

The use of space arms could produce an escalation of conflict, he warned.

The Chinese ASAT weapons program is preventing closer space cooperation, he added, noting that a step-by-step approach to space cooperation is possible only if “China changes its behavior with regard to ASATs.” He did not elaborate.

In the Friday speech, Mr. Rose said China’s recent test of a ballistic missile defense system was in fact an anti-satellite weapons test.

China’s missile defenses are among the more secret elements of China’s military buildup, Mr. Rose said, noting that a 2014 missile defense test was in fact an anti-satellite missile test.

“On July 23, 2014, the Chinese government conducted a nondestructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites in low Earth orbit,” he said. “However, China publicly called this ASAT test a ‘land-based missile interception test.’”

Mr. Rose said the Chinese statement was a lie and that the U.S. government has confidence that the deceptive weapons experiment was “indeed an ASAT test.”

The United States wants a “frank and open dialogue” with China on nuclear issues, Mr. Rose said.

China has refused to engage the United States in talks on nuclear arms over concerns that such talks would reveal secrets that China believes could undermine its nuclear deterrent.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

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