The Orlando attack exposes the biggest blind spot in the US strategy against ISIS

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Orlando terrorist Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS; was abusive and homophobic

Over the past several months, ISIS' "caliphate" has started to crumble.

Local forces and a US-led coalition have been beating the militants back in Iraq and Syria, where its core territory lies. And it's close to losing its stronghold in Libya, where ISIS was thought to be building a "back-up capital" in case its de-facto capital in Syria falls.

But none of that has mattered this week from a messaging standpoint. ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh) has dominated the news not because it is losing in the Middle East, but because one of its apparent sympathizers in the US carried out an attack on American soil.

The attack on a LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando last weekend exposes the double-edged sword of ISIS' strategy. The group has been successful not only at seizing territory in the Middle East, but also at motivating supporters in the West to kill in its name.

RELATED: Orlando massacre vigils and tributes around the World

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Orlando massacre vigils and tributes around the World
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Orlando massacre vigils and tributes around the World
People gather in front of the US Embassy in Copenhagen to remember the victims at the nightclub Pulse in Orlando Florida on June 13, 2016. / AFP / Scanpix / Jens Astrup / Denmark OUT (Photo credit should read JENS ASTRUP/AFP/Getty Images)
April Ross looks at a makeshift memorial outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts for the mass shooting victims at the Pulse nightclub June 13, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The American gunman who launched a murderous assault on a gay nightclub in Orlando was radicalized by Islamist propaganda, officials said Monday, as they grappled with the worst terror attack on US soil since 9/11. The Islamic State group claimed slain shooter Omar Mateen was acting as 'one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America' when he attacked the Pulse club in the Florida resort city, an assault that ended when police stormed the venue. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
People lay flowers and light candles to commemorate victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando in front of the US embassy in Warsaw on June 13, 2016. / AFP / AFP PHOTO / WOJTEK RADWANSKI (Photo credit should read WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
People commemorate victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando in front of the US embassy in Warsaw on June 13, 2016. / AFP / AFP PHOTO / WOJTEK RADWANSKI (Photo credit should read WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 13, 2016: Placards and flowers brought at the US Embassy in Moscow to pay tribute to the Orlando nightclub shooting victims. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 13: Flowers are placed on a rainbow flag to remember victims of the shooting at an Orlando nightclub on June 13, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea. Omar Mateen, who had recently pledged allegiance to ISIS, died after killing 49 people early morning on June 12 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
People hold candles as they share a minute of silence during a vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting in Florida, in Hong Kong on June 13, 2016. Law enforcement authorities have lowered the death toll from the weekend massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando to 49, the deadliest mass shooting in American history, explaining that the shooter had been counted in the original tally. / AFP / ANTHONY WALLACE (Photo credit should read ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - JUNE 13: People hold a rainbow flag during a vigil for the attack at the gay club in Orlando, on Monday, June 13, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Dario Pignatelli/Getty Images)
Australians gather to place candles and flags in Sydney on June 13, 2016, in solidarity with the global gay community after a gunman opened fire in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing over 50 people. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was lit with the colours of the rainbow on June 13 as hundreds of Australians gathered to stand in solidarity with the global gay community after the worst mass shooting in modern US history. / AFP / WILLIAM WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 13: Members of the public look on during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, at Frank Kitts Park on June 13, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. Omar Mateen allegedly killed more than 50 people and injured 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shootings in the country's history. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Josh Mercer wears a T-shirt Monday, June 13, 2016, in honor of two of his friends who were killed during a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
People gather for a candlelight vigil in remembrance for mass shooting victims in Orlando, from San Diego, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Mourners gather under a LGBT pride flag flying at half-mast for a candlelight vigil in remembrance for mass shooting victims in Orlando, from San Diego, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A rainbow flag is held up during a vigil after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Men stand together during a vigil after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
People hold a vigil after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A rainbow flag is held up with the name of the gay nightclub where the worst mass shooting in U.S. history occured in Orlando,Florida, during a vigil in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies are seen behind a girl riding in a bus at the 46th annual Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood, California, after a gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/David McNew
People pay their respects to the Orlando massacre victims during a vigil in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Two women hold each other at a vigil outside The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, considered by some as the center of New York State's gay rights movement, following the shooting massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
A man carries a gay pride flag at a vigil outside The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, considered by some as the center of New York State's gay rights movement, following the shooting massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
A man lays flowers at a memorial outside The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, considered by some as the center of New York State's gay rights movement, following the shooting massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
People take part in a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S., in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Orlando residents Arissa Suarez (L) and Malcom Crawson attend a vigil at Lake Eola Park for victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius
A Boston Police Officer stands behind flowers left at a Pride Month block party, the same day as the mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
People attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Orlando attack against a gay night club, held in San Francisco, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
People march down Market Street during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Orlando attack against a gay night club, held in San Francisco, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
People hold up signs in solidarity at a candlelight vigil in remembrance for mass shooting victims in Orlando, from San Diego, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A candlelight vigil in remembrance for mass shooting victims in Orlando is held in San Diego, California, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A rainbow flag is held up during a vigil after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A couple puts their arms around each other outside the White House where the U.S. flag flies at half-staff at sundown as people gather for a vigil on Pennsylvania Avenue later in the day of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in Washington June 12, 2016. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 13: The Michael Fowler Centre is lit up in the colours of the rainbow flag after a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, at Frank Kitts Park on June 13, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. Omar Mateen allegedly killed more than 50 people and injured 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shootings in the country's history. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 12: Candles sit on the edge of Lake Eola, June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The shooting at Pulse Nightclub, which killed 50 people and injured 53, is the worst mass-shooting event in American history. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Brett Morian, from Daytona Beach, hugs an attendee during the candlelight vigil at Ember in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday, June 12, 2016. (Joshua Lim/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
People sit by the water with candles during a vigil in a park following a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Flags fly at half-staff around the Washington Monument at daybreak in Washington with the US Capitol in the background Monday, June 13, 2016. President Barack Obama ordered flags lowered to half-staff to honor the victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings. (AP Photo/J. David Ake.)
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And the US and other Western countries are struggling to figure out how to stop ISIS from influencing, and even directing, attacks abroad.

'ISIS-inspired' attacks

So far, no evidence has emerged to indicate that the Orlando shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, had any direct contact with ISIS leadership. But he pledged allegiance to the group while he was carrying out the attack. ISIS claimed responsibility through its propaganda channels, ensuring that the public perceives Mateen as an ISIS terrorist.

"This is an opportunity for IS to appear omnipresent, appear like it has tentacles that stretch deep into the heart of 'the crusader enemy,' as IS refers to it," Charlie Winter, an expert on jihadist propaganda and a senior research associate at Georgia State University's Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, told Business Insider.

ISIS has spread its ideology across the world through its savvy use of the internet. No other terror group before it has been able to create such an effective propaganda operation.

And US leaders still haven't been able to counter ISIS' messaging as effectively as ISIS is able to disseminate it.

CIA Director John Brennan told to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that ISIS has "made extensive and sophisticated use of the various technological innovations that we have witnessed over the past decade."

"These so-called lone wolves, the ones who operate as a result of the incitement, encouragement, and exhortations of these terrorist organizations, it is an exceptionally challenging issue for the intelligence community, security and law enforcement to deal with," he said.

He added that ISIS' "inspiration can lead someone to embark on this path of destruction and start to acquire the capability, the expertise, maybe do the surveillance and carry out an attack without triggering any of those traditional signatures we might see as a foreign terrorist organization tries to deploy operatives here."

ISISREUTERS/Kevin Kolczynski

Though ISIS previously used its online operation to convince foreigners to travel to the "caliphate," the name the group uses for its territory in the Middle East, ISIS is now focusing on motivating supporters to strike in their home countries. As it loses territory, ISIS leadership is sending the message that supporters can be more useful by killing civilians in the West in its name.

Various Western government have launched counter-messaging efforts, such as the US State Department's "Think Again, Turn Away" Twitter account and Britain's "Open Your Eyes" campaign.

But experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of these campaigns.

"You're dealing with a subset of individuals that are fervent in their beliefs," Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told Business Insider in April. "And they spend every possible moment pushing their beliefs."

RELATED: Orlando shooting victims

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Orlando shooting victims
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Orlando shooting victims
ORLANDO, USA - JUNE 13: Pictures of one of the massacre victims left at a make shift memorial at Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, USA on June 13, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, USA - JUNE 13: Pictures of one of the massacre victims left at a make shift memorial at Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, USA on June 13, 2016. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
People wave rainbow flags and hold portraits on the Place de la Comedie in Montpellier on June 13, 2016 as they pay homage to the victims of a shooting at a gay nighclub in Orlando. / AFP / SYLVAIN THOMAS (Photo credit should read SYLVAIN THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Since he was a boy, Anthony Luis Laureano Disla loved to dance. Early Sunday morning, he was dancing and laughing with his friends at Pulse nightclub in Orlando when a gunman stormed and shot him. Laureano Disla was 25. His obituary is linked in our bio. #PulseShooting #OrlandoUnited #PrayForOrlando #OrlandoStrong
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon moved from Puerto Rico to Vero Beach, longtime friend Daniel Gmys-Casiano said, and was immediately promoted to manager at a shoe store. He was a protector, confidant and hero, Gmys-Casiano said. Wilson-Leon died in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. He was 37. His obituary is linked in our bio. #PulseShooting #OrlandoUnited #PrayForOrlando #OrlandoStrong
Enrique L. Rios left his home in New York to spend the weekend celebrating a friend's birthday in Orlando. He was killed in the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub Sunday. He was 25. His obituary is linked in our bio. #PulseShooting #OrlandoUnited #PrayForOrlando #OrlandoStrong
To Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, good living was all about looking, smelling and feeling his best, loved ones said. He and his longtime partner, Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, were together at Pulse nightclub early Sunday, and both were among the victims who died in the shooting. Perez was 35. His obituary is linked in our bio. #PulseShooting #OrlandoUnited #PrayForOrlando #OrlandoStrong
#PulseShooting victim Mercedez Marisol Flores lived "her life way she wanted to" https://t.co/UvRbZGXrkR https://t.co/XUavmANlgV
#PulseShooting victim Javier Jorge-Reyes had "a caring heart" https://t.co/nj8mHDAzj5 https://t.co/zEsCirT0tv
#PulseShooting victim Darryl Roman Burt II: The kind of person always willing to help https://t.co/XWZUMK3v96 https://t.co/P34dZLLTMI
#PulseShooting victim Jerald Arthur Wright: part of a tight-knit Disney family https://t.co/9VDSBbAtlM https://t.co/bqIHItjzMx
#PulseShooting victim Juan Chavez Martinez remembered as kind boss https://t.co/Q9LoBEzR9a https://t.co/750dJv1k9O
#PulseShooting victim Edward Sotomayor Jr.: Travel site brand manager mourned https://t.co/4WvuWpf1WO https://t.co/WnmtowrNv0
#PulseShooting victim Stanley Almodovar III: "Amazing person with a good soul" https://t.co/TptiBAC0F4 https://t.co/A8uTHkdIUv
#PulseShooting victim Kimberly 'KJ' Morris: Bouncer at nightclub always wore a smile https://t.co/Qhc11pIm7x https://t.co/xv6btN6fJt
#PulseShooting Juan Ramon Guerrero: Clubgoer went to Pulse with boyfriend https://t.co/2O1PtMLd7N https://t.co/ARI2JrhUNe
#PulseShooting victim Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz called "wonderful cousin" https://t.co/2AimnbgmRl https://t.co/6HdUFZLxab
#PulseShooting victim Luis Vielma: Theme-park worker was "true friend" https://t.co/2ndLrp6fZ4 https://t.co/ZCHPkqdD9M
#PulseShooting victim Eric Ivan Ortiz Rivera: Always willing to help https://t.co/u4y9djGfjO https://t.co/50wYaYsxbi
#PulseShooting victim Eddie Justice texted his mother he loved her during shooting https://t.co/ncpWg3bTM8 https://t.co/3z9QlnfU0x
#PulseShooting victim Shane Evan Tomlinson had band performance just hours before he died https://t.co/V2FzgWVDL1 https://t.co/04nrIfjBr8
#PulseShooting victim Miguel Angel Honorato was Apopka father of 3 https://t.co/pL3ODPKbRl https://t.co/CWGl3RWl7s
#PulseShooting victim Jason Josaphat was a soft-spoken teen excited for the journey ahead https://t.co/CGfustjw4R https://t.co/0mB4Lw60ok
#PulseShooting victim Amanda Alvear wouldn't want hate spread in her name https://t.co/jlck4GCni6 https://t.co/gGcewMqAT4
#PulseShooting victim Brenda Lee Marquez McCool was a mother of of 12 https://t.co/9g6UQvQody https://t.co/8KxnRPduPH
#PulseShooting victim Christopher Sanfeliz was a bank worker from Tampa https://t.co/NmZVLzkNn0 https://t.co/kaNE6htcrm
#PulseShooting victim Simon Carrillo was a good boss who loved to travel https://t.co/TjVwcyYxPS https://t.co/HfBeklS9gJ
Shooting victim Jean Carlos Nieves Rodriguez: 'Whatever you needed, you could count on him' https://t.co/AzS8r3WAgm https://t.co/mcTW41S1Pp
#PulseShooting victim Christopher Leinonen was a gay rights activist https://t.co/C9pcRIBWPt https://t.co/uRM6d1zWGM
#PulseShooting victim Jonathan Camuy: Great employee of @LaVozKids on @telemundo https://t.co/5yiEe8CplH https://t.co/xx5Gg5ekBm
Soft-spoken teen #PulseShooting victim Jason Josaphat was excited for the journey ahead https://t.co/YBi6yenkPP https://t.co/JwckpTI6Yq
#PulseShooting victim Gilberto Silva was "light, life" of family https://t.co/yhWMunChQ4 https://t.co/nrw6SqEJFV
#PulseShooting victim Oscar Aracena returned from vacation a day before he died https://t.co/V2nomox0ax https://t.co/XWQc98bCMg
#PulseShooting victim Tevin Eugene Crosby was a hardworking business owner https://t.co/D9qYDR0Y6z https://t.co/40nqriye7J
Leroy Valentin Fernandez was a natural performer. His zeal for life spilled offstage and f… https://t.co/KBjpemnGZZ https://t.co/IsN5w1DHJz
The last image friends have of Omar Capo shows the 20-year-old doing what he loves: Dancin… https://t.co/BiW5QRJLnY https://t.co/DvVjDt1tUS
Shane Evan Tomlinson sang with his band Frequency Saturday night at Blue Martini nightclub… https://t.co/m1Q0oQGKRG https://t.co/wSQnGsiT7G
Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 "He was the type of guy who goes along with anybody." https://t.co/zpe4iKKR74
Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33, worked at a blood donation center and "loved to dance salsa" https://t.co/VyBRWl9l6t https://t.co/wRhlZrIrPC
#PulseShooting victim Angel Luis Candelario-Padro was in Orlando to start a new life https://t.co/FkaTvfPMIs https://t.co/DqvGJpGiKB
YOU MATTERED❤@TheTalkSoup: Cory James Connell, 21, #PulseNightclub #Orlando #victims https://t.co/nyEsvomYgx
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32, worked at Pulse, her aunt called her murder "senseless" https://t.co/VyBRWl9l6t https://t.co/pf9vQjWRCB
We won't let you go unheard, Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old #PulseShooting https://t.co/nsODtqcACR
Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old. Rest in Peace. 🌈❤️ https://t.co/GsIWQRyASa
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32, was with his boyfriend, Juan Guerrero, 22, at the club https://t.co/jnYLtN81jR https://t.co/aq5vjFpLBU
Akyra Murray -- 18 -- Just graduated. Star basketball player (1,000 points in her career). #6of49 #WeSpeakYourName https://t.co/YxPQmYXAtj
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32, "was always trying to do stuff to make you feel better" https://t.co/VyBRWl9l6t https://t.co/wXdWWe9eaq
#RIP Martin Benitez Torres, 33, from Puerto Rico was in Orlando with family. https://t.co/mPS4myjcaz #WeAreOrlando https://t.co/k4DOxGUaS3
R.I.P. Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old #PulseShooting https://t.co/B0C4xnZ8Zq
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35, had a son and worked at Disney Live! https://t.co/jnYLtN81jR https://t.co/g7fMhsC2ui
Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37, was the owner of D’Magazine Salon and Spa: https://t.co/jnYLtN81jR https://t.co/zbClVeAGBO
#RIP Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 and Luis Conde, 39, were together 13 years. https://t.co/mPS4myjcaz #WeAreOrlando https://t.co/lONiiHf735
#Remembertheirnames Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan https://t.co/Bjt30oeTJl #OrlandoStrong https://t.co/H0D4GY0e2A
Be thou at peace: @USArmyReserve CPT Antonio Davon Brown, Iraq/Afg vet, killed in #Orlando https://t.co/Zgg9v6TMye https://t.co/DPVtlDUuD6
Rest In Peace handsome, Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 years old #PulseShooting https://t.co/b69fXb2j7L
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One platform on which ISIS has been especially successful on is Twitter. The company has made an effort to shut down ISIS-affiliated accounts — but more keep popping up in their place. And ISIS sympathizers outnumber the government workers tasked with countering their message.

Hughes explained: "If [Twitter] is taking it down and it makes [ISIS supporters] spend another five minutes finding a new account, they're going to spend that five minutes opening that new account. Because they believe what they believe and they believe they're right, in a way that people who are doing counter-messaging and alternative messaging also have day jobs and can [spend] an hour trying to hijack a hashtag, but it's really not something you're passionate about."

Brennan admitted that the US has fallen short in its efforts to stop the spread of ISIS' ideology.

"Unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group's terrorism capability and global reach," he told the Senate Intelligence Committee. "The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly."

RELATED: What was Oman Mateen doing months before Orlando shooting?

What was Omar Mateen doing months before Orlando shooting?

It's not yet clear how Mateen became an ISIS sympathizer, but he had a known history of vocalizing support for radical groups.

And even though he was on a government terror watch list, he managed to purchase a semi-automatic rifle. The FBI investigated Mateen in 2013 and 2014, but ultimately couldn't come up with enough evidence to arrest him.

The FBI reportedly has thousands of similar investigations open at any given time.

"If there are indeed 10,000 investigations open, there is arguably a larger number of people that the US knows are radical but don't have enough evidence to open up an investigation on," Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said on a conference call for the Foreign Policy Initiative this week.

And it's impossible for the FBI to monitor everyone, Vidino said.

"Unfortunately, I'm disappointed, because I'm very hesitant to see what would be the solutions here," Vidino said.

ISIS TwitterREUTERS/Kevin Kolczynski

'ISIS-directed' attacks

ISIS isn't relying on "lone wolves" alone to wreak havoc in the West.

The group is also developing operatives to carry out attacks planned and directed by ISIS leaders themselves.

And here, Western countries face another technological hurdle — being able to identify and monitor the electronic communications of these trained terrorists.

Some politicians are questioning whether encrypted messaging apps, which can't easily be penetrated by intelligence agencies, are too much of a danger to US national security. But giving law enforcement access to encrypted communications raises its own set of issues.

"We're trying to discuss a bill on encryption, using court orders to ask companies to cooperate in cases of national security as well as major, major crime," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California and the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at the hearing. "And it's just very difficult."

Some argue that allowing the government to access encrypted communications could compromise the privacy and security of Americans without sufficiently limiting terrorists' access to the technology, which is available from foreign companies as well as US companies.

"It's important to remember that if encryption is restricted in the United States, it will still be very easy to download strong encryption from hundreds of sources overseas," Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said at the committee hearing. "And in my judgment, requiring companies to build back doors in their products, to weaken strong encryption, will put the personal safety of Americans at risk at a dangerous time."

Wyden released a statement after the hearing noting that encryption is used to "protect everything from bank records and business transactions to personal communications and other sensitive data."

Keith Chu, a spokesman for Wyden, told Business Insider that the senator "supports helping US intelligence agencies adapt and target adversaries, for example by providing better training and additional resources for personnel or investigations."

Brennan disagreed with Wyden.

"US companies dominate the international market as far as encryption technologies that are available through these various apps," he said at the hearing.

He added: "So although you are right that there is the theoretical ability of foreign companies to be able to have those encryption capabilities that will be available to others, I do believe that this country and this private sector is integral to addressing these issues."

He had noted earlier in the hearing that the "digital domain" is the "new frontier" in terms of threats on US national security.

"I do not believe our legal frameworks as well as our organizational structures and our capabilities are yet at the point of being able to deal with the challenges in that digital domain that we need to have in the future," Brennan said.

ISISREUTERS/Kevin Kolczynski

But at this point, the government can only do so much to prevent terrorists from effectively using encryption to mask their communications.

Cybersecurity specialist Robert Graham, in a report for the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, wrote that encryption "backdoors" for law enforcement "would do more harm than good."

"The FBI has called for laws mandating encryption backdoors, but these laws would be mostly futile," he wrote. "They do not apply to software or phones created in other countries, for example. They do not apply to jihadist programmers who create their own apps based on open-source software."

The government also faces far simpler roadblocks than encryption.

After the terror attack last year in San Bernardino, California, which was also carried out by ISIS sympathizers, the FBI struggled to access information on the passcode-protected iPhone of one of the attackers. The FBI obtained a court order to force Apple to provide access to the phone's data, but Apple refused to comply.

The FBI eventually found its own way into the phone.

Brennan said he's concerned about "the government's inability to follow up on a court order and a warrant that grants the government access to some type of device that holds a lot of documents or information that could be inculpatory or exculpatory about an investigation as well as provide investigative leads to prevent the next attack."

He added: "There is something that this government has to come to grips with."

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