WASHINGTON -- Top defense officials Tuesday told a Senate counterterrorism subcommittee that al-Qaeda is the biggest national security threat to the U.S., but Sen. John McCain criticized their assessment of al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria.
McCain, who arrived late to the hearing, called Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet “uninformed” for his intelligence of al-Qaeda’s hold in Islamic countries, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
“Answer the question,” McCain said Tuesday during the hearing, “Is al-Qaeda gaining traction and influence in Syria?” He asked the question of each of the three witnesses -- Chollet, Assistant Secretary Michael Sheehan and Adm. William McRaven, commander of the United States Special Operations Command.
Sheehan eventually responded by saying al-Qaeda was “marginally” gaining traction, prompting McCain to fire back: “Marginally?”
McCain told Sheehan and Chollet that they should visit a refugee camp in Syria so they could see for themselves the conditions of the wounded and displaced.
Prior to McCain’s outburst, Sheehan, Chollet and McRaven were providing the committee members with what their assessment of national security threats.
While al-Qaeda survives mainly in the mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, “al-Qaeda and its affiliates are also evolving to exploit opportunities and fragile environments in Africa and the Middle East brought on by the unrest there over the last several years,” Sheehan said.
To successfully conquer al-Qaeda, Sheehan said, the U.S. must develop lasting relationships with capable groups in host nations so that “we can ensure agile and capable response to a range of contingencies.”
Sheehan said the biggest thing the United States can do is to deny space and sanctuary to al-Qaida by making sure other nations do not succumb to the terrorist group’s pressure, saying they will continue to use “security force assistance” as a strategy to combat terrorism. Security force assistance is often conducted by special operation forces, or highly trained specialists who are deployed all over the world.
“We are confident that SOF will provide our national policy leaders a steady and established option to engage – consistent with our national and defense strategies – with low footprint and a focus on enabling our partners,” Sheehan said in a joint statement with Chollet.