According to individuals with direct knowledge of Central Intelligence Agency operations within the agency’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), Islamic State (IS, ISIS, Daesh) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his senior lieutenants are capable strategists. These ISIS leaders, assess some counterterrorism officials, feel that the United States is reeling in the face of recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria, as well as in the aftermath of attacks in Europe and the United States. ISIS leadership figures, according to these CIA officials, probably view the rhetoric emanating from the U.S. presidential race, specifically, as indicative of this trend, especially in the case of some of the more extreme measures being put forth by those such as Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.

Certain mid-level officials within the CTC are reportedly concerned that the coming year could be a challenging—and violent—one for the United States and the rest of the world, given recent ISIS successes and the seeming reluctance of the Obama administration to change its policy toward the group, or toward Syria in general. Some of those same officials desire to see U.S. allies do more on their own against ISIS, but they sense reluctance on the part of those same allies to strike out too far on their own without U.S. acquiescence, for fear of antagonizing the Obama administration.

One concern expressed by those familiar with CTC operations is the size of the target set facing the CIA’s Syria, Iraq, and global jihad units. Some assess that there are not enough personnel in-theater to handle the problem set, nor can European partners bridge the gap in coverage.  While CIA field personnel are deeply committed to the target and carry a heavy load in their operations, the leadership at CIA headquarters has been reluctant to concentrate a large portion of the CTC’s energies and resources on the region, according to some.

The overarching concern of those CIA contacts is that the international environment is looking very similar to that seen before September 11, 2001. A sense of foreboding is pervasive, namely that a terrorist group focused on strikes against the United States is possibly in the planning process, while U.S. and allied intelligence agencies are possibly insufficiently prepared to counter the threat.