Brennan: Al Qaeda remains as threat despite Islamic State rise
AUSTIN, TEXAS | Osama bin Laden’s original al Qaeda network remains a major long-term national security threat and could surge back into global prominence even as the appeal of the newer, rival Islamic State movement spreads in the heart of the Middle East, CIA Director John Brennan said Tuesday.
But while it would only take one grand operation to launch the so-called “al Qaeda prime” back into the global spotlight, Mr. Brennan warned that it is the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or Daesh, that has established itself as “the epitome of a cancer that’s metastasizing.”
Mr. Brennan offered the analogy during a roundtable chat with reporters gathered at the University of Texas at Austin — his graduate school alma mater — where he and other U.S. intelligence leaders are converging this week to mark the release of thousands of classified intelligence briefs dating back to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
The release, to take place on Wednesday afternoon, marks the first time the CIA has ever declassified so-called “Presidential Daily Briefs” en masse.
In wide-ranging remarks in a quiet corner room of the University of Texas’ alumni center, the CIA directorsaid it is difficult to say which group — al Qaeda under bin Laden successor Ayman alZawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State — presents a greater overall threat to U.S. national security.
“You cannot really address that question with an either/or answer,” Mr. Brennan said. “Clearly al Qaeda, because of what it has done over the years, still represents a significant threat.”
The group’s overall capability has been seriously degraded by U.S. and international strikes over the past decade, but “sometimes it only takes one operation to launch it back into prominence,” he said. “At the same time, ISIL, or Daesh, I consider to be more of a phenomenon than just simply a terrorist organization, because it has a very broad swath of presence, not just in Iraq and Syria, but its franchises are popping up in a number of places.”
He compared Islamic State to “a very dangerous water leak that is moving, and there needs to be resistance to stop that leak from growing,” adding, “this phenomenon has galvanized international cooperation in ways that I haven’t seen before.”
Mr. Brennan said two separate alZawahiri audio recordings that have circulated on jihadi websites in recent days, in which the al Qaeda leader called for followers to pursue “lone wolf” attacks in the West, showed that al Qaeda is “still a leading force.”
In one of the recordings, al-Zawahiri made an explicit appeal for unity between rival jihadi groups worldwide, shedding new light on the complex relations between al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Mr. Brennan said that while “there is significant competition” between the two groups, he was unsurprised by the call for unity, because “an emphasis of al Qaeda throughout the course of its history has been that Muslims — they call themselves Muslims — should unite as part of what they see as a holy jihad.”
“That call for unity has always been part of al Qaeda’s mantra,” he said. “I think they point to Baghdadi and Daesh as being almost an aberration and as not being, in fact, true to the cause.”
“What [al-Zawahiri], I think, is saying is that there needs to be the unification of these efforts under the rightful sort of banner of al Qaeda.”
Mr. Brennan’s comments suggest the CIA’s view may be that the al Qaeda leader is positioning himself to capitalize on al-Baghdadi’s success as a jihadi recruiter. Once al-Baghdadi is ultimately killed by a U.S. or allied airstrike, the theory goes, al Qaeda will be there to swoop in and claim the loyalty of tens of thousands of foreign fighters and other young jihadis who’ve flocked to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State during the past year.