CIA Chief Says Islamic State Plans to Intensify Attacks

How Islamic State Makes Money Explained in Three Minutes
  • Brennan says it seeks to direct as well as inspire terrorism
  • Battlefield setbacks haven’t hurt its ‘terrorism capability’

Islamic State will intensify its global terrorism campaign by directing as well as inspiring attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere, despite its mounting territorial and financial losses in Syria and Iraq, CIA Director John Brennan said.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State: The Big Picture

The organization “will probably rely more on guerrilla tactics,” such as the attacks in Paris and Brussels in the past year that were directed by its leadership, Brennan told the Senate Intelligence Committee at a hearing on Thursday. It will also seek to inspire more attacks similar to those in San Bernardino, California, in December and in Orlando, Florida, this week, he said.

So far, there’s is no indication that Omar Mateen, who carried out the Orlando shooting, the worst massacre in modern U.S. history, had a direct link to Islamic State or any other foreign terrorist organization, Brennan said.

The Central Intelligence Agency chief’s stark assessment of the group’s intentions and capabilities contrasts with the Obama administration’s portrait of the group as being in decline because of increasing success in the the U.S.-led military campaign to retake territory that the group has claimed, and to cut off its oil income and other revenue.

‘Global Reach’

“Despite 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,” Brennan said, using an acronym for the group. “As the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”

Islamic State has as many as 22,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, down from about 32,000, Brennan said. However, its Libyan branch has become the most dangerous, with about 5,000 fighters, he said, adding that the Islamic State operation in the Sinai succeeded in bringing down a Russian airliner with an improvised explosive device.

“We judge that ISIL is training and attempting to deploy operatives for further attacks,” he said. “ISIL has a large cadre of Western fighters who could potentially serve as operatives for attacks in the West.”

The group is also probably exploring how to infiltrate operatives into Western countries, including through refugee flows, Brennan said, in a comment that may bolster Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s calls to temporarily bar refugees from places “where you have terrible terrorism.” President Barack Obama has said such moves would only play into terrorist groups’ hands by portraying all Muslims as enemies.

Cybersecurity Challenge

 Online, Islamic State uses devices and applications including Twitter, Telegram and Tumblr to spread propaganda while shielding many of its activities through encryption, Brennan said. He pleaded for "a national consensus" on the powers that U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement should have in cyberspace to combat such groups.

Offering rare insight into the CIA’s digital operations, Brennan said the agency is trying to use the Internet’s backbone, which refers to upstream service providers and fiber-optic cables, to identify those responsible for spreading extremist propaganda.

Brennan endorsed a proposal by Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican Representative Michael McCaul of Texas for a commission of government and industry officials that would make recommendations on rules governing internet operations and authorities. It was proposed as a way to resolve disputes such as the FBI’s demand for Apple Inc. to help it break into encrypted iPhones to investigate terrorism or crimes.

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