Bren­nan: Al Qaeda re­mains as threat de­spite Is­lamic State rise

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY GUY TAY­LOR

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.

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