CIA Chief Calls Islamic State Still ‘Formidable’

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Despite battlefield victories in the fight against the Islamic State group, the CIA director said Thursday that U.S. efforts to hinder the group’s global terror capability have failed.
     “To compensate for territorial losses, ISIL will probably rely more on guerrilla tactics, including high-profile attacks outside the territory in Syria and Iraq that it currently holds,” John Brennan told members of a Senate committee.
     Brennan’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee occurred against the backdrop of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
     Omar Mateen, 29, killed 49 and injured 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. during a pre-dawn attack Sunday. According to the FBI, Mateen pledged support for ISIL during a 911 call made from the club.
     The attack at Pulse nightclub occurred thousands of miles away from the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, where a U.S.-led coalition is waging a military campaign to destroy the group that is making slow gains.
     “The U.S.-led coalition has made important progress against ISIL,” Brennan said. “The group appears to be a long way from realizing the vision that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its leader, laid out when he declared the ‘caliphate’ two years ago in Mosul,” he added.
     The group has lost territory in Syria and Iraq, its bank roll and media outreach have been squeezed and the group is struggling to replenish fighters, Brennan said.
     But that has not diminished the group’s lethality, he warned.
     “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.
     The Orlando shooting has drawn renewed concerns about the group’s ability to direct attacks in the U.S., and inspire lone wolf attacks.
     According to Brennan, ISIL is training and planning to carry out more attacks in Western countries that are likely to grow as the group faces greater pressure on the battlefield.
     “The group is probably exploring a variety of means for infiltrating operatives into the West, including refugee flows, smuggling routes, and legitimate methods of travel,” he said.
     ISIL is also consolidating its global branches into a more cohesive organization, and has expanded its most developed branch in Libya.
     “We assess that it is trying to increase its influence in Africa and to plot attacks in the region and in Europe,” Brennan said.
     ISIL has also taken root in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where it incorporated the militant group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. Now calling itself the Islamic State in the Sinai, it has launched attacks against Egyptian government and military targets. The group is suspected of downing a Russian-bound airliner over the Sinai last October, killing all 224 people on board.
     While the U.S. works to counter ISIL’s presence in the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. intelligence community continues to grapple with how best to combat the group’s internet presence and propaganda machine.
     Earlier this week, FBI director James Comey said there is no evidence yet that ISIL or any other foreign group directed Mateen in the Orlando shooting. Comey did say, however, that the FBI believes Mateen may have been radicalized in part through the Internet, and may have been inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.
     Brennan told the Senate committee that he is concerned about how to deal with threats from the digital domain – including ISIL propaganda – and suggested that the government is being restricted from adequately monitoring that domain for national security threats.
     “I do not believe our legal frameworks, as well as our organizational structures and our capabilities, are yet at the point of being able to deal with the challenges in the digital domain that we need to have in the future,” Brennan said.
     The recent events in Orlando will likely re-ignite the privacy debate stirred up by the FBI’s legal battle to try to force Apple to unlock the encrypted iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, who along with his wife killed 14 and injured 22 last December at the city’s Inland Regional Center.
     The FBI tried to force Apple to write software that would allow the government to bypass the phone’s security, creating a “backdoor” of sorts, a move Apple and other privacy advocates staunchly objected to. The FBI dropped its request after it said a third party had unlocked the phone.
     Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a strong privacy advocate, told Brennan that requiring companies to create backdoors to their products would weaken encryption and put Americans at risk.
     “I want to make it clear I will fight such a policy with everything I have,” Wyden said.
     Those who might want to harm Americans could simply download foreign software with strong encryption, he added.
     Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., echoed Wyden’s sentiments.
     “The encryption horse has left the barn,” he said, cautioning against mandating weaknesses into digital systems.
     Brennan said later in the hearing that the government and private sectors need to find a way to allow the government to monitor the digital domain that will not be viewed as a backdoor, and suggested the creation of a Congressional commission on the issue.
     Before the hearing concluded, Wyden also asked Brennan how the agency would respond if the next president of the United States orders the revival of the torture program to interrogate terror suspects, something that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said he would do.
     Such aggressive techniques are not necessary, Brennan said, adding that he has no intention of reviving enhanced interrogation techniques.

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