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CIA Director's comments raise questions about counter-ISIS efforts

CIA Director John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 16, 2016, before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the Islamic State. Brennan said that the Islamic State remains "formidable" and "resilient," is training and attempting to deploy operatives for further attacks on the West and will rely more on guerrilla-style tactics to compensate for its territorial losses in the Middle East. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Critics of President Barack Obama's efforts to combat the Islamic State are using the testimony of CIA Director John Brennan to question how successful The White House has been in the battle against the terror organization.

"CIA Director Brennan says U.S. efforts 'have not reduced' the ISIS threat despite the president's upbeat rhetoric," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) tweeted Friday.

"Obama's CIA Dir admitted that despite Admin's efforts, it hasn't reduced ISIS's capability to carry out attacks," the Republican National Committee tweeted.

The comments come from testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in which Brennan discussed the lack of a direct link between the Orlando shooter and the Islamic State, how the group's ability to raise money had been thwarted and how fewer fighters are traveling to Syria.

"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," Brennan told the committee.

While many have questioned whether the administration is sending mixed messages, Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, told Sinclair Broadcast Group the comments from the CIA director and the president are really not that different.

"I think the two views expressed, the president saying they're taking some losses in one part, but the CIA Director John Brennan saying it's a very dangerous threat and spreading are consistent," Katulis said.

The good news --we're making progress. The bad news -- we have yet to diminish the global reach of the terror group.

"On the one hand there have been successes on the ground in Iraq and Syria," Dean Alexander, director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University explained.

"But internationally," Alexander countered the ISIS has directed, undertaken themselves, or inspired "attacks in some 20 countries or so in the past two years."

The Islamic State, Alexander suggested, is "playing on a number of different levels."

"One is obviously trying to gain control within Iraq and Syria," Alexander said. Another is establishing provinces, called "wilayah," in a number of different locations "and then they're also inspiring people to undertake attacks on their behalf," he added.

"I think what we're looking at is a paradox which is perplexing to a lot of people," Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northeastern University, said when asked about the claims of progress and warnings contained in the director's testimony.

"On the one hand, [the] Islamic State is getting weaker organizationally in its stronghold of Iraq and Syria," Abrahms said.

"Political scientists, like myself, we often try to measure the capability of militants groups," Abrhams explained.

"And there's no one way to proxy militant group capability."

Instead, Abrahms said "we proxy in multiple ways."

"Really across all sorts of different indicators you see a decline in Islamic State's strength as an organization in Iraq and Syria," Abrahms described.

"In particular Islamic State has lost territory, it has lost revenues, it has dramatically reduced salaries to fighters, it's loosing battles, defections are way up, the propaganda output is down," Abrahms said.

Abrahms also pointed out how the leadership of the Islamic State is "increasingly is calling on foreign fighters to skip Syria and Iraq altogether, but to instead go to Libya, and other places."

"I'm quite confident," Abrahms said, noting that he's been saying this long before the CIA began doing so, "that Islamic State is losing capability."

"That doesn't mean we're in the clear," Abrahms cautioned.

"In fact it probably is the opposite."

"The weaker the group organizationally the stronger its incentive to decentralize its operations," Abrahms said.

The target selection, Abrahms explained, becomes "more geographically diffused."

"And that's what we're seeing."

"Terrorist groups often do this," Abrahms said, noting that the Islamic State "is not unique in this regard."

"When a terrorist group comes under threat it really faces a choice," Abrahms explained.

The first is to hunker down.

"It can basically remain centralized in the same location and take a beating," Abrahms said noting that this often compromises the group's organizational survival.

"Or the group can decentralize its operations," Abrahms said.

"Al-Qaeda underwent the same dynamic," Abrahms said, describing how it was "a much more centralized group," operating out of Afghanistan until the U.S. military showed up.

"That's why after 2002, 2003 we began to see Al-Qaeda affiliates spring up all over the place," Abrahms said.

While Alexander called the progress we're seeing on the battlefield "helpful" he too noted how this sends members of the group elsewhere.

"Part of this loss in territory in Iraq and Syria is pushing them more strategically to send people outside of the area," Alexander said.

Abrahms also predicted that "we're going to see more lone wolf attacks, attacks committed by small cells even as the group gets weakened in its stronghold."

"I think there's a growing recognition by the administration and government officials that [these] ISIS inspired activities [are] likely to increase," Alexander said.

"You're going to have more directed attacks, or other attacks that you have some nexus with ISIS individuals," Alexander suggested.

"Increasingly you've seen, there is a decline in people trying to join but there's also an increase in people trying to undertake attacks here in the U.S.," Alexander said.

One step forward, two steps back.

Given the difficulty of measuring our successes, Abrahms suggested looking at the war against the Islamic State through a different lens.

"In some ways it might be more useful to look at Islamic state not in terms of whether we're making progress, so much as how the nature of the threat is evolving," Abrahms said.

"The Islamic State threat is simply changing," Abrahms said.

"Initially I think, many observers, including many Islamic state members themselves, thought that perhaps the group really could establish a caliphate in Iraq and in Syria," Abrahms said.

"But now, the dream of the caliphate is crumbling," Abrahms observed "the group looks less like an insurgent group controlling territory and more like a transnational terrorist group like Al-Qaeda, but with better social media."

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