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.
These CIA officers see a need for game-changing measures to be put in place by the CIA’s CTC. They also see a need for increased creativity in intelligence and operational thinking. Without a change in thinking, tactics, and strategy, the country will find itself in real danger of suffering additional attacks.
It should also be noted that there are some in the foreign policy, think tank, and security establishment who see the threat of ISIS as overblown or misunderstood. These individuals would note that ISIS is nothing more than a bogeyman, adept at social media exploitation and propaganda, perhaps inspiring individuals to carry out attacks outside of Syria and Iraq, but unable to direct or finance those attacks.
Those in the latter school of thought have referred to the ISIS threat as “mostly hype” (Peter Bergen) and “overblown” (John Mueller). Even President Obama has attempted to downplay the ISIS threat at times, to his political detriment, following the Paris attacks in November, 2015. Downplaying the group’s operational prowess is little comfort to the majority of Americans, who see ISIS members as barbaric animals focused on attacking the U.S. homeland, beheading men, women, and children willy nilly, and throwing gays off buildings in the areas over which they exert control.
Regardless of whether some see the threat as overblown, it is clear that ISIS poses a national security threat to the United States, and thus must be targeted and combatted with the same vigor that the American government put forward against al-Qa’ida following 9/11.
(Featured image courtesy of CNN)