ASPEN - Chaos in the Middle East means an increased threat of terrorist attacks on American soil, U.S. Northern Command chief Gen. Chuck Jacoby told a crowd Saturday.
Jacoby covered a range of issues during his talk at the Aspen Security Forum, from military response to natural disasters to the effectiveness of America's missile defense system.
As head of Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Jacoby is responsible for protecting North America from attack and providing Defense Department help to local authorities during disasters such as the wildfires in 2012 and 2013 in El Paso County.
Like many panelists at the annual weekend gathering, Jacoby discussed Iraq, Syria and the chaos brought by extremists who have conquered a wide stateless swath of the surrounding region.
"We have made great progress against the core of al-Qaida, but the organization is continuing to adapt," Jacoby said, noting that the group behind the 9/11 attacks remains the world's top terror threat.
The fear is that al-Qaida will see a resurgence and violence half a world away will spill to American cities.
"We're more concerned than we were last year because of Syria and Iraq," he said.
How concerned? Jacoby said that when President Barack Obama was contemplating a military strike in Iraq this year, his command went on high alert for a retaliatory terrorist strike at home.
Jacoby said that U.S. commanders must expect a strike on America, from computer attacks to bombs, for all future military actions overseas.
"I just can't see a major conflict where action we decided to take overseas didn't create a reflection at home," he said.
Jacoby's command is now helping officials deal with a wave of immigrant children crossing the southern border of the United States. Jacoby said a key factor pushing parents to send their children north from Central America is a pattern of violence and lawlessness fueled by drug cartels, which profit by shipping the children of terrified parents to the American border for a fee.
"Unaccompanied children, that's just a product to exploit," Jacoby said.
Northern Command has worked with the federal Department of Health and Human Services to provide housing for thousands of the immigrant children on several military bases.
"Our mission is to take care of kids," Jacoby said, noting the health agency is providing oversight while the military is providing the rooms.
Northern Command could be poised to do more to stem the tide of children crossing the border. Jacoby is preparing a report for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on what services the command could provide to help secure the border and deal with the children.
One possibility: helping Mexico secure its southern border, which immigrants cross while traveling from El Salvador and Guatemala toward the United States. Mexican officials have made inquiries about American help, he said.
"We're absolutely willing to do that and eager to do that," Jacoby said.
Jacoby said a key to bringing security to the borders of Mexico and the United States is to take on drug cartels responsible for violence and movement of refugees with some of the same tools used to fight terrorism.
For decades, the United States has focused on stopping the shipment of drugs across its border, Jacoby said. Instead, Jacoby would go after cartels as an international criminal network.
"It is a network and it is a complex network, and they are interconnected criminal organizations," Jacoby said. "We have learned that the best way to fight a network is with a network."
It would take U.S. intelligence work and support for international law enforcement agencies to take down the organizations, from the mob bosses to the financiers, he said.
Building that kind of relationship with Mexico was out of the question just a few years ago, he said. Old scars and cross-border suspicions kept relations with the Mexican military frosty until 2006.
Jacoby said Northern Command has made strides in the past three years in working with Mexican military leaders, including the Northern Command-sponsored training of 5,000 Mexican troops.
After the speech, Jacoby said that he fears one big internal threat: massive budget cuts that would carve $52 billion from the Defense Department unless Congress acts.
The Defense Department is in the second year of a decadelong plan to cut $900 billion in spending.
Jacoby said his command has weathered cuts, but he believes further cuts could leave the command with too few troops, planes and anti-missile missiles to defend America.
Congress is mulling future cuts.
Jacoby is expected to hand over the reins of the command this fall to Navy Adm. William Gortney.
His next stop, the general said, isn't far from his last one. He intends to stay in Colorado Springs.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240