WASHINGTON — The war in Iraq is creating a training and recruitment ground for a new generation of "professionalized" Islamic terrorists, and the risk of a terrorist attack involving a germ weapon is steadily growing, an in-house CIA think tank said in a report released Thursday.
The "dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq" to other countries will create a new threat in the coming 15 years, especially as the Al Qaeda network mutates into a volatile brew of independent extremist groups, cells and individuals, according to the report by the National Intelligence Council.
David B. Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats, said those who survived the Iraq war would pose a threat when they went home, "even under the best of scenarios."
But broader trends are likely to overshadow terrorism on the world stage.
Most important, India and China increasingly will flex powerful political and economic muscles as major new global players by 2020, said the council, which likened the rise of the two countries to the emergence of the United States as a world power a century ago.
The two nuclear-armed Asian giants — one a vibrant democracy, the other a one-party state — will "transform the geopolitical landscape" because of their robust economic growth, expanding military capabilities and large populations, the council predicted.
"The rise of these new powers is a virtual certainty," the council said in the report, titled "Mapping the Global Future."
Partly as a result, the council expects the world economy to be about 80% larger than in 2000, and per capita income 50% higher.
The bad news: The United States "will see its relative power position eroded" and the world will face a "more pervasive sense of insecurity" from terrorism, the spread of unconventional weapons and political upheaval that could reverse recent democratic gains in parts of Central and Southeast Asia.
"Weak governments, lagging economies, religious extremism and youth bulges will align to create a perfect storm for internal conflict in some areas," the authors warned. "Our greatest concern is that terrorists might acquire biological agents, or less likely, a nuclear device, either of which could cause mass casualties."
The 119-page report is intended to help the White House and other policymakers prepare for probable challenges by tracing how key trends may develop and influence world events over the next 15 years.
"It's designed to stimulate thought," Robert L. Hutchings, chairman of the council, said at a news briefing at CIA headquarters.
Although few of the forecasts come as surprises, Hutchings said the authors sought to challenge conventional thinking.
"Linear analysis will get you a much-changed caterpillar," he said, "but it won't get you a butterfly. For that you need a leap of imagination. We hope this
will help us make that leap."
The report, the third in a project launched in the mid-1990s, is based on the thinking and comments of more than 1,000 U.S. and foreign experts who participated in more than 30 conferences and workshops over the last year. The text and a computer simulation of possible scenarios are available online at http://www.cia.gov/nic .
The United States will retain enormous advantages and will continue to play a pivotal role in economic, political and military affairs, the report concludes. But Washington "may be increasingly confronted" with managing fast-shifting international relations and alignments.
Washington probably will face "dramatically altered alliances and relations with Europe and Asia," for example, with the European Union increasingly supplanting NATO on the world stage.
The United Nations and international financial institutions "risk sliding into obsolescence unless they adjust" to the changes in the global system, the authors wrote.
"While no single power looks within striking distance of rivaling U.S. military power by 2020, more countries will be in a position to make the United States pay a heavy price for any military action they oppose," they said.
Suspected possession of unconventional weapons by Iran, North Korea and perhaps others will "also increase the potential cost of any military action" by U.S. forces.
But the likelihood that a local conflict could escalate into a total war or nuclear exchange is "lower than at any time in the past century."
© Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times