The Islamic State has “a large cadre of Western fighters” who could carry out attacks in the U.S. and Europe, CIA Director John O. Brennan said Thursday in a sobering — at times pessimistic — assessment of the threat facing the U.S. and its allies just days after the terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida.
Mr. Brennan said the Islamic State is more likely deploying trained terrorists to strike in Europe but told a Capitol Hill hearing that the jihadi group is also inspiring and promoting “lone wolf” attacks like the one Sunday that killed 49 people at a gay nightclub.
In an assessment in many ways darker than that offered by President Obama and other administration officials, Mr. Brennan said the CIA believes the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, still retains much of its power to strike despite territorial losses in its base in Iraq and Syria and the disruption of its funding networks.
“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.
In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the CIA director said security hurdles may prevent cells of hardened Islamic State fighters from gaining access to the U.S. mainland and carrying out attacks like those in Brussels and Paris, but he suggested their leaders are bent on inspiring “attacks by sympathizers who have no direct links to the group.”
“Last month, for example, a senior ISIL figure publicly urged the group’s followers to conduct attacks in their home countries if they were unable to travel to Syria and Iraq,” Mr. Brennan said.
He added that the group’s leaders are “probably exploring a variety of means for infiltrating operatives into the West, including in refugee flows, smuggling routes and legitimate methods of travel.”
The touchy politics of the war on terrorism were on display even as Mr. Brennan was speaking. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill that President Obama’s Middle East policies and failure to fight jihadi movements were directly responsible for the shooting rampage in Orlando. Democrats condemned the statement, and Mr. McCain quickly took it back.
“I misspoke,” Mr. McCain said in a statement issued by his office. “I did not mean to imply that the president was personally responsible. I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the president himself.”
U.S. military officials have cited territorial gains against the Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq and North Africa. But the intelligence chief said those losses could prompt fighters to turn increasingly to “high-profile attacks outside the territory in Syria and Iraq that it currently holds.”
Private researchers share that assessment.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, predicted that the Islamic State “will react to its recent defeats and battles of attrition in the Middle East by stepping up its attacks on targets in nations supporting Iraq, Turkey and other Arab states actively involved in the fight against [the group].”
“To carry out these types of attacks,” Mr. Cordesman wrote in an analysis posted on the center’s website this week, “ISIS will use terror cells in Europe, foreign volunteers living in Syria, or foreign volunteers who have returned home, as well as every aspect of their social media presence and network of contacts in the United States to encourage ‘martyrs’ and ‘lone wolf’ attacks.”
Other analysts said Thursday that such “inspired” attacks represent the greatest immediate threat on the U.S. mainland.
“It’s highly unlikely that there are ISIS sleeper cells around the United States because it’s just so difficult for them to get into the country,” said Seth G. Jones, who heads the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp.
But there has been at least one case over the past two years in which several like-minded young American men of North African descent drew the attention of federal authorities for appearing to become followers of the Islamic State’s extremist ideology.
Six Somali-American men — ages 19 to 21 and from Minneapolis — were suspected of becoming inspired about the Islamic State through phone calls and internet interactions with a friend who had traveled from the U.S. to join the group in the Middle East. They were arrested and charged in April last year with conspiring to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization.
A Fox News report in November said the FBI had identified 48 people who were considered high-risk and that agents were tracking them around the clock inside the United States.
Mr. Brennan said the CIA is sharing intelligence with the FBI to help identify potential lone-wolf attackers inside the U.S. but that his agency’s primary responsibility is to gather information about operations overseas.
Mr. Brennan told lawmakers that the Islamic State was trying to establish an interconnected network spanning from the Middle East into North Africa and beyond.
The CIA director said a branch in Libya is likely the most advanced and most dangerous and a branch in the Sinai Peninsula has become the “most active and capable terrorist group in all of Egypt,” attacking military and government targets and downing a Russian passenger jet in October.
Islamic State branches elsewhere have struggled to gain traction, he said.
“The Yemen branch, for instance, has been riven with factionalism. And the Afghanistan-Pakistan branch has struggled to maintain its cohesion, in part because of competition with the Taliban,” Mr. Brennan said.
He said a U.S.-led coalition has made progress combating the group, which has surrendered swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria recently, has lost some of its leaders in airstrikes and has struggled to replenish its ranks because fewer foreign recruits are flowing into the region and many have defected.
Committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, warned that the Islamic State’s “global battlefield now includes the United States, and we cannot stand idly by.”
“Now is not a time to pay lip service to these threats,” Mr. Burr said, according to The Associated Press. “The sooner we as a nation realize that there is only one path for us to take at this juncture, the sooner we will destroy ISIL and ensure the continued safety of our nation.”
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.