Tomorrow Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, is going to give the Senate Armed Services Committee a briefing on the threats facing the country. What he’s going to say is pretty clear, since he already told the Senate intelligence committee last month that the global economic disaster has replaced terrorism as the U.S.’s number-one danger. But here’s the thing: is it really either/or?

Al Qaeda has never believed it could actually defeat the U.S. at so much as a ping-pong match. What it looks to do instead is lure the U.S. into strategically untenable situations in which the U.S. arouses widespread Muslim anger and experiences too much military pain at too high an economic price to justify a continued presence on the Arabian peninsula. We know this because, like, Osama bin Laden says it. It’s worked to some degree — a couple of years ago this country, like a less-self-aware Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, went out of its mind and invaded and occupied Iraq — but nowhere near sufficiently, as the U.S. will undoubtedly retain an on-shore presence in the Peninsula, and much of the Arab world won’t really care so much. Could the economic crisis be an opportunity for Al Qaeda?

Via the Counterterrorism Blog, over at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, Richard Barrett, the United Nations’ point person for monitoring Al Qaeda and Taliban finances, has a short and interesting overview of the nexus between Al Qaeda and economic disaster. He says that Al Qaeda wants to claim credit for it. Were Bernie Madoff or AIG actually sleeper agents?

Al-Qaeda’s focus on economic targets will likely sharpen under the current economic conditions, prompting more strikes on oil facilities on land or against ships at sea — a capability already demonstrated by the attack on a French tanker off the coast of Yemen in October 2002.

On the one hand, the last such successful major attack on an oil tanker was probably that French-tanker assault; and the economic crunch will also affect al-Qaeda’s fundraising. Barrett warns that the flip side of this is that counterterrorism program budgets are going to come under pressure due to depleted government coffers, something he warns against. Then he makes this interesting point:

The private sector plays a pivotal, frontline role in countering terrorism financing, as well as in post-incident investigations. Banks know more about their clients than any other professional body: they know how, where, and when their clients get their money, as well as how, where, and when they spend it. Without bank cooperation, counterterrorism work would be far more difficult and less successful.

You know what would make bank cooperation a lot easier? Nationalization. Come on, it’s your patriotic duty.

Crossposted to The Streak.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman