The top intelligence official in the U.S. has warned Islamic State has now exceeded al-Qaida in terms of strength across the globe.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Thursday outlining how ISIS has overtaken al-Qaida. He also noted the threat posed by terrorists groups is rising due to the massive increase in their numbers.
“There are now more Sunni violent extremist groups, members and safe havens than any time in history,” said Clapper. “ISIL estimated strength now exceeds that globally of al-Qaida.”
In his written statement for the record, Clapper explains ISIS’ caliphate in Iraq and Syria, as well as its branches across the world, have allowed the group to have the “ability to direct and inspire attacks against a wide range of targets around the world.” According to Clapper’s figures, ISIS fighters number over 36,500 with at least 6,600 of those fighters coming from Western countries.
Of particular concern to the director is the possibility of ISIS committing direct attacks on the U.S. Despite ISIS leaders calling for attacks from homegrown extremists, such as the shooters in San Bernardino, Calif., Clapper claimed terrorists could be trained in Iraq and Syria and sent to commit attacks in the U.S. As evidence, he pointed to the fact that the Paris attackers were trained in the so-called caliphate before they committed their assault in November, 2015.
Despite being overtaken by ISIS in terms of raw strength, Clapper did not rule out al-Qaida’s ability to continue to do damage to the U.S. and its interests abroad. He noted a particular threat rising from al-Qaida affiliates in the Middle East, particularly the Nusra Front in Syria and al-Qaida in the Arabian Penninsula (AQAP). Clapper referred to the two groups as “the two most capable al-Qaida branches” and predicted both groups will see a significant rise in 2016.
Clapper remained somewhat optimistic on the anti-ISIS coalition’s ability to make “incremental battlefield gains” through the spring. He pointed to air strikes against the terrorist group’s financial networks as a key step toward blunting the ISIS advance. However, despite coalition efforts, Clapper claimed the apprehension of the Sunni Muslim population of Iraq to live under the “Shia-dominated” Iraqi government may lead to at least some tacit support for ISIS.
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