In a recent closed-door meeting with leaders of the agency’s counter-terrorism centre, the CIA No. 2 officer clarified that fighting al-Qaeda and other extremist groups would remain a priority but that the agency’s money and resources would be increasingly shifted to focusing on China.
The CIA drone strike that killed the al-Qaeda leader showed that fighting terrorism was hardly a thought. But that didn’t change the message the agency’s deputy director, David Cohen, delivered at that meeting weeks earlier: While the U.S. will continue to go after terrorists, the top priority is trying to understand and counter Beijing.
A year after the war in Afghanistan ended, President Joe Biden and top national security officials spoke less about terrorism and the political, economic and military threats posed by China and Russia. There has been a quiet pivot within intelligence agencies, moving hundreds of officers to China-focused positions, including some previously working on terrorism.
The last week makes clear that the U.S. has to deal with both simultaneously. Days after Ayman al-Zawahri was killed in Kabul, China staged large-scale military exercises and threatened to cut off contacts with the U.S. over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
The U.S. has long been alarmed by China’s growing political and economic ambitions. China has tried to influence foreign elections, mounted cyber and corporate espionage campaigns, and detained millions of minority Uyghurs in camps. Some experts also think Beijing will try to seize the self-ruled democratic island of Taiwan in the coming years by force.
Intelligence officials have said they need more insights on China after being unable to pinpoint the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic definitively. Beijing has been accused of withholding information about the origins of the virus.
And the war in Ukraine has underscored Russia’s importance as a target. The U.S. used declassified information to expose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plans before the invasion and rally diplomatic support for Kyiv.
Supporters of the Biden administration approach note that the U.S. was able to track and kill al-Zawahri is evidence of its capabilities to target threats in Afghanistan from abroad. Critics say that al-Zawahri was living in Kabul under the apparent protection of the Taliban, suggesting a resurgence of extremist groups that America is ill-equipped to counter.
The shift in priorities is supported by many former intelligence officers and lawmakers from both parties who say it’s overdue. That includes people who served in Afghanistan and other missions against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he believed the U.S. had been overly focused on counterterrorism over the last several years.
“A far greater existential threat is Russia and China,” said Crow, a Colorado Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees. Terrorist groups, he said, “will not destroy the American way of life … the way China can.”