Is­lamic State ‘cadre’ pre­pares to at­tack West, Bren­nan says

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

The Is­lamic State has “a large cadre of Western fighters” who could carry out at­tacks in the U.S. and Europe, CIA Direc­tor John O. Bren­nan said last week in a sober­ing — at times pes­simistic — as­sess­ment of the threat fac­ing the U.S. and its al­lies just days af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tack in Or­lando, Florida.

Mr. Bren­nan said the Is­lamic State is more likely de­ploy­ing trained ter­ror­ists to strike in Europe but told a Capi­tol Hill hear­ing that the ji­hadi group is also in­spir­ing and pro­mot­ing “lone wolf” at­tacks like the one that killed 49 peo­ple at a gay night­club.

In an as­sess­ment in many ways darker than that of­fered by Pres­i­dent Obama and other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, Mr. Bren­nan said the CIA be­lieves the Is­lamic State group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, still re­tains much of its power to strike de­spite ter­ri­to­rial losses in its base in Iraq and Syria and the dis­rup­tion of its fund­ing net­works.

“Un­for­tu­nately, de­spite all our progress against ISIL on the bat­tle­field and in the fi­nan­cial realm, our ef­forts have not re­duced the group’s ter­ror­ism ca­pa­bil­ity and global reach,” he said.

In tes­ti­mony be­fore the Se­nate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence, the CIA direc­tor said se­cu­rity hur­dles may pre­vent cells of hard­ened Is­lamic State fighters from gain­ing ac­cess to the U.S. main­land and car­ry­ing out at­tacks like those in Brus­sels and Paris, but he sug­gested their lead­ers are bent on in­spir­ing “at­tacks by sym­pa­thiz­ers who have no di­rect links to the group.”

“Last month, for ex­am­ple, a se­nior ISIL fig­ure pub­licly urged the group’s fol­low­ers to con­duct at­tacks in their home coun­tries if they were un­able to travel to Syria and Iraq,” Mr. Bren­nan said.

He added that the group’s lead­ers are “prob­a­bly ex­plor­ing a va­ri­ety of means for in­fil­trat­ing op­er­a­tives into the West, in­clud­ing in refugee flows, smug­gling routes and le­git­i­mate meth­ods of travel.”

The touchy pol­i­tics of the war on ter­ror­ism were on dis­play even as Mr. Bren­nan was speak­ing. Sen. John McCain, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, told re­porters on Capi­tol Hill that Pres­i­dent Obama’s Mid­dle East poli­cies and fail­ure to fight ji­hadi move­ments were di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for the shoot­ing ram­page in Or­lando. Democrats con­demned the state­ment, and Mr. McCain quickly took it back.

“I mis­spoke,” Mr. McCain said in a state­ment is­sued by his of­fice. “I did not mean to im­ply that the pres­i­dent was per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble. I was re­fer­ring to Pres­i­dent Obama’s na­tional se­cu­rity de­ci­sions, not the pres­i­dent him­self.”

High-pro­file at­tacks

U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have cited ter­ri­to­rial gains against the Is­lamic State group in Syria, Iraq and North Africa. But the in­tel­li­gence chief said those losses could prompt fighters to turn in­creas­ingly to “high-pro­file at­tacks out­side the ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq that it cur­rently holds.”

Pri­vate re­searchers share that as­sess­ment.

Anthony H. Cordes­man, a mil­i­tary an­a­lyst at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton, pre­dicted that the Is­lamic State “will re­act to its re­cent de­feats and bat­tles of at­tri­tion in the Mid­dle East by step­ping up its at­tacks on tar­gets in na­tions sup­port­ing Iraq, Turkey and other Arab states ac­tively in­volved in the fight against [the group].”

“To carry out these types of at­tacks,” Mr. Cordes­man wrote in an anal­y­sis posted on the cen­ter’s web­site last week, “ISIS will use ter­ror cells in Europe, for­eign vol­un­teers liv­ing in Syria, or for­eign vol­un­teers who have re­turned home, as well as ev­ery as­pect of their so­cial me­dia pres­ence and net­work of con­tacts in the United States to en­cour­age ‘mar­tyrs’ and ‘lone wolf’ at­tacks.”

Other an­a­lysts said that such “in­spired” at­tacks rep­re­sent the great­est im­me­di­ate threat on the U.S. main­land.

“It’s highly un­likely that there are ISIS sleeper cells around the United States be­cause it’s just so dif­fi­cult for them to get into the coun­try,” said Seth G. Jones, who heads the In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity and De­fense Pol­icy Cen­ter at the Rand Corp.

But there has been at least one case over the past two years in which sev­eral like-minded young Amer­i­can men of North African de­scent drew the at­ten­tion of fed­eral au­thor­i­ties for ap­pear­ing to be­come fol­low­ers of the Is­lamic State’s ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy.

Six So­mali-Amer­i­can men — ages 19 to 21 and from Min­neapo­lis — were sus­pected of be­com­ing in­spired about the Is­lamic State through phone calls and in­ter­net in­ter­ac­tions with a friend who had trav­eled from the U.S. to join the group in the Mid­dle East. They were ar­rested and charged in April last year with con­spir­ing to pro­vide ma­te­rial sup­port to a des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.

A Fox News re­port in Novem­ber said the FBI had iden­ti­fied 48 peo­ple who were con­sid­ered high-risk and that agents were track­ing them around the clock in­side the United States.

Mr. Bren­nan said the CIA is shar­ing in­tel­li­gence with the FBI to help iden­tify po­ten­tial lone-wolf at­tack­ers in­side the U.S. but that his agency’s pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity is to gather in­for­ma­tion about op­er­a­tions over­seas.

Mr. Bren­nan told law­mak­ers that the Is­lamic State was try­ing to es­tab­lish an in­ter­con­nected net­work span­ning from the Mid­dle East into North Africa and be­yond.

The CIA direc­tor said a branch in Libya is likely the most ad­vanced and most danger­ous and a branch in the Si­nai Penin­sula has be­come the “most ac­tive and ca­pa­ble ter­ror­ist group in all of Egypt,” at­tack­ing mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment tar­gets and down­ing a Rus­sian pas­sen­ger jet in Oc­to­ber.

Is­lamic State branches else­where have strug­gled to gain trac­tion, he said.

“The Ye­men branch, for in­stance, has been riven with fac­tion­al­ism. And the Afghanistan-Pak­istan branch has strug­gled to main­tain its co­he­sion, in part be­cause of com­pe­ti­tion with the Tal­iban,” Mr. Bren­nan said.

Stephen Di­nan con­trib­uted to this re­port.


CIA Direc­tor John O. Bren­nan says the Is­lamic State will rely on guer­rilla-style tac­tics to com­pen­sate for its losses.

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