CIA’s Brennan: ISIL Must Be ‘Cauterized Immediately’
“This is something that has to be cauterized immediately and destroyed as quickly as possible,” he said Sept 18. He called the organization a “murderous, barbaric, criminal gang.”
Yet the United States will have to take a more holistic approach to defeating the ISIL ideology, he said. “We can’t kill our way out of this.” Policymakers must understand the “drivers” that are sustaining ISIL and allowing it to gather more adherents.
“This is something that is going to be with us for a generation,” he said.
Brennan spoke along with the directors of the National Security Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington, D.C.
Navy Adm. Michael Rogers, head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, said, “Don’t underestimate how success can breed change in others.” The group’s power may snowball if it continues to have success, he warned.
If ISIL’s tactics are seen by similarly minded individuals around the world as successful, more of them will want to “get on that train.”
“If this idea expands beyond a single group — right now rather geographically focused in its disposition — to something even broader, that’s really bad,” Rogers said.
ISIL is particularly adept at using social media and the Internet to spread its messages and recruit, the directors said.
If the answer to destroying the ISIL is more than just a “killing our way out of this,” as Brennan said, then the intelligence community must be able to explain to policymakers the underpinnings that are providing support to the organization. Then other elements of the nation’s power can be brought to bear against it, Rogers said.
The heads of the four three-letter agencies all agreed that the proper name for the organization was ISIL, rather than ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It’s propaganda, and leaders have ambitions far beyond Syria’s borders, they said.
“That is why the ‘L’ is a much more accurate description in the acronym than the ‘S’ because it is in fact about Lebanon, Jordan and beyond,” said Acting DIA Director David Shedd.
All four leaders gave their organizations high marks when it came to spotting the current crises in Iraq and Ukraine ahead of time. As for ISIL, the rise of the organization, which first came to being as al-Qaida in Iraq before joining forces with radicals fighting the Assad regime in Syria, was somewhat unexpected.
“I certainly think that the intelligence community did a very good job on both those issues as far as trying to ensure that policymakers were informed about the evolving threats on the ground,” Brennan said.
“We had been looking at for many months how the former al-Qaida in Iraq, which then combined forces with elements inside Syria were growing in ability in Anbar, Fallujah and those areas, and how they were expanding their reach,” he added
The NGA gave strategic warning, but all those indicators don’t give intelligence agencies “intent,” its director Letitia Long said. “And that is the most difficult thing to do.”
Rogers said the NSA did well on the Ukraine, but did not do as good a job on the rise of ISIL. “If I’m honest with myself, I wish the transition of ISIL from an insurgency to an organization that was also focused on holding ground, territory, the mechanisms of governance … I wish we had been a little bit stronger.”
Answering criticism that the intelligence agency did not foresee the collapse of the Iraqi army, Brennan said it is hard to predict such events.
“Looking back over the past several months on both those issues, I think we teed up the right issues for policymakers … [but] these are very very complex, difficult issues and you’re never going to get perfect insight into those developments that are going to allow you to foresee the future,” Brennan said.
It was more difficult to assess the ability of the Iraqi army to withstand a concerted effort on the part of ISIL to take territory. That, and the Sunni’s disaffection from the Iraqi government, allowed ISIL “like a water leak, to move forward without any resistance.”
Iraqi forces at outposts were totally overwhelmed by ISIL’s barbarism. That resulted in a cascading effect that is hard to calculate and assess, he said. No longer having a permanent presence in the nation was a hindrance, he added. “Unless you’re actually there, you’re getting second- and third-hand information.”