CIA Director Brennan says world has more terrorists, but US safer

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In an exclusive interview, CIA Director John Brennan conceded to NBC's Richard Engel that there are more terrorists in the world than ever before -- but said the U.S. is still safer than it's ever been since 9/11.

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When Engel asked Brennan, "Are there more terrorists ... out there right now than there were several years ago?" Brennan agreed that there were. "This is a much larger number than we have seen previously," he said. He cited the growth of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the "vast flow" of foreign fighters into the terror group's territory, as well as the rise of ISIS "franchises" in other parts of the world.

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CIA Director John Brennan through the years
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CIA Director Brennan says world has more terrorists, but US safer
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 07: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) speaks as Acting CIA Director Michael Morell (R) and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan (2nd L) listen while making personnel announcements during an event in the East Room at the White House, on January 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama has nominated Hagel for the next Secretary of Defense and Brennan to become the new director of the CIA. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
James Clapper (R), Director of National Intelligence, testifies alongside CIA Director John Brennan (L), during a US House Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 10, 2015. The committee held the hearing to examine worldwide cyber threats. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan (L), U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee to be CIA director, meets with U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) at Feinstein's office at Hart Senate Office Building January 31, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Brennan met with Feinstein who will hold a hearing to start the confirmation process of Brennan's nomination. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Anti-war protesters shout slogans as John Brennan (R), President Barack Obama's pick to lead the CIA, arrives to testify before a full committee hearing on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
John Brennan, US President Barack Obama's pick to lead the CIA, testifies before a full committee hearing on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 12: CIA Director John Brennan testifies during the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee hearing on 'Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States' on Tuesday, March 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 08: General Keith B. Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command (L); John O. Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (C); and Robert S. Mueller III, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (R), take part in a question-and-answer forum during the International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS) on August 8, 2013 in New York City. The ICCS, which is co-hosted by Fordham University and the FBI, is held every 18 months; more than 25 countries are represented at this year's conference. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan delivers remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations March 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Brennan denied accusations by U.S. senators who claim the CIA conducted unauthorized searches of computers used by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staff members in an effort to learn how the committee gained access to the agencyÃs own 2009 internal review of its detention and interrogation program, undermining Congressà oversight of the spy agency. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Director of Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan speaks during a press conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, December 11, 2014. The head of the Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged Thursday some agency interrogators used 'abhorrent' unauthorized techniques in questioning terrorism suspects after the 9/11 attacks. CIA director John Brennan said there was no way to determine whether the methods used produced useful intelligence, but he strongly denied the CIA misled the public. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - SEPTEMBER 10: CIA Director John Brennan testifies during a House Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Cyber Security and the threat of Cyber Attacks in Washington, USA on September 10, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2014 fie photo, CIA Director John Brennan listens during a news conference at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. An anonymous hacker claims to have breached CIA Director John Brennanâs personal email account and has posted documents online, including a list of email addresses purportedly from Brennanâs contact file. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
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But when Engel asked if the rise in the number of terrorists meant the U.S. was less safe than it had been, Brennan said the U.S. had actually become safer.

"When I think about 9/11 and how al Qaeda was able to take advantage of inabilities within the homeland ... we have strengthened our security in the homeland to a great, great degree ... We as a country are far, far safer now than we were on 9/11."

Engel asked how Brennan could make that statement given the rise of ISIS. The CIA director said other countries were less safe because of the threat of ISIS, but reiterated his belief that the U.S. is "safer today than it was 15 years ago."

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Brussels Attacks: Domestic security response
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CIA Director Brennan says world has more terrorists, but US safer
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 22: Heavily armed police patrol the streets in lower Manhattan following a heightened terror alert after attacks in the Belgian capital of Brussels on March 22, 2016 in New York City. Dozens are thought to have been killed after numerous bombs were set off at the Brussels airport and Metro. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 22: Heavily armed police patrol the streets in lower Manhattan following a heightened terror alert after attacks in the Belgian capital of Brussels on March 22, 2016 in New York City. Dozens are thought to have been killed after numerous bombs were set off at the Brussels airport and Metro. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 22: Heavily armed police patrol the streets in lower Manhattan following a heightened terror alert after attacks in the Belgian capital of Brussels on March 22, 2016 in New York City. Dozens are thought to be killed after numerous bombs were set off at the Brussels airport and Metro. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
New York Police Department (NYPD) officers stand guard in Times Square on March 22, 2016, in New York. New York and Washington stepped up security in the wake of the attacks in Brussels on March 22, deploying counter-terrorism reinforcements and the National Guard to airports and stations, officials said. The New York Police Department (NYPD) said there was no indication that the attacks in Belgium were connected to New York, but ordered the steps as America's biggest city of 8.4 million began the morning commute. Around 35 people were killed and more than 200 wounded on Tuesday in bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station in the city that is home to the European Union and NATO. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
New York Police Department (NYPD) officers stand guard in Times Square on March 22, 2016, in New York. New York and Washington stepped up security in the wake of the attacks in Brussels on March 22, deploying counter-terrorism reinforcements and the National Guard to airports and stations, officials said. The New York Police Department (NYPD) said there was no indication that the attacks in Belgium were connected to New York, but ordered the steps as America's biggest city of 8.4 million began the morning commute. Around 35 people were killed and more than 200 wounded on Tuesday in bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station in the city that is home to the European Union and NATO. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A New York Police Department (NYPD) officer patrols in Times Square on March 22, 2016, in New York. New York and Washington stepped up security in the wake of the attacks in Brussels on March 22, deploying counter-terrorism reinforcements and the National Guard to airports and stations, officials said. The New York Police Department (NYPD) said there was no indication that the attacks in Belgium were connected to New York, but ordered the steps as America's biggest city of 8.4 million began the morning commute. Around 35 people were killed and more than 200 wounded on Tuesday in bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station in the city that is home to the European Union and NATO. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A New York Police Department (NYPD) officer patrols in Times Square on March 22, 2016, in New York. New York and Washington stepped up security in the wake of the attacks in Brussels on March 22, deploying counter-terrorism reinforcements and the National Guard to airports and stations, officials said. The New York Police Department (NYPD) said there was no indication that the attacks in Belgium were connected to New York, but ordered the steps as America's biggest city of 8.4 million began the morning commute. Around 35 people were killed and more than 200 wounded on Tuesday in bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station in the city that is home to the European Union and NATO. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
New York Police Department (NYPD) officers patrol in Times Square on March 22, 2016, in New York. New York and Washington stepped up security in the wake of the attacks in Brussels on March 22, deploying counter-terrorism reinforcements and the National Guard to airports and stations, officials said. The New York Police Department (NYPD) said there was no indication that the attacks in Belgium were connected to New York, but ordered the steps as America's biggest city of 8.4 million began the morning commute. Around 35 people were killed and more than 200 wounded on Tuesday in bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station in the city that is home to the European Union and NATO. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
New York Police Department (NYPD) officers stand guard in Times Square on March 22, 2016, in New York. New York and Washington stepped up security in the wake of the attacks in Brussels on March 22, deploying counter-terrorism reinforcements and the National Guard to airports and stations, officials said. The New York Police Department (NYPD) said there was no indication that the attacks in Belgium were connected to New York, but ordered the steps as America's biggest city of 8.4 million began the morning commute. Around 35 people were killed and more than 200 wounded on Tuesday in bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station in the city that is home to the European Union and NATO. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 22: Heavily armed police patrol the streets in lower Manhattan following a heightened terror alert after attacks in the Belgian capital of Brussels on March 22, 2016 in New York City. Dozens are thought to be killed after numerous bombs were set off at the Brussels airport and Metro. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A pair of Metro-North Railroad Police officers patrol in New York's Grand Central Terminal, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Authorities are increasing security throughout New York City following explosions at the airport and subway system in the Belgian capital of Brussels. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Out in full force. Protecting NYC with the #Belgiumattack in mind. Rest assured we are prepared. https://t.co/SRLwsYxihn
#LAXPD has increased patrol in all terminals. Report Suspicious Activity To The Police. https://t.co/aKfOsyY3q3
BREAKING: NYPD to ramp up security at mass transit points, bridges & tunnels, and other landmarks following today's attacks in Brussels.
Full statement on the #Belgium terror attacks. Stepping up NYPD patrols in transit & high profile areas in NYC. https://t.co/BCvrJIH5ZO
Explosions in #Brussels - Always stay alert. If you see something, say something. (888)NYC-SAFE https://t.co/or1qVjY0ZK
NYPD steps up security at @TimesSquareNYC due to Brussels attacks https://t.co/AcKgK8uaaP
DHS will not hesitate to adjust our security posture, as appropriate, to protect the American people. #Brussels
DHS is closely monitoring the unfolding events in #Brussels and we remain in contact with our counterparts in the region.
Heavy police presence and k9 In penn station
Seeing cops in riot gear w/ automatic rifles as I get off at Penn Station. Times like this I hate working close to a landmark. Be safe.
STAY STRONG #BRUSSELS. OUR HEARTS ARE WITH YOU-- https://t.co/yBJ1dGhgiD
Transit Police, including bomb dogs, conducting extra patrols on MAX and transit stations after #Brussels🇧🇪 attack. No known threat to #PDX.
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22: LAX airport police officers with automatic weapons patrol near the Tom Bradley International Terminal March 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. A terrorist attack in Brussels has put law enforcement on high alert in Los Angeles despite no specific threats. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22: Los Angeles County sheriff's transit police stand by the entrance to the Metro Red and Purple lines in Los Angeles Tuesday morning, March 22, 2016, as an added measure of security following terrorist attacks in Brussels. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22: LAX airport police officer Cortinas keeps watch at Terminal Two March 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. A terrorist attack in Brussels has put law enforcement on high alert in Los Angeles despite no specific threats. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22: Los Angeles County sheriff's transit police patrol Union Station in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday morning, March 22, 2016, as an added measure of security following terrorist attacks in Brussels. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22: Los Angeles County sheriff's transit police stand by the entrance to the Metro Red and Purple lines in Los Angeles Tuesday morning, March 22, 2016, as an added measure of security following terrorist attacks in Brussels. (Photo by Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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One of the reasons the CIA director could make the assertion is that al Qaeda, the organization that attacked New York and Washington, D.C. in 2001, has been "methodically dismantled," in his words.

"It took a rather intense and deliberate effort on the part of the CIA as well as other agencies and our partners overseas," said Brennan, "to take that organization apart bit by bit. ... The organization has been hollowed out."

NBC News has exclusively obtained a top secret presidential "kill list" from June 2008, and an analysis of the list shows just how many al Qaeda targets have been taken off the battlefield in recent years.

According to a senior U.S. intelligence official, the color-coded 32-page list was prepared for President George W. Bush, and was the last list presented to him.

Twenty-eight of the 285 names on the roster of "Major Terrorism Figures" were labeled as dead when the list was published.

RELATED: NYPD performs active shooting drill in Manhattan

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CIA Director Brennan says world has more terrorists, but US safer
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Police officers following an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Police officers from the K-9 Unit during an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, left, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, right, talk before an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a press conference following an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, speaks at a press conference following an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Firefighters drag a wounded actor to safety during an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Police officers during an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, left, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, right, talk before an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Firefighters drag a wounded actor to safety during an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: James Waterse, New York City Police Department Chief of Counterterrorism, speaks at a press conference following a drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro speaks at a press conference following an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton congratulates officers after an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: New York City Fire Department Chief of Counterterrorism and Emergency Preparedness Joseph Pfeifer speaks at a press conference following an active shooter drill on Kenmare St. on November 22, 2015 in New York City. The drill, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, simulated an active shooter situation at the Bowery subway station. (Michael Graae/Getty Images)
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Eight years later, according to an NBC News analysis, 31 more terrorists on the list have been killed, 25 during the Obama administration. The most active period of what one senior intelligence official called a "slow-motion manhunt" was before and after the Abbottabad raid of May 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden. Seven leaders were killed between April and September 2011, including bin Laden.

Since 2008, other top al Qaeda figures who were not on the list have been taken out, including U.S.-born radical cleric and al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki.

Seven potential successors to bin Laden have been killed, including the group's new number two, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Nineteen of the 22 men indicted in the East Africa embassy bombings have been killed or captured and convicted, and more than half of the members of the al Qaeda Shura Council, its governing body circa 2000, have been killed or captured.

An image grab taken from a video released by ISIS official Al-Raqqa site on Sept. 23, 2014, allegedly shows ISIS recruits riding in armed trucks in an unknown location. (Photo courtesy: Getty)

The Obama administration uses similar so-called "kill lists," though they are described by a senior intelligence official as "less cartoonish" than the Bush version. And the U.S. continues to strike and kill targets on the list.

"They still have a lethal capability that we cannot ignore," said Brennan of al Qaeda. "But much of that organization has been taken apart and they don't have the numbers or the capability to carry out the attacks that they once did because of these efforts."

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