AUSTIN, Texas — Osama bin Laden’s original al Qaeda network remains a major long-term national security threat and could surge back into global prominence even as the appeal of the newer, rival Islamic State movement spreads in the heart of the Middle East, CIA Director John Brennan said Tuesday.
But while it would only take one grand operation to launch the so-called “al Qaeda prime” back into the global spotlight, Mr. Brennan warned that it is the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or Daesh, that has established itself as “the epitome of a cancer that’s metastasizing.”
Mr. Brennan offered the analogy during a roundtable chat with reporters gathered at the University of Texas at Austin — his graduate school alma mater — where he and other U.S. intelligence leaders are converging this week to mark the release of thousands of classified intelligence briefs dating back to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
The release, to take place on Wednesday afternoon, marks the first time the CIA has ever declassified so-called “Presidential Daily Briefs” en masse.
In wide-ranging remarks in a quiet corner room of the University of Texas’ alumni center, the CIA director said it is difficult to say which group — al Qaeda under bin Laden successor Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State — presents a greater overall threat to U.S. national security.
“You cannot really address that question with an either/or answer,” Mr. Brennan said. “Clearly al Qaeda, because of what it has done over the years, still represents a significant threat.”
The group’s overall capability has been seriously degraded by U.S. and international strikes over the past decade, but “sometimes it only takes one operation to launch it back into prominence,” he said. “At the same time, ISIL, or Daesh, I consider to be more of a phenomenon than just simply a terrorist organization, because it has a very broad swath of presence, not just in Iraq and Syria, but its franchises are popping up in a number of places.”
He compared Islamic State to “a very dangerous water leak that is moving, and there needs to be resistance to stop that leak from growing,” adding, “this phenomenon has galvanized international cooperation in ways that I haven’t seen before.”
Mr. Brennan said two separate al-Zawahiri audio recordings that have circulated on jihadi websites in recent days, in which the al Qaeda leader called for followers to pursue “lone wolf” attacks in the West, showed that al Qaeda is “still a leading force.”
In one of the recordings, al-Zawahiri made an explicit appeal for unity between rival jihadi groups worldwide, shedding new light on the complex relations between al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Mr. Brennan said that while “there is significant competition” between the two groups, he was unsurprised by the call for unity, because “an emphasis of al Qaeda throughout the course of its history has been that Muslims — they call themselves Muslims — should unite as part of what they see as a holy jihad.”
“That call for unity has always been part of al Qaeda’s mantra,” he said. “I think they point to Baghdadi and Daesh as being almost an aberration and as not being, in fact, true to the cause.”
“What [al-Zawahiri], I think, is saying is that there needs to be the unification of these efforts under the rightful sort of banner of al Qaeda.”
Mr. Brennan’s comments suggest the CIA’s view may be that the al Qaeda leader is positioning himself to capitalize on al-Baghdadi’s success as a jihadi recruiter. Once al-Baghdadi is ultimately killed by a U.S. or allied airstrike, the theory goes, al Qaeda will be there to swoop in and claim the loyalty of tens of thousands of foreign fighters and other young jihadis who’ve flocked to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State during the past year.
The CIA director’s presence caused quite a stir at the University of Texas. As hundreds of students gathered to listen to a public panel discussion with Mr. Brennan hosted by the university’s Intelligence Studies Project, a group of about a dozen young demonstrators gathered outside to protest U.S. drone strikes and alleged CIA involvement in foreign coups over the decades.
The group chanted: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these war criminals have got to go.” One protester held a sign that read, “4,000+ DEAD In Drone Attacks.”
Another stood by a makeshift vigil with a poster showing the image of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki with the dates 1995-2011. Beneath were the words, “American teen killed by a drone for what crime?”
U.S. officials have said Mr. al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was illegally killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen targeting his father, a senior propagandist and operative of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Echoing other Obama administration officials, Mr. Brennan said there is growing concern within the CIA over the increasing role being played in the conflict by Russia in the 4-year-old Syrian civil war.
Moscow has for years supported Syrian President Bashar Assad, but in recent weeks Russia has been beefing up its military presence inside Syria. The White House and State Department have expressed alarm at the buildup, which conflicts with President Obama’s demand that Mr. Assad step down as part of any negotiated end to the war.
“There are areas where we and Russia agree in terms of the threat that Daesh and other terrorist organizations pose, and right now, inside of Syria you have that terrorist threat,” Mr. Brennan said. “But at the same time, [there is a] fundamental disagreement between Washington and Moscow about Assad in terms of the role that he has played in being a great magnet for a lot of these foreign fighters that have flowed into Syria and the cause for a lot of the bloodshed there.
“Russia’s decision to increase its support for the Assad regime is certainly at odds with what we believe that Syria’s future needs to be one that is absent of this bloodshed and also that Assad does not have any rightful role in Syria’s future.”
Mr. Brennan also voiced his support for the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, asserting that he has “a lot of confidence” that the accord is structured to make it extremely difficult for Iran to cheat.