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 an crowd here Saturday.
Jacoby spoke on a wide range of issues during a talk at the Aspen Security Forum, ranging from military response to natural disaster to the effectiveness of America's missile defense system.
As head of the Peterson Air Force base Command, Jacoby is responsible for protecting North America from attack and providing Defense Department help to local authorities in cases of disasters including the 2012 and 2013 fires that hit El Paso County.
Like many panelists at the annual weekend gathering, Jacoby circled back to Iraq, Syria and the chaos brought by extremists have conquered a wise stateless swath of that region.
"We have made great progress against core of al-Qaida, but the organization is continuing to adapt," Jacoby said, noting that the group behind the 9/11 attacks remains the top world's terror threat.
The fear is that with chaos in the Middle East, 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 when President Barack Obama was contemplating a military strike in Iraq earlier 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 playing a key role in dealing with a wave of immigrant children hitting the southern border of the United States. Jacoby said key factor pushing parents to send their children north from central American 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 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 tide of children.
One possibility: Beefing up help to Mexico to secure that nation's southern border, which the children cross while traveling from El Salvador and Guatemala. The Mexicans 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 long term key to bringing security to Mexico and America's southern border is to take on drug cartels responsible for violence and movement of refugees with some of same tools used to fight terrorism.
Jacoby explained that America's main focus for decades is interdiction of drugs before they cross the border. 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."
That would mean bringing American intelligence to bear while supporting international partners with American police 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. 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 Mexican military leaders, including the Northern Command-sponsored training of 5,000 Mexican troops.
Away from external threats, Jacoby said after the speech 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 decade-long plan to cut $900 billion in spending.
Jacoby said his command has weathered cuts so far. The fear is that as cuts continue, the command won't have enough troops, planes and anti-missile missiles to defend America.
Congress is still mulling the 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.