In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies yesterday, CIA director John Brennan made a startling admission: The Islamic State was “decimated” under George W. Bush and had just “700-or-so adherents left” following the surge in Iraq. Said Brennan:
“[ISIS] was, you know, pretty much decimated when US forces were there in Iraq. It had maybe 700-or-so adherents left. And then it grew quite a bit in the last several years, when it split then from al-Qaida in Syria, and set up its own organization.”
But in September 2014, a CIA analysis found that:
“[ISIS] can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria … This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence.”
This means that, by the CIA’s own estimate, ISIS has grown on President Obama’s watch from just 700 fighters to between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters.
That is an increase of between 2,700 and 4,400 %.
Moreover, Brennan tacitly acknowledged that the Obama administration had underestimated the ISIS threat. At CSIS, Brennan declared that:
“Not content to limiting its killing fields to Iraqi and Syrian lands, and to setting up local franchises in other countries of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, ISIL has developed an external operations agenda that is now implementing … with lethal effect.”
That now obvious assessment directly contradicts the assessment of ISIS’ intent and capabilities delivered by Obama administration officials just one year ago.
In August 11 2014, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes wrote in a White House blog post:
“While both [al-Qaeda and the Islamic State] are terrorist forces, they have different ambitions. Al-Qaeda’s principal ambition is to launch attacks against the west and US homeland…Right now, ISIL’s primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East region to establish their own Islamic State. So they’re different organizations with different objectives.”
And in an August 8, 2014 interview with CNN, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken declared that:
“Unlike core al Qaeda, right now, their [ISIS’] focus is not on attacking the US homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It’s focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq.”
That was (obviously) wrong. The Obama administration failed to recognize that ISIS had developed the intent and capability to strike the West. It built its anti-ISIS strategy on a false premise – that ISIS was focused on building a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and not on carrying out external attacks against the US, its interests and its allies.
Sadly, this is not the first time the administration failed to recognize that a terrorist network had developed the intent and capability conduct external operations. In 2009, the Obama administration believed that al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – was focused on regional attacks and had no interest in attacking the American homeland. Then, on Christmas Day 2009, they sent a terrorist with an underwear bomb to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit.
The administration got lucky – the bomb malfunctioned. Had it not, hundreds of Americans would have been killed. But in the aftermath of that attack, the administration was forced to admit that it was caught by surprise and didn’t realize AQAP had developed the intent or capability to strike the American homeland. As a May 2010 Senate Intelligence Committee report put it, “Intelligence analysts were primarily focused on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) threats to US interests in Yemen, rather than on potential AQAP threats to the US homeland.”
Now, when it comes to ISIS, they have repeated this mistake – this time at the cost of 132 innocent lives.
Yet President Obama insists that, as he put it in Turkey yesterday, “The strategy that we are pursuing is the right one.”