U.S. military operations in Iraq may be limited for now, but the rhetoric in Washington is heating up.
On Thursday, it boiled over at the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel painted a new and more dangerous picture of the threat that the Islamic State poses to Americans and U.S. interests.
The group "is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group," Hagel said in response to a question about whether the Islamic State posed a similar threat to the United States as al Qaeda did before Sept. 11, 2001.
"They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They're tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we've seen," Hagel said, adding that "the sophistication of terrorism and ideology married with resources now poses a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country."
Hagel's comments added to the mismatch between the Obama administration's increasingly aggressive rhetoric and its current game plan for how to take on the group in Iraq and Syria, which so far involves limited airstrikes and some military assistance to the Kurdish and Iraqi forces fighting the militants. It has also requested from Congress $500 million to arm moderate rebel factions in Syria. But for now, the United States is not interested in an Iraqi offer to let U.S. fighter jets operate out of Iraqi air bases.
On Tuesday, the Islamic State released a video that showed the beheading of James Foley, an American journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012. It was the first known attack by the group against an American.
In the video showing Foley's murder, a masked militant speaking with a British accent also brandished a sword over the American journalist Steven Sotloff before the camera and threatened to kill him if American airstrikes in Iraq directed at Islamic State militants continued.
On Thursday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, also speaking at the Pentagon, said the group does pose an immediate threat to the West in the form of the hundreds of European and American fighters who have fought with the group in Iraq and Syria and could return to their home countries to attack.
Previously, Dempsey described the threat posed by the Islamic State as regional, but with the potential to become a "trans-regional and global threat."
On Thursday, Dempsey said that to deter the group, it will require addressing "the part of the organization that resides in Syria."
Dempsey said he uses the name ISIS for the group because it reminds him that its long-term vision is "the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and al-Sham includes Lebanon, the current state of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait."
"If they were to achieve that vision, it would fundamentally alter the face of the Middle East and create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways," Dempsey said.
Hagel's comments cap a week of escalating rhetoric from senior administration officials, from President Barack Obama on down.
On Tuesday, in response to the Foley video, Secretary of State John Kerry said "ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed."
Obama, speaking Wednesday in response to Foley's death, said, "From governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread."
Obama's most recent assessments of the group's strength stood in stark contrast to his portrayal of ISIS, and other terrorist groups like it, in an interview with the New Yorker seven months ago. At the time, Obama likened the group to a junior varsity basketball team.
"The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant," Obama said.
Later in the interview, he said, "How we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn't lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into."
Since then, ISIS has conquered broad swaths of both Syria and Iraq, including Mosul, the country's second-largest city, and has begun focusing on governing the territory the group now controls. U.S. intelligence officials say the group is devoting considerable human and financial resources toward keeping essential services like electricity, water, and sewage functioning in their territory. In some areas, they even operate post offices and road-building programs.
Dempsey and Hagel said Thursday that the group's momentum had been disrupted thanks in part to the 89 airstrikes the United States has launched since Aug. 8, but stressed that the group was nowhere close to being defeated.
"It is possible to contain them, but not in perpetuity," Dempsey said. "This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision, which will eventually have to be defeated."
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