Obama Says His Nat'l Intelligence Director 'Underestimated What Had Been Taking Place in Syria'

Susan Jones | September 29, 2014 | 11:14am EDT
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President Barack Obama speaks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 44th Annual Legislative Conference Phoenix Awards Dinner in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(CNSNews.com) - How did the Islamic State terrorists end up in control of so much territory? CBS correspondent steve Kroft asked President Barack Obama in a "60 Minutes" segment that aired Sunday night.

"Well, I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria," Obama responded.

Obama said in the past few years, ISIS/ISIL was "able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos" in remote areas of Syria. They also were able to attract foreign fighters who "believed in their jihadist nonsense," he added.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told MSNBC on Monday that President Obama "dropped the ball" of the threat emanating from Syria and is now blaming others.

In fact, the threat was no secret: It was discussed openly at hearings on Capitol Hill both this year and last.

Eight months ago, on Jan. 29, 2014, National Intelligence Director James Clapper told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Syria was "a growing center of radical extremism" and a potential threat to the homeland.

Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Clapper at the time how concerned Americans should be about Americans and Europeans training in Syria and returning home to wage attacks of their own.

"Well we should be very concerned about this, Senator Feinstein," Clapper replied. "Syria has become a huge magnet for extremists. First, those groups who are engaged in Syria itself, some 1,600 different groups. We estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of between 75,000 and 110,000, of which about 26,000 we grade as extremists. We estimate, at this point, an excess of 7,000 foreign fighters have been attracted from some 50 countries, many of them in Europe and the Mideast.

Clapper also noted "the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people to go back to their countries, and, of course, conduct more terrorist acts. So this is a huge concern to all of us."

In his testimony, Clapper specifically mentioned the Syria-based al-Nusra Front as one of the groups that "does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland." And he warned that the "dispersion and decentralization" of Sunni terror groups "actually creates a different threat and a harder one to watch and detect because of its dispersion."

Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the committee he fully agreed with Clapper's assessment of the situation in Syria, describing it as "a place that we are very concerned about."

Feinstein herself told the committee, "I think the most notable development since last year's hearing is actually in Syria, which has become a magnet for foreign fighters and for terrorist activity."

A year earlier, in March 2013, Clapper told the same Senate intelligence committee that the Syrian-based al-Nusrah Front, an al-Qaida spin-off, was "one of the best organized and most capable of the Sunni terrorist groups."

He told the committee that the "worsening internal conflict in Syria" had "created opportunities for extremist groups to find ungoverned space from which to destabilize the new governments and prepare attacks against Western interests inside those countries."

Clapper noted that "insurgent forces" have been gaining strength in rural areas of northern and eastern Syria, particularly along the border with Turkey -- "where their progress could lead to a more permanent base for insurgent operations."

And he said "prolonged instability" in Syria was also allowing the al-Nusrah Front to "establish a presence within Syria. He also mentioned the "growing infusion of foreign fighters that have been attracted to the conflict in Syria."

Also See:
DNI: Al-Qaida's Syrian Rebels Have 'Aspirations' to Attack U.S.

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