ISIS and the Threat to American Domestic Security
The ISIS threat to the US has two facets – the actual threat and the political factor. While the threat is real, the political issues must limit the threat so as not to damage Obama, who has claimed in the past that the threat of Islamic terrorism is gone.
Apparently, right now, the Obama administration is focused on the political factor. Soon after the Foley beheading, Obama made a brief statement denouncing it before returning to the golf course. Some analysts said this showed Obama’s disinterest in his role as president, while others said it was his way of showing that he didn’t take the domestic ISIS threat seriously.
But, there are other voices in the Obama administration that disagree. Although the Obama White House has until recently downplayed the threat posed by ISIS to the United States, military and intelligence sources are warning that ISIS is already in the US and is adding more personal through the porous US/Mexico border. The result, they say, is a terrorist threat greater than that seen before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by Al Qaeda.
Obviously, the Obama administration is trying to walk a political tightrope by highlighting the ISIS threat overseas, but trying to downplay the threat inside the US. In 2012, Obama claimed credit for destroying Al Qaeda and lambasted his opponent Romney for claiming that Islamic terrorists still posed a threat to the US. The result is that Obama’s homeland security network is left providing contradictory information and threat assessments.
Here’s an example of the contradictory nature of the administration’s threat assessment. The FBI and Homeland Security Department said last Friday there are no specific or credible terror threats to the U.S. homeland from ISIS. An intelligence bulletin, issued to state and local law enforcement, says while there’s no credible threat to the U.S. as a result of recent American airstrikes in Iraq, officials remain concerned that ISIS supporters could attack overseas targets with little warning.
But, there is a major concern that American intelligence agencies are monitoring – American Islamic radicals in Syria. America’s Homeland Security department has been concerned by the attractiveness of Syria’s rebel groups to Islamic Americans. This was just highlighted this week by the death of American Douglas McCain, who was fighting for ISIS in Aleppo, Syria, and the announcement of anther American as this report being prepared. Could American ISIS terrorists export terrorism from Syria to the US?
Although the US has tried to downplay the seriousness of the ISIS threat in America by calling it the “Junior Varsity,” (a term that refers to school sports teams consisting of members not good enough for the first team), there are Americans going to Syria and others allied to ISIS that have remained in the US. The U.S. State Department says they don’t have precise numbers of Americans who have joined ISIS, but they have positively identified about12. Obviously, precise numbers are unavailable and intelligence assessments, while educated, are still estimates due to limited U.S. intelligence in Syria. However, many in the intelligence community think the number is much higher.
In addition to ISIS, there is also a group of Americans who have linked up with al Qaeda’s affiliate al Nusra. CBS News reports there are even a larger number of unknown Americans who have joined the Syria Free Army.
While the State Department will only admit to a relatively small number of Americans who have linked up with terror groups in Syria, American law enforcement has been frantically trying to identify other ISIS sympathizers who could bring a terrorist campaign back to United States. Because they have passports that do not require visas to travel back, they represent the potential operatives who pose the biggest threat.
This could be a larger threat that the US State Department may be willing to admit. US intelligence estimates that about of the about 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria and about 300 American passport holders are allied with jihadist groups in Syria. “We know that there are several hundred American passport holders running around with ISIS in Syria or Iraq,” an official told the Washington Times, offering a figure well above widespread reports of about 100 such fighters. “It’s hard to tell whether or not they’re in Syria or moved to Iraq.”
How serious is the threat? The Pentagon says the terror group is “beyond anything we’ve seen.” In May, a 22-year-old man from Florida carried out a suicide bombing mission in Syria. And, last month, a Colorado woman was charged with conspiring to help a foreign terrorist organization after she told FBI agents that she planned to travel to Syria to meet a man who claimed to be fighting for ISIS. More recently, there have been pro-ISIS social media postings that have indicated that they may in the US and be targeting locations like Chicago (Obama’s hometown) and Las Vegas. Another sign of concern is that in the recent riots in Ferguson, there was a sign held by protestors that said, “ISIS is here.”
“This is a global crisis in need of a global solution. The Syrian conflict has turned that region into a cradle of violent extremism,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in his July speech in Oslo. “But the world cannot simply sit back and let it become a training ground from which our nationals can return and launch attacks. And we will not.”
The concern has been exacerbated by the porous nature of the US/Mexican border, where many fear that ISIS or other Islamic terrorists have already crossed. Texas Governor Rick Perry warned that there’s a “very real possibility that terrorists from groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are illegally crossing into the United States from Mexico.”
“Certainly there a great concern that the border between the United States and Mexico is un-secure, and we don’t know who’s using that. What I will share with you is that we’ve seen historic high levels of individuals from countries with terrorist ties over the course of the last months,” Perry said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The same concern is being expressed in the Congress. The ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee in the U.S. Senate warned that ISIS is trying to develop the capability of blowing up an entire American city.
The comments from Sen. Jim Inhofe, (R-Oklahoma), came in an interview with a television station in Oklahoma City. He said the U.S. now is in “the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in.”
Responding to questions about terror and the threat facing Americans, he said: “They’re crazy out there. And they are rapidly developing a method of blowing up a major U.S. city. You just can’t believe that’s happening.” He blamed the situation on the cuts in defense spending made by Obama.
Defense Secretary Hagel echoed the concern. “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” he said during a briefing on the beheading of American journalist James Foley. “ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen,” Hagel said. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded…So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it…and get ready.”
“There’s real concern that they could take what they’ve learned … come back home and conduct terror attacks,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told CNN. “So I think (McCain) is a stark reminder of the inside threat that foreign fighters can pose.”
US Special Forces soldiers who have fought in Iraq warn that although ISIS is fanatically Islamic, that will not stop them from allying with non-fanatics in order to become a more effective fighting machine. One retired Green Beret noted that ISIS is using much of the money from captured banks to buy non-jihadist technicians who can maintain and repair some of the technical military equipment that it has captured from Iraqi and Syrian forces. They have also become a haven for former Iraqi Army officers who were once members of the Baath party. This has given ISIS considerable military savvy.
If, as many are claiming, ISIS is in the US and is planning a terrorist attack, what is the potential target?
Many experts think that ISIS related terrorists in the US will opt for a large public gathering to maximize publicity like those terrorist attacks in India and Kenya. These targets might be stadiums, shopping malls, airports, schools, hotels, hospitals, and churches.
This is one reason why the threat against Las Vegas is taken so seriously. It is a major visitor location with some of America’s largest hotels. As in Mumbai, terrorists could methodically carry out their attacks with the largest number of potential targets.
The other option is a bomb as Senator Inhofe intimated. Some have even speculated that ISIS may try to detonate a radiological bomb, using some of the radioactive materials recently stolen from Iraqi nuclear research laboratories.
If ISIS is a threat to the US, how can America destroy the threat?
Even at this late date, the White House refuses to take the ISIS threat too seriously. However, there is some indication that a strategy is developing, which includes a rapprochement although indirectly with Syria’s Assad.
A regional peace and balance of power can’t be achieved by allying with Assad and leaving a political vacuum with the destruction of ISIS. There must be some Sunni political force to fill that vacuum or there will be no peace.
The answer is crafting an alliance with other regional nations like Saudi Arabia and the GCC. The goal is to create and support an acceptable, moderate Sunni political entity that can represent the Sunnis and have the military force to stop ISIS, Al Qaeda, Assad, and the Shiites.
Such a policy would also require stronger support of the Kurds in northern Iraq. The US has already announced that it is shipping arms directly to the Kurds. And, sources in Washington report that about 150 American Special Forces are already on the ground in Kurdistan training Kurds.
The Kurdish flank is critical for a holistic solution. According to American Special Forces experts, the Kurds are highly motivated and fighters with an excellent reputation – a reputation that has only been enhanced as Kurdish forces have advanced against ISIS with the help of US air strikes. One retired Green Beret, who trained and fought with the Kurds in 2003, has said that he has no doubts that with adequate arms, the Kurds can push ISIS back in Iraq.
According to many analysts in Washington, That leaves Syria. It isn’t enough to push ISIS back into Syria. It must be defeated or else it will merely return at a later date.
They are calling for a broad coalition of American, European, and Middle Eastern nations that will have to work together to solve the ISIS problem in Syria. Allying itself with Assad or carrying out limited air strikes on ISIS targets will only delay the inevitable conquest of Syria by ISIS.
Some military experts in Washington advocating that Western intervention will also require more than air strikes and arms shipments. Western Special Forces will be needed to act as highly trained cadres that can fight with the local established militias (like Sahawat) as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The great irony in the US is that the opposition Republicans in Congress (along with many Democrats) is more likely to support some sort of intervention in this manner than the Obama Administration. If Obama had greater persuasive talents, he could probably get congressional approval for more aggressive action against ISIS, just as President Bush did in the 2001 – 2003 timeframe.
Although the threat posed by ISIS is great, the ability of the Western world and the majority of Middle Eastern nations to stop them exist. Although many nations are ready and willing to act, to some observers the biggest block right now is the person residing in the White House.
NATO Summit 2014: Stay Committed to Afghanistan
By Luke Coffey
August 21, 2014
Issue Brief #4266
The 2014 NATO summit will be held in September in Wales. It will be the last summit before NATO ends its combat operations in Afghanistan and begins its Resolute Support mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The two most important issues at the summit regarding Afghanistan will be the financial funding for and size of the ANSF after 2015 and the number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. More than 50 international leaders of those nations that are participating in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will attend the summit. This offers a unique opportunity to address these issues.
The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World
By Dalibor Rohac
August 25, 2014
Policy Analysis No. 753
Extensive government ownership in the economy is a source of inefficiency and a barrier to economic development. Although precise measures of government ownership across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are hard to come by, the governments of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen all operate sizeable segments of their economies—in some cases accounting for more than two-thirds of the GDP.
International experience suggests that private ownership tends to outperform public ownership. Yet MENA countries have made only modest progress toward reducing the share of government ownership in their economies and are seen as unlikely candidates for wholesale privatization in the near future.
Egypt, Counterterrorism, and the Politics of Alienation
By Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson
August 20, 2014
When U.S. President Barack Obama pledged on August 18 “to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide” against jihadi terrorists in Iraq, “working with key partners in the region and beyond,” Egypt was probably one partner he had in mind. On the very same day, U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf cited counterterrorism as an “overlapping strategic interest” between the United States and Egypt. Asked if the United States still views Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as leading a democratic transition despite human rights abuses (such as those identified in a recent Human Rights Watch report), Harf replied, “He is, he is.” On the face of it, counterterrorism and human rights abuses might appear to be unrelated subjects. U.S. officials certainly treat them that way; they expect Sisi to be a useful ally in fighting terrorism, while occasionally bemoaning his repression and human rights abuses.
James Foley and the Battle for the Soul of the Arab and Muslim Worlds
By S. Abdallah Schleifer
Foreign Policy Research Institute
August 27, 2014
As an American Muslim and as a journalist, I am more than appalled by the murder of James Foley and the murder video. If I were King of Whatever/Wherever, I would go to war—to wipe out these IS perverts — perverters not just of Islam but of all the decencies known to all men/women of all the traditional faiths and to all men/women of just simple decent feelings. And not just for James Foley, brave soul that he was. But for all the victims of this atrocity that is called “The Islamic State” and known to us as ISIL or ISIS – the Christians, the Yazidis, the Shia soldiers of the Iraqi Army who surrendered and were then executed gangland style; the Sufis and any Iraqi Sunni who does not submit in public to the barbaric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi , the False Khalifa of Islam. Because of these criminals, who but traditional Muslims and decent Western scholars of Islam know that for Muslims the greatest litany of all, invoked at all times, in all places is Bism’Allah ar-Rahman, ar-Raheem – in the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.
ISIS’s Offensive in Syria Shows that U.S. Airstrikes Have Not Blunted Momentum
By Isabel Nassief and Jennifer Cafarella
Institute for the Study of War
August 28, 2014
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters that U.S. airstrikes “have stalled ISIL’s momentum” after two weeks of bombarding ISIS positions in Northern Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has not stalled under U.S. pressure. Rather, since the fall of Mosul and despite U.S. airstrikes, the insurgent army has continued a successful and spectacular offensive in Syria. Their gains nearly equal in scale the seizure of northern Iraq in June. The insurgent army’s latest triumph is the capture of Assad’s Tabqa air base in Eastern Syria.
ISIS and the New Middle East Cold War
By F. Gregory Gause, III
August 25, 2014
The territorial gains this summer by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in both those countries have added a new element to the new Middle East cold war that I wrote about in a Brookings Doha analysis paper published earlier in the summer. ISIS rebranded itself “the Islamic State” and declared a caliphate in Mosul. It threatened both Baghdad and Irbil in Iraq while consolidating control over more of eastern Syria and taking its fight toward Aleppo. Its successes have added to its numbers, both in terms of volunteers and in terms of other fighting groups which, while perhaps not sharing its ideology, are bandwagoning with an apparent winner. Its grisly execution of American journalist James Foley riveted world attention, but its successes predated that event by months. American bombing helped to turn back some of its recent gains in northern Iraq, but no one claims that ISIS has been defeated.
Military Implications of the Syrian Regime’s Defeat in Raqqa
By Jeffrey White
August 27, 2014
Over the past two months, jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have waged an increasingly successful campaign against Assad regime forces in Syria’s northern Raqqa province, culminating in the capture of al-Tabqa Airfield earlier this week. The defeat in Raqqa has major military implications — it represents a loss at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war, raising questions about whether the regime or Syrian rebels can defend other, more important areas of the country against further ISIS offensives.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
C: 202 536 8984 C: 301 509 4144