updated 1/31/2012 1:29:57 PM ET 2012-01-31T18:29:57

Al-Qaida is in decline around the world but is still a leading threat to the United States, the top U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday in an annual report to Congress on threats facing the country.

Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper also told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran's leaders seem prepared to attack U.S. interests overseas, particularly if they feel threatened by possible U.S. action.

The U. S. now faces many interconnected enemies, including terrorists, criminals and foreign powers, who may try to strike via nuclear weapons or cyberspace, with the movement's Yemeni offshoot and "lone wolf" terror attacks posing key threats, he said.

But while al-Qaida still aspires to strike the U.S., it will likely have to go for "smaller, simpler attacks" as its ranks are thinned by continued pressure from U.S. drone strikes and special operations raids since Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of Navy SEALs in Pakistan last year.

"We judge that al-Qaida's losses are so substantial and its operating environment so restricted that a new group of leaders, even if they could be found, would have difficulty integrating into the organization and compensating for mounting losses," Clapper said.

The intelligence community predicts that al-Qaida's regional affiliates - from the Yemeni offshoot al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to Somalia's al-Shabaab - will "surpass the remnants of core al-Qaida in Pakistan," and try to attack "Western targets in its operating area." The Yemeni branch of al-Qaida remains the most likely affiliate to try to attack the U.S. homeland, he added.

The U.S. continues to put pressure on the Yemeni offshoot, and on Monday mounted airstrikes targeting al-Qaida leaders there, killing at least four suspected militants, according to Yemeni and military officials.

Just below al-Qaida on the list of threats comes the possibility of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, from chemical and biological, to nuclear and radiological. The intelligence community does not believe states that possess them have supplied them to terror groups, but that remains a risk.

'Keeping open the option'
Iran has the technical ability to build a nuclear weapon, but simply hasn't decided to yet, Clapper said.

"We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons," Clapper said.

Citing last year's thwarted Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in the U.S., "some Iranian officials - probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ... are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime," Clapper said.

The North Korean nuclear weapons program is a continued threat to global security, though the program is intended for self-defense, his assessment states: "We judge that North Korea would consider using nuclear weapons only under narrow circumstances" and "probably would not attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or territory, unless it perceived its regime to be on the verge of military defeat and risked an irretrievable loss of control."

China and Russia remain the key threats to the U.S. in cyber-space, with "entities" in both countries "responsible for extensive illicit intrusions into US computer networks and theft of US intellectual property," though Iran is also a player, Clapper said.

He warned of growing cyber-espionage by foreign governments against U.S. government and businesses, and said many such intrusions are not being detected.

Insider threats are another category of risk, in which disgruntled employees like accused Army soldier Bradley Manning allegedly leak information to the public or sell it to competing corporations or nations.

The annual threat assessment looked further afield to places like Afghanistan, where it assessed the Afghan government's progress as fragile, and the Taliban as "resilient." The group is less able to intimidate the Afghan population that last year, especially in areas where NATO forces are concentrated, but its leaders continue to direct the insurgency from their safe haven in Pakistan, the report said.

The continent of Africa got one of the grimmest reviews. Africa remains "vulnerable to political crises, democratic backsliding, and natural disasters." Violence, corruption and terrorism are likely to plague Africa in areas key to U.S. interests, the review said, with unresolved discord between Sudan and South Sudan, continued fighting in Somalia, and extremist attacks in Nigeria.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Report: Iran willing to attack inside US

  1. Closed captioning of: Report: Iran willing to attack inside US

    >> u.s. intelligence showing increasing concern today that the nuclear threat is only part of the real threat that tehran maying embracing plots to attack american assets around the world. we have bruce with us. let's take it point by point, because we had all the intelligence officials testifying their semiannual threat assessment to the senate intelligence committee today. first of all, iran and the nuclear threat and what israel may or may not be doing. what is your sense from everything that you have gleaned from officials about where israel is and why we are hearing so much noise from israel and forces about the polli ipossibility of military action .

    >> i think that there are some that fear the window of opportunity to do something about iran's nuclear program is getting smaller and smaller and the time for action, if there's to be military action , is getting shorter and shorter. the u.s. intelligence committee's assessment argued that the real question in iran today is whether tehran has the political will to make a bomb. not whether it has the technical capability to do so. most of the technical capability is in place there already. so it's a question of will and that puts more pressure on israel to make its mind up about what it's going to do about iran passing the nuclear threshold.

    >> and would israel , first of all, act without the united states ?

    >> well, we have a long history, the israel military activities and in very, very few cases has israel come to the united states ahead of time and asked for permission to act. the number of cases where israel has decided to go on its own are much higher than that, against iraq in 1981 and against the palestinians this many occasions and against lebanon in 2006 . we are close allies and they will listen to the united states . if they get a no don't do it, that is something that they would have to think about long and carefully. if they get anything else, i see israel will probably make its own decision and calculate that the united states will come along afterwards.

    >> general petraious was asked what our red line is.

    >> if there's a decision to enrich beyond the 20% that they are currently enriching to, to the weapons grade , that would be very significant. there's no commercial use for that. argue ably, in fact not arguably, in fact the amount of 20% enriched uranium that they have exceeds any need for the reactor for the foreseeable future.

    >> which is making your point. that they now have the capability to do almost anything that they want. the leap from 20% enrichment to 90% enrichment is not a big deal technologically. israel and the u.s. most likely or some combination have covertly slowed them down. we have seen five scientists assassinated and the computer virus , it seems from my reporting and you are saying, that israel is getting close to a decision that you cannot really accomplish that covertly and for the prime minister and for the defense minister , the former prime minister, this is a threat. the other thing that petraious said and senator feinstein said that they met with the leader, and they met with the ma saud leader, they are getting the direct line from israel that this thing is heating up

    >> the israel government is clearly very worried. but it's important to note that there's a heated debate within israel , there's former senior government officials , including the last three heads, have all said that they think military action against iran is a mistake and that it will be more counter productive than productive. and that israel does not face a threat from the iranian nuclear problem, it faces a serious threat but israel has the means to protect itself. one of the things you the did not hear the american intelligence community talk about today because it never does is israel 's nuclear deterrent which is quite formidable.

    >> even though there's debate, israel public opinion is divided 50/50, the fact is that the leaders are ina agreement on the harder line on this. one more thing, the retaliation that iran would take against the u.s., it u.s. assets and what was said today that iran will take action on u.s. soil, they are coming to that action, and other plots were foiled and there could be attacks against u.s. interests in the united states ?

    >> in fact, the united states is far more vulnerable than israel , israel is relatively small. getting at israel is hard to do and it has formidable defenses for it. america has assets and vulnerablities around the world. here at home, we saw an plot to set up a bomb in washington. in the middle east , through 90,000 american soldiers in afghanistan, immediately next to iran . iran could heat up the war in afghanistan quickly and make obama's war there very, very difficult to succeed in if it chose to counter an american israel attack on iran by going after our softer, vulnerable places.

    >> that is the scary part indeed. thank you bruce.

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