The United States' senior counterterrorism official said on Wednesday that there is "no credible information" that the militants of the Islamic State, who have reigned terror on Iraq and Syria, are planning to attack the U.S. homeland. Although the group could pose a threat to the United States if left unchecked, any plot it tried launching today would be "limited in scope" and "nothing like a 9/11-scale attack."
That assessment by National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen stands in sharp contrast to dire warnings from other top Obama administration officials, who depict the group formerly known as ISIS or ISIL as the greatest threat to America since al Qaeda before it struck U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001.
Mere weeks ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Islamic State, which has conquered territory across Iraq and Syria, establishing a self-proclaimed caliphate, "is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group." Previously, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that the Sunni militant group would evolve into a "transregional and global threat" unless directly countered in Syria, its base of operations. Secretary of State John Kerry said that "ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed"; President Barack Obama warned two weeks ago that "there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread."
But Olsen, whose organization was set up after 9/11 to assess terrorism intelligence and "connect the dots" about potential attacks, painted a more measured picture of the fundamentalist group. "ISIL is not al Qaeda pre-9/11," Olsen told a Brookings Institution audience on Wednesday, Sept. 3. Osama bin Laden's network had covert cells in European countries and Southeast Asia, as well as a home base in Afghanistan. The Islamic State is "not there yet," Olsen said. There is "no indication at this point of a cell of foreign fighters operating in the United States."
Aside from ratcheting down the rhetoric, Olsen, whom Obama nominated to run the center in 2011, offered a needed degree of political cover for the president, who has been criticized for not addressing the Islamic State threat more aggressively. Even Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Obama was "too cautious" last week when he said that the United States doesn't yet have a strategy for attacking the group in Syria, where his own military leaders agree the United States must strike if he wants to wipe out the Islamist group. By describing the Islamic State not as an imminent threat to the United States, Olsen gave the president some breathing room to develop that strategy over time.
Obama also has to contend with the possibility that Americans will travel to Syria, train with the Islamic State, and return to the United States to launch attacks. Olsen acknowledged that as many as 100 Americans have trained and fought with Islamist groups in Syria but that the United States doesn't know how many actually joined up with the Islamic State in particular. "Left unchecked," the Sunni militants, who so far have limited their efforts mostly to establishing a caliphate, could turn their sights to the West "and potentially to the U.S." But there are no signs that they plan to do so now, he said.
Olsen's depiction deviates from his previous characterization of the group. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in July, he warned that the civil war in Syria was a magnet for extremists and was opening a safe haven "reminiscent of what we faced before 9/11 in Afghanistan." He also said that some 100 Americans had traveled to Syria and come back to the United States, though he emphasized that the FBI is monitoring and tracking many of them.
Syria remains a huge draw for potential terrorists, he told his Washington audience Wednesday. But the threat is more pronounced for Europe. At least 1,000 European passport holders have gone to Syria and could return to launch attacks, he said. Last week, the United Kingdom moved to its second-highest alert level in response to the Islamic States, whose ranks include British citizens -- most likely including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff's executioner.
While the Islamic State may not pose an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland, its advances in Iraq have drawn the Obama administration back into a war it thought it had finished. The Defense Department on Tuesday evening announced that it would send another 350 troops to Iraq, bringing the total number of military personnel there to nearly 1,200. The State Department had requested that the Pentagon send as many as 300 more military personnel to help beef up security around the massive U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad. After assessing the issue for weeks, defense officials finally decided to honor the request and even upped the number of personnel to 350. Those troops, to include Marines and soldiers and possibly some Air Force personnel, will begin flowing into Iraq from the U.S. Central Command "area of responsibility" over the next few days. In addition to those, nearly 300 troops are conducting assessments and advising Iraqi troops, and another nearly 500 troops are conducting "security assistance." Another 100 troops have long been assigned to the U.S. Embassy as part of the Office of Security Cooperation.
As for the Islamic State's future, Olsen sounded a more optimistic note than many other officials about the United States' ability to stamp out the Islamic State before it can achieve its regional aspirations. "As formidable as ISIL is as a group, it is not invincible," he said. It the United States and international partners take an "all-of-government" approach, including combating the Islamic State's violent online propaganda and shoring up military and diplomatic alliances in the Middle East, then the group could be defeated, he added. (This week, the White House announced that Kerry, Hagel, and Lisa Monaco, the White House counterterrorism advisor, are heading to the region to begin building an international coalition.)
The one area where Olsen said the Islamic State excels beyond any other terrorist organization is propaganda. The group has used social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to spread violent images and videos meant to attract followers and intimidate enemies. In the past two weeks, it posted two grisly videos showing the murders of Foley and Sotloff.
"No group [has been] as successful and effective as ISIL is at using propaganda, particularly social media," Olsen said. Combating it will require spreading the word in the Middle East about the United States' successful repulsion of the Islamic State's advance in Iraq by working with Iraqi military forces and Kurdish fighters, he said. That message ultimately has to come from other agencies, like the State Department, because the counterterrorism center's role is to assess the effectiveness of the group's propaganda, not necessarily counter it.
But the center can tell government officials whether that propaganda is working -- and it is. Today, the Islamic State runs "the most significant propaganda machine of any extremist group," Olsen said. On this path, the Islamic State "threatens to outpace al Qaeda" as the "leading voice" among extremists around the world.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats on Capitol Hill -- who have been adjourned since early August -- have offered a unified solution for eradicating the Islamic State. Although a handful of lawmakers are calling for a vote on authorizing military action in Syria and Iraq, many would like to avoid the politically sensitive decision just weeks before the Nov. 4 midterm elections.
John Hudson and Gordon Lubold contributed reporting.
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