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Insurgent gains in Iraq point to greater problems for the US

The Islamist insurgency in Iraq illustrates intelligence challenges in an increasingly unstable region, pointing to the potential for attacks in the US itself.

As the US prepares to send 300 military advisers back to Iraq, advances by Islamist insurgents there point to widespread problems for the United States likely to persist for years – including regional instability threatening countries allied with Washington, problems with accurate intelligence gathering, and the potential for attacks within the US itself.

The situation on the ground worsened Sunday with reports that Sunni militants had seized another town in Iraq’s western Anbar province, the fourth to fall in two days. Iraqi military forces fell back in what was described as a “tactical retreat.”

This puts added pressure on a US administration that had withdrawn the last American combat troops from Iraq in 2011.

US special forces headed there are to work with the Iraqi military and add security to the huge US embassy while administration officials continue to push the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be more inclusive. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cairo over the weekend, part of a swing through the region seeking support for efforts to bring about a new government in Baghdad – including, perhaps, a new prime minister to replace al-Maliki.

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The immediate threat is from ISIS, the jihadist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

But it’s important to recognize that ISIS is just one of a number of organizations that the US has to stay focused on, President Obama said in an interview Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“There are a lot of groups out there that probably have more advanced, immediate plans directed against the United States that we have to be on constant guard for,” Mr. Obama said, referring to groups like al Qaeda and Boko Haram.

“This is going to be a global challenge and one that the United States is going to have to address but we’re not going to be able to address it alone,” Obama said. “What we can’t do is think that we’re just going to play whack-a-mole and send US troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up.”

“We’re going to have to have a more focused, more targeted strategy and we’re going to have to partner and train local law enforcement and military to do their jobs as well,” he said.

That’s a big job in itself – indicating US involvement on the ground, whether they’re thought of a “boots” or not. But success will never come without adequate intelligence assets ranging from drones to (more importantly) human intelligence or “humint.”

Did the US foresee the rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq? Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein was asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

“I would have to say no,” Sen. Feinstein replied. “This is a different culture. It is very difficult to pierce.”

“I think it is a real wakeup call for the United States,” she said.

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Feinstein also was asked if ISIS presented an immediate threat to US homeland security.

“Well, I believe it can be,” she said. “I believe that they’re recruiting in Europe, there’s no question, in these three places, Spain, Germany, the number of passport fighters. We know there are at least 100 Americans that have gone to the arena to fight who have an American passport, who are going to try to get back. We know that they can go back to the European country, and, if it is a visa waiver country, come right in to the United States. So this is where I think we need to build our intelligence to see that we can disrupt the plot in this country before it happens, because there will be plots to kill Americans.”