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CIA Chief Says Governing Is Too Big A Job For ISIS

CIA Director John Brennan told an audience in New York on Friday that ISIS is facing internal divisions.
Richard Drew
CIA Director John Brennan told an audience in New York on Friday that ISIS is facing internal divisions.

CIA Director John Brennan told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York today that the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, is facing dissension in its ranks and is finding it hard to govern the territory it controls. These are the same problems terrorist groups that try to govern have faced in the past.

The director was cautiously optimistic that the group, which stormed across Syria and Iraq last summer and has held much of the territory it captured since then, is stumbling.

"I do think the great image of ISIL, in terms of its being able to prevail and be successful inside Iraq and Syria is being pierced," Brennan said, using an alternate name for ISIS. "We see that they are having setbacks, we see that there is some dissention in the ranks. We see that a lot of the requirements that are attendant to having control of territory and having the responsibility to run it administratively is not really the strong suit of these thugs who are joining this band wagon."

Brennan said the group is still recruiting foreigners at breakneck speed — some estimates say that more than 1,000 foreign fighters are showing up in Syria to sign up with ISIS every month — but fissures are starting to appear.

There are defectors who have tried to leave the group only to be captured and killed for doing so. Residents who live in ISIS-controlled areas have complained about food shortages and spotty electricity and they have also tried to leave.

"I do think we're seeing right now some very significant indicators that ISIL's engine is suffering," Brennan said. "That doesn't mean it is out of steam. It means it is going through a phase of development — and hopefully its ultimate demise — that is consistent with some other groups."

Al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, known as AQAP, tried its hand at running parts of Yemen. It fired local administrators and tried to set up its own mini-caliphate, but it didn't work, and the group eventually gave its territory back to the ruling government. The leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has long maintained that his group needs to focus on attacking the West and driving it from Muslim lands and it should leave governing a caliphate to a later time. This is one of many reasons the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, decided to split with al-Qaida and set up his own terrorist organization.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.