The US battle against the Islamic State has not yet curbed the group’s global reach and as pressure mounts on the extremists in Iraq and Syria, they are expected to plot more attacks on the West and incite violence by lone wolves, CIA Director John Brennan has told Congress.
In a rare open hearing, Brennan gave the Senate intelligence committee an update on the threat from Islamic extremists and shared his views on a myriad of other topics, including encryption, Russia and Syria.
Brennan said yesterday ISIS (also known as ISIL and IS) has worked to build an apparatus to direct and inspire attacks against its foreign enemies, as in the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels ones the CIA believes were directed by the top IS leaders.
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“ISIL has a large cadre of Western fighters who could potentially serve as operatives for attacks in the West,” Brennan said, using a different acronym for the group.
“Furthermore, as we have seen in Orlando, San Bernardino and elsewhere, ISIL is attempting to inspire attacks by sympathizers who have no direct links to the group.”
Brennan said the CIA has not been able to uncover any direct link between the Orlando shooter and a foreign terrorist organization.
He said the US-led coalition has killed IS leaders, forced the group to surrender large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and that fewer fighters are traveling to Syria and others have defected.
While the group’s ability to raise money has been thwarted, it still generates at least tens of millions of dollars every month, mostly from taxation and sales of crude oil on black markets in Syria and Iraq.
“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.
He said IS is slowly cultivating its branches into an interconnected global network and that the number of IS fighters now far exceeds what al-Qaida had at its peak.
The CIA estimates there are 18,000 to 22,000 IS fighters in Syria and Iraq down from about 33,000 last year. The branch in Libya, with between 5,000 and 8,000 fighters, is the most advanced and most dangerous, but IS is trying to increase its influence in Africa, Brennan said.
He said Boko Haram is now the IS branch in West Africa and has several thousand fighters. Brennan described the IS branch in the Sinai as the most active and capable terrorist group in Egypt, attacking Egyptian military and government targets as well as foreigners and tourists, such as in the downing of a Russian passenger jet last October.