CIA Director John Brennan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director: Attacks on Europe No Surprise, More Expected

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The Islamic State is plotting more operations similar to the Paris attacks, the CIA director said Monday, asserting that Western governments and intelligence agencies are hampered in monitoring terrorist suspects and thwarting plots.

Director John Brennan told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the world’s intelligence communities had been expecting attacks similar to those that struck Paris, but were unable to stop the attacks Friday. He attributed the failure to new terrorist tactics, new technology that enables secret communications and several leaks of classified information that he said have hampered governments.

“It’s not a surprise this attack was carried out, from the standpoint of, we did have strategic warning,” he said. “We knew that that this type of plotting was under way, looking at Europe in particular as the venue for these type of attacks.”

The Islamic State was planning the Paris attacks for “several months” as part of a series of attacks outside the self-declared caliphate, he said.

“I certainly would not consider it a one-off event,” Brennan said. “It’s clear to me that ISIL has an external agenda, that they are determined to carry out these types of attacks. I would anticipate that this is not the only operation that ISIL has in the pipeline.”

Brennan laid out several thoughts on how the Islamic State was able to keep the Paris plot secret. He said that the sheer number of European citizens traveling to and from Iraq and Syria is overwhelming the European governments’ ability to screen travelers. He praised Britain’s decision after the Paris attacks to add 1,500 intelligence professionals to its anti-terror ranks.

But Brennan also said that there had been a significant increase in the operational security of terrorists and terrorist networks, who have used new commercially available encryption technologies and also studied leaked intelligence documents to evade detection.

“They have gone to school on what they need to do in order to keep their activities concealed from the authorities,” he said. “I do think this is a time for particularly Europe as well as the U.S. for us to take a look and see whether or not there have been some inadvertent or intentional gaps that have been created in the ability of intelligence services to protect the people that they are asked to serve.”

The FBI has said that Internet “dark spaces” hinder monitoring of terrorism suspects. That fuels the debate over whether the government should have access to commercial applications that facilitate secure communications.

Brennan pointed to “a number of unauthorized disclosures” over the past several years that have made tracking suspected terrorists even more difficult. He said there has been “hand-wringing” over the government’s role in tracking suspects, leading to policies and legal action that make finding terrorists more challenging, an indirect reference to the domestic surveillance programs that were restricted after leaks by Edward Snowden revealed their existence.

“I do hope that this is going to be a wake-up call, particularly in areas of Europe, where there has been a misrepresentation of what the intelligence and security services are doing, by some quarters that are designed to undercut those capabilities,” he said.

Brennan said there were some successes to “contain” the group’s territorial ambitions in Syria and Iraq, but no way to prevent or deter them completely. Overall, he warned that despite the best efforts of all governments involved, the threat of Islamic State attacks is something Western countries will have to deal with for some time.

“Their agenda is to kill, pure and simply,” he said. “They are murderous sociopaths.”

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