CIA Director: Turkish Terror Attack Underscores ISIS Threat to Americans

John Brennan / AP

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CIA Director John Brennan warned in an interview published Wednesday that the Islamic State is likely responsible for the suicide bombings Tuesday night at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport that killed 41 people and wounded hundreds more and is trying to carry out similar attacks in the United States.

"I am worried from the standpoint of an intelligence professional who looks at the capabilities of Daesh … and their determination to kill as many people as possible and to carry out attacks abroad," Brennan told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview at CIA headquarters, using the acronym for the Arabic name of the Islamic State.

ISIS has so far not taken credit for the Turkish airport attack and Brennan did not confirm that it was responsible, but Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters shortly after the Istanbul bombings that ISIS was likely the culprit.

Brennan indicated that the method of attack points to the jihadist group rather than the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has launched attacks inside Turkey while battling the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy.

"It was a suicide bombing [which] is usually more a Daesh technique," Brennan said. "You look at what happened in the Turkish airport, these were suicide vests. It’s not that difficult to actually construct and fabricate a suicide vest … so if you have a determined enemy and individuals who are not concerned about escape, that they are going into it with a sense that they are going to die, that really does complicate your strategy in terms of preventing attacks."

Brennan warned that "I’d be surprised if Daesh is not trying to carry out that kind of attack in the United States."

He credited intelligence and homeland security measures for stopping ISIS from directing an attack on the American homeland up to this point. (The terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando were carried out by individuals inspired by ISIS, not directed by them.)

The CIA chief said ISIS has a motive to attack Turkey because Ankara is going after terrorists in neighboring Syria and has helped the American-led coalition to fight the terror group. Turkey’s failure to police its border to stop foreign fighters from flowing into and out of Iraq and Syria has frustrated Washington, but Brennan said America’s NATO ally has taken steps recently to better monitor the border.

ISIS has used terror tactics to "offset" losses of territory and other setbacks in Iraq and Syria, but the group’s upsurge in attacks in the greater Middle East and Europe is also part of a wider offensive, according to Brennan.

"Over the past year and a half they have made a more determined effort to carry out attacks abroad, and we see in terms of their plans, their preparations, the movement of people as well as propagandizing outside, exhorting, inciting a much more determined effort to carry out these external operations," Brennan said.

"Brennan was blunt about the slow nature of progress both in the fight against ISIS and efforts to push Syrian President Bashar Assad out of power," the article reads. America’s top spy told lawmakers earlier this month that the U.S. campaign to defeat ISIS has not curbed the group’s global reach, and he echoed those sentiments in the Yahoo interview.

"We’ve yet to really thwart Daesh’s ability to reach beyond the Syria-Iraqi borders and put in place some of the plans and preparations to carry out attacks," Brennan said. "I am very concerned we have not had the success against Daesh in that environment as we’ve had in the core areas of Syria and Iraq."

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper raised similar concerns last month, telling CNN that ISIS has the capability to launch a large-scale Paris-style attack inside the United States.

Brennan added that a key aspect of America’s strategy to defeat ISIS is to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, who he described as a "magnet" for a number of jihadist groups to fight in Syria. Brennan acknowledged that Assad is in a stronger position today, despite President Obama calling for his ouster since 2011 when the Syrian civil war began.

"Relative to where he was on the battlefield last year, [Assad] is in a better and stronger position [today]," Brennan said, blaming Russia for Assad’s stronger position by intervening on the Syrian leader’s behalf in September 2015. "The Russians sometimes want their cake and eat it too as far as having the cooperation with us against terrorists but not wanting to do anything that’s going to lead to a political settlement that will have a more durable future as far as a political agreement," Brennan added.

Brennan expressed a broader frustration with Moscow, discussing a recent report that Russia is harassing U.S. diplomats throughout Europe. The CIA director "told his counterparts ‘in direct terms,’ that the behavior was ‘unacceptable’ and ‘destructive’ to the relationship," according to Yahoo.

Brennan also discussed Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who disclosed highly classified surveillance programs, which infuriated the U.S. intelligence community. Brennan said that Snowden has "dishonored his oath" and should return to the United States to face charges. When asked to comment on former Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent statement that Snowden "actually performed a public service," Brennan said, "I do not believe that at all. I respectfully but vehemently disagree with the former attorney general."

Yahoo News will post the full transcript of the interview next week.

Aaron Kliegman

Aaron Kliegman   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Aaron Kliegman is the news editor for the Washington Free Beacon and a Master's Degree Candidate in Johns Hopkins's Global Security Studies Program in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the Free Beacon, Aaron worked as a Research Associate for the Center for Security Policy, a national security think tank, and as the Deputy Field Director on Micah Edmond's campaign for U.S. Congress. He graduated from Washington & Lee University in 2014 and lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @Aaron_Kliegman. He can be reached at kliegman@freebeacon.com.

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