Gaza war may stoke ‘generational’ terrorism threat, top intel official says

Gaza war may stoke ‘generational’ terrorism threat, top intel official says

The top U.S. intelligence official on Monday warned that the war in Gaza could embolden terrorist groups, which are aligned in their opposition to the United States for its support of Israel.

“The crisis has galvanized violence by a range of actors around the world. And while it is too early to tell, it is likely that the Gaza conflict will have a generational impact on terrorism,” Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, told an annual hearing on global security threats.

The Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas has inspired fresh threats to the United States by al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated groups, Haines said, while Iranian-backed militant groups have used “the conflict as an opportunity to pursue their own agenda” against the United States. “And we have seen how it is inspiring individuals to conduct acts of antisemitism and Islamophobic terror worldwide,” she added.

U.S. officials say more than 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in an interview Sunday with Axel Springer, the parent company of Politico, that Israel had killed approximately 13,000 Palestinian fighters, a claim that could not be independently verified.

The hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee is the rare occasion when the top leaders of the major U.S. intelligence agencies testify in an open hearing about a range of global challenges and hotspots. Their testimony was accompanied by the release of an annual report from the intelligence community.

“The Gaza conflict is posing a challenge to many key Arab partners, who face public sentiment against Israel and the United States for the death and destruction in Gaza, but also see the United States as the power broker best positioned to deter further aggression and end the conflict before it spreads deeper into the region,” the report stated.

CIA Director William J. Burns updated lawmakers on negotiations for a cease-fire in Gaza, which would be accompanied by an influx of humanitarian aid and the release of hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

Burns, who has traveled to the Middle East eight times in recent months as the administration’s point person in talks to free more than 100 hostages still in Gaza, returned from his latest negotiating session in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday night. He spoke with measured hope that the cease-fire agreement could be “the first step toward what might be more enduring arrangements over time.”

“I don’t think anybody can guarantee success,” he added. “What I think you can guarantee is that the alternatives are worse for innocent civilians in Gaza who are suffering under desperate conditions, for the hostages and their families who are suffering, also under very desperate conditions, and for all of us.”

The intelligence officials tried to steer clear of the debate over the war that has roiled U.S. politics and put the Biden administration in the difficult position of supporting an ally that faces growing condemnation from the United Nations and international human rights groups, as well as liberal American voters, over the war’s civilian death toll and creeping famine. The White House has warned Israel not to move its operations into the city of Rafah, along the border with Egypt in Gaza’s far south. Israeli forces see the city — where as many as 1.5 million Palestinians have gathered, fleeing bombardment — as a last bastion of Hamas fighters that they must neutralize.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a stalwart backer of Israel, prodded Burns and Haines to refute critics’ allegations that Israel is “exterminating the Palestinian people” with its military campaign.

The officials declined to do so. Burns said that while the administration understands “Israel’s need” to respond to the brutal attack it suffered on Oct. 7, “I think we all also have to be mindful of the enormous toll that this has taken on innocent civilians in Gaza.”

“Is Israel starving children in Palestine, or Gaza?” Cotton asked, apparently referring to reports by the United Nations and humanitarian aid organizations, as well as some Democratic lawmakers, that Israel’s refusal to allow the necessary volume of food aid into Gaza is causing a preventable famine.

“The reality is that there are children who are starving,” Burns said. “They’re malnourished, as a result of the fact that humanitarian assistance can’t get to them. It’s very difficult to distribute humanitarian assistance effectively, unless you have a cease-fire.”

The witnesses, who included the directors of the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, spoke about a panoply of challenges, from an ambitious China to the proliferation of artificial intelligence and the continuing threat of cyberespionage and warfare. Brett Holmgren, the State Department’s top intelligence official, said that the power of AI could “lower the barrier” for U.S. adversaries to engage in election interference.

Burns minced no words on the importance of U.S. assistance to Ukraine, which is currently stalled amid a divisive debate on Capitol Hill.

With a steady supply of U.S.-provided military equipment, “Ukraine can hold its own on the front line from 2024 and into 2025,” Burns said. Kyiv could continue deep strikes into Russia and also conduct operations against Russia’s naval forces in the Black Sea, putting Ukrainian forces in a position potentially “to regain the offensive initiative” early next year, he added.

But Ukraine faces “a much grimmer future” should that aid not arrive, and would probably “lose significant ground” to Russia, Burns said.

“That would be a massive and historic mistake for the United States,” he said. What’s more, failure to help defend Ukraine would “stoke the ambitions of the Chinese leadership” to make aggressive moves on Taiwan, Burns added.

“The Ukrainians are not running out of courage and tenacity. They’re running out of ammunition. And we’re running out of time to help them,” Burns said.

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