As the U.S. begins surveillance flights over Syria to track Sunni extremists who claim responsibility for beheading American journalist James Foley, there are mixed messages coming out of Washington over whether the Islamic State (IS) could attack U.S. soil.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called IS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an “imminent threat.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warned that the group is willing and able to “hit the homeland.” But are these threats overstated? And what should be done to thwart them?
“Increasingly, I have seen stronger relations between the al-Qaida affiliate al- Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with ISIS,” said Max Abrahms , assistant professor of public policy and terrorist expert at Northeastern University.
AQAP may be a smaller group, he says, but they are much better at making bombs.
“AQAP have tried to bomb us numerous times, so the biggest fear, I think, is that ISIS is going to be influenced by a group like AQAP and then strike the West,” he said.
Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and targeting officer in Iraq who helped track down former al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, points to the large numbers of Westerners who have joined IS ranks—and the large amount of territory IS controls.
“We already know how many Westerners are already working with them and have been recruited, ballpark,” she said. “I think that if they don’t already have their sights in the United States, the evolution of that organization would be that they would turn eventually to attacking the West.”
But other experts believe we’re jumping the gun in talking about threats to the “homeland.”
“At this point, this group is overwhelmingly an insurgent group focused on holding territory in Iraq, in killing Shi'ite and stoking the sectarian conflict in that region,” said Dartmouth College’s Daniel Benjamin, who formerly served as State Department counterterrorism coordinator during the Clinton era.
IS has no experience with what Benjamin calls “out-of-area attacks,” which are harder to carry out than people realize.
“It takes a great deal of training and practice and expertise,” he said. “It takes people who understand how to deal with masking their identities, with exercising a great deal of communications security and other aspects of operational security.”
There is time, Benjamin says, for the U.S. to develop intelligence and come up with a long-term strategy for containing and diminishing IS capability.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) speaks next to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey during a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Aug. 21, 2014.
The Obama administration stepped up airstrikes against IS in Iraq and has helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces regain territory won by IS militants. Now, Washington is weighing its options for Syria.
But this is where things get tricky: Syria has said it welcomes U.S. help against the militants, but warned that bombing IS targets without its permission would violate Syria’s sovereignty and constitute an “act of aggression.”
The U.S. rejected the notion it is cooperating with the Assad regime, under which nearly 200,000 Sunnis have died and millions have been displaced.
The Pentagon has said it’s considering expanding its support and training of the Free Syrian Army, but Bakos said that isn’t enough.
“I think it’s incredibly naïve to think that we can somehow effect regime change by effectively arming the moderate rebels that are left. They’d be up against ISIS and the Assad regime, which to me seems an impossible task without a major force on the ground behind them,” Bakos said.
“This is not just about us,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday. The fight against the Islamic State should come “from multiple directions.”
“That means that we’re going to have to have partners on the ground who are going to fight and are also going to help us collect intelligence,” said Dartmouth’s Benjamin. “And if we have that partnership in the region with Iraq and then ultimately with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan, then we could supplement what that alliance is doing with, for example, a drone campaign.”
But attrition alone won’t fix the problem, says Bakos. “Typically you have to have something in place that gives an alternative to the local population – and that they aren’t forced to—or interested in--working with that organization.”
Terrorist groups thrive in chaos and war zones, she says, and the U.S. needs to look at options for ending the civil war in Syria and must do what it can to bolster the new Iraq government and help it bring Sunnis back into the political fold.