The Complex

United States Counterterrorism Chief Says Islamic State Is Not Planning an Attack on the U.S.

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.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News

The Complex

Pentagon Says It Hit Its Target, but Did It Kill al-Shabab's Leader?

U.S. officials are assessing whether an airstrike in Somalia killed the leader of the al-Shabab terrorist group, a potentially significant blow to the al Qaeda affiliate responsible for a wave of bloody attacks across Africa.

The officials confirmed Tuesday, Sept. 2, that the target of Monday's attack was Ahmed Abdi Godane, al-Shabab's leader, but said the Pentagon is still assessing whether Godane had actually been killed. The United States and close allies like Israel have previously touted the killings of other top militants, only to later discover that the targets had escaped unscathed.

U.S. special operations forces, "working from actionable intelligence" and using manned and unmanned aircraft, along with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided munitions, destroyed an encampment and a vehicle in south central Somalia, the Pentagon's press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon. No U.S. troops were on the ground in Somalia before or after the strike, he added.

"We certainly believe that we hit what we were aiming at," Kirby said, but cautioned that he "wouldn't get into assessing the effectiveness right now."

Abu Mohammed, an al-Shabab commander and spokesman, told the Associated Press that Godane was in one of two vehicles hit by the strikes, but would not say whether he was one of six militants killed.

If Godane was killed, it could represent a significant blow to al-Shabab, the al Qaeda-affiliated group that has contributed to Somalia's destabilization and is responsible for a number of high-profile attacks throughout Africa.

"I think [Godane] put the organization in a very vulnerable position," said Hussein Mahmoud Sheikh-Ali, the senior counterterrorism advisor to Somalia's president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in remarks at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday. "If he's killed, it's going to be a game-changer."

The airstrike comes as U.S. President Barack Obama and his aides deliberate over whether to ratchet up the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State, a militant group that controls broad swaths of Syria and Iraq. The White House has been open about its deep reluctance to get too heavily involved in the fight against the militants, largely to avoid getting enmeshed in a potentially open-ended conflict with the extremists. U.S. intelligence officials say they don't know the location of the Islamic State's shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In Somalia, by contrast, U.S. forces have long worked closely with Somali and other African forces to rout out al-Shabab, which has battled the country's weak central government and has carried out deadly strikes outside the country's borders, such as the September 2013 attack at Kenya's Westgate mall that killed at least 67 people.

Washington's African allies have shared reasonably reliable intelligence gleaned from their ground forces, and U.S. drones have freedom of movement over much of the continent. Commanders within the Joint Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, can typically act quickly if intelligence dictates they have the chance to take out a high-value target.

The administration has been targeting top al-Shabab leaders, with mixed results, for years. In January, a U.S. missile strike killed Sahal Iskudhuq, one of the group's commanders, who was believed to be close to Godane. And last October, a U.S. drone strike took out the group's top explosives expert. But a raid earlier that month by a team of Navy SEALs was abandoned when the commandos realized they wouldn't be able to capture their intended target, a Kenyan member of the group who goes by the name Ikrima.

In his briefing on Tuesday, Kirby stressed that the al-Shabab network, which the State Department designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2008, posed a serious and ongoing threat to the West.

"They've also continued to plan plots targeting Westerners, including U.S. personnel in East Africa," he said. "This action was taken because of the history of terrorist attacks and violence that this organization is responsible for and continues to be responsible for."

Various media reports indicated that the site of the airstrike was near Barawe, a focus of the ongoing efforts against al-Shabab. The United States would not likely send American personnel on the ground to the site of the operation to determine whether Godane was killed, so it could take some time before Washington can confirm if the mission targeting the al-Shabab leader was successful. Still, U.S. officials seemed reasonably optimistic as they characterized the impact of the mission, an indication that the terrorist group leader has been killed.

Ever since al-Shabab's stunning attack at the Westgate mall, which signaled a comeback of sorts for a terrorist group that U.S. officials said was largely vanquished, the United States has quietly ramped up its financial, logistical, and material backing to the African Union Mission in Somalia, (AMISOM), as well as Somali national security forces. A small team of U.S. military advisors is on the ground to help train the AMISOM and Somali forces. American drones from nearby Camp Lemonnier, a sprawling base that the United States maintains in Djibouti, have also been providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to the African forces.

"The result has been a rather successful (if slow and grinding) campaign prosecuted by AMISOM and the Somalis against al Shabaab," Roger Carstens, a former Special Forces officer who spent more than a year on the ground in Somalia in the last few years, told Foreign Policy in an email. But though the United States hasn't conducted many airstrikes in Somalia in recent years, Carstens said it's clear it will act when the time is right.

"As can be shown by the rather small number of U.S. military operations in Somalia over the past few years, the standard for an attack in Somalia has been pretty high," Carstens wrote in the email. "The target must be worthy of the U.S. stepping out from its preferred position (behind the scenes) to conduct a unilateral strike."

Carstens noted that if the operation in fact had occurred in Barawe, that area is still a "pretty tough neighborhood" and, therefore, American commanders may have wanted to rely more heavily on indigenous forces instead of putting U.S. special operations forces on the ground and thus exposing them to considerable risk.

The memory of the 1993 downing of two American Black Hawk helicopters during a raid in October of that year that resulted in the deaths of 18 American servicemen still weighs heavily on U.S. policy in Somalia and contributes to Washington's risk-averse approach there.

Potential questions may arise about whether the United States had authorization from the Somali government to carry out the strike. But Sheikh-Ali, the counterterrorism aide to the Somali president, said the United States and Somalia maintain by "broad agreement" a list of targeted individuals whom the Somali government believes are "irreconcilables" who are unwilling to negotiate with Mogadishu and can therefore be targeted.

Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, said the United States seemingly has increased its role in Somalia as it strengthens its capabilities with AMISOM and local forces.

"I would put the apparent increase in U.S. operational tempo in Somalia as a function of both better intelligence and a change in al-Shabaab itself," Pham wrote FP in an email late Monday. "The first is the result of an increased presence, both public and clandestine, that has resulted in information that can be operationalized," he wrote.

The second shift is within al-Shabab after it "abandoned Mogadishu" in 2011 and became more focused on terrorism, rather than insurgence, and began to pose a greater threat to the United States and its allies, Pham said.

But on Tuesday, it was clear the United States was much more heavily engaged in Somalia than had been known publicly before. And Sheikh-Ali, eager for international support to continue, said the possibility that Godane has been killed shouldn't send a message to the United States and others that Somalia doesn't still need help.

"They are not naive enough to think" that the problem ends with the possible elimination of the terrorist organization's top leader, he said.

"I hope not, but I don't know," he said.

Photo by Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images