US intelligence officials have 'underestimated' Isil's plan to attack the West
Published 24/11/2015 | 10:58
The US intelligence community is failing in its duty to protect America against the threat of future attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a former senior intelligence official has warned.
In echoes of the criticisms after the 9/11 attacks, Derek Harvey, who worked as a top intelligence agent and advisor on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan said the CIA and other key spy agencies have drawn dangerously flawed conclusions about the jihadist group.
“John Brennan and others continue to underestimate Isil and not understand their intent,” Mr Harvey said citing the CIA’s director. “I don’t even know if they read Dabiq [Isil’s propaganda magazine] or their speeches closely.”
Up until the Paris attacks, US intelligence agencies widely believed Isil was focused almost exclusively on its wars in Iraq and in Syria, leaving attacks against Western nations up to “inspired” volunteers.
But in an interview with the Telegraph, Mr Harvey poured scorn on this assessment, insisting that far from being "lone wolves", perpetrators of attacks in the West were part of a command structure.
“Their intent is to strike with organized decentralised operations focused on the West,” he said. “This isn’t just lone wolves inspired by propaganda. This is coordinated.”
Mr Harvey, who worked for the Defence Intelligence Agency in Iraq, and later as the director of Afghanistan-Pakistan for the Pentagon’s Central Command said he had quit in frustration at the intelligence community’s “lack of creativity” when it came to thinking about and understanding jihadist insurgencies.
He said that because the jihadist group behaved differently to Al-Qaeda, which focuses on “bigger, high profile” attacks, the agencies were underestimating the Isil threat.
He described an institution where little importance is given to experience, with key positions focused on the Middle East being filled by "young people" who had never been to the countries they were analysing. Little attention has been paid, he said, to the jihadists' ideology and literature.
Mr Harvey, said many of the people plotting these attacks in the West were the "same people" he had monitored as an agent in Iraq. He was familiar with their operations and still had contacts in the field, he said.
The intention is less to kill on a mass scale in one hit, than to launch several smaller attacks that spread fear and paranoia in Western societies.
“Isil understand that it doesn’t have to be a complicated and or complex operation like 9/11,” he said. “Isil will put a bomb in a taxi and then send the taxi someplace, and driver wont know he is carrying the explosive.” .
As per the attacks in Paris, the jihadists will seek to attack in the “grey zones” of a country’s social makeup, seeking to increase tensions between Muslims and other religious groups, or between immigrant and non-immigrant communities.
To this end, it has been gathering domestic volunteer recruits. Whilst the jihadist group has imposed stringent measures on the formation of partnerships with other extremist groups – for example, it reportedly took several months of negotiations before Isil partnered with Boko Haram – it is said to form partnerships with individual volunteers with relative ease.
James Comey, the director of the FBI recently said the bureau has more than 900 active investigations ongoing in 50 states that may be Isil linked.
Despite all these, there have been "no specific or credible threats" of a planned attack on US soil on the scale of the Paris bloodshed, Jeh Johnson, the secretary for homeland security said this month.
An intelligence source that monitors jihadist activity in the country also warned against putting too much stock in Isil’s “exaggerated propaganda”, describing the group’s slick videos warning of attacks against the West as a tool designed to spread panic – which is often not backed by a specific threat.
Nonetheless, the source said there had been a marked increase in the number of people expressing sympathy and support for the group within the United States.
“Since this time last year to now, my work load, in terms of the number of people I have to track, has more than doubled,” the source said. “As the group gains notoriety, it is seen as more legitimate and so receives more support.”
He described the intelligence community as “playing catch up” to find ways to monitor Isil in the US. Sometimes there were “too many people” to follow.
The group also did not use traditional lines of communication he said, making them harder to trace.
Once supporters volunteer to be part of a terror attack, they do get “coordinated” support from Isil: “A lot of the funding comes directly from Isil,” the source said. “So there is some coordination to it.”
The source agreed with Mr Harvey’s assessment that because Al-Qaeda traditionally engaged in operations that took a lot of planning, he and his colleagues had had a better chance of thwarting the attacks: “their communications were easier to monitored because there was more of them,” the source said. “The focus on smaller attacks makes them faster and harder to stop.”