President Barack Obama has laid out a strategy for countering the rise of ISIS in a prime-time address from the White House. The administration is treating the Al Qaeda splinter group as a significant national security threat — but even administration officials have been unclear as to what that threat even constitutes.
In a September 3rd speech at the Brookings Institution, Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that “we have no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the U.S.” — but added that over 100 Americans have left the country to fight for jihadist groups in Syria, implying that they could return to commit acts of violence.
“We remain mindful of the possibility that an ISIL-sympathizer — perhaps motivated by online propaganda — could conduct a limited, self-directed attack here at home with no warning,” Olsen added, but cautioned that “in our view, any threat to the U.S. homeland from these types of extremists is likely to be limited in scope and scale.”
The U.S.’s campaign against ISIS, which could include a broad-based coalition against the group and airstrikes in neighbouring Syria, seems aimed at preventing the organisation from establishing a safe haven that could allow it to launch attacks on Western targets.
But at present, the actual extent of the group’s danger to the U.S. homeland is a matter of speculation, and its dangers are dulled somewhat thanks to ISIS’s current capabilities and goals, and American counter-terror advances since the September 11th attacks.
As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and an expert on violent non-state groups explained to Business Insider, ISIS likely doesn’t yet have the ability to launch an ambitious cell-based attack on the U.S. — the kind of multi-year, multi-continent endeavour that could produce a 9/11-type cataclysm.
“ISIS has been able to maintain control over several cities, giving them the ability to better prepare their network for external operations,” says Gartenstein-Ross. “Right now, there’s little evidence that ISIS has a powerful external operations capability.”
This is partly because ISIS simply isn’t at the stage when it can realistically begin planning major attacks beyond its territory, much of which remains contested. ISIS is fighting on multiple fronts right now, warring against the Assad regime and the moderate Syrian rebels in the west, the Iraqi army and Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias in the south-east, Kurds in the north, and local Sunni resistance throughout its domains — all while facing American airstrikes.
The group has connected its legitimacy to its ability to hold onto land, while also provoking every potential rival fighting force on its “Caliphate’s” periphery.
“Once ISIS begins to experience a reversal, things could go badly for it very quickly,” says Gartenstein-Ross.
ISIS could try to cultivate an exaggerated sense of its capabilities and get the U.S. to waste resources in the fight against it — one possible strategic motivation for the group’s provocative, web-casted killings of American hostages. The group is so overextended at the moment, though, that its more menacing threats against American interests and the U.S. homeland ring somewhat hollow.
“If ISIS wanted us to over-commit, then picking a fight with literally everyone in the neighbourhood isn’t smart,” says Gartenstein-Ross.
And if the Caliphate loses territory — particularly Mosul, the Iraqi city that once had a population of over 2 million and ISIS’s firmest claim to ruling over a true Islamic State — it could find its appeal and its power begin to rapidly fade.
Yet the current situation carries dangers of its own. The longer ISIS holds onto its Belgium-sized safe haven, the likelier it becomes that the group develops the ability to establish cells beyond its self-declared caliphate. And ISIS can still inspire or plan attacks abroad even before it gets a trans-national network up and running.
“I don’t think anyone knows,” Juan Zarate, a U.S. counter-terrorism official in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Business Insider when asked what a potential ISIS terrorist attack on the U.S. could entail. “You have the full range of possibilities — everything from the Islamic State inspiring people to attack in place to actually plotting and doing something more strategic and coordinated,” he said.
Gartenstein-Ross believes that if ISIS did manage to strike on U.S. soil in its current form, it would likely be through firearms-based attack.
“If ISIS were to mount an attack it would probably be a shooting attack right now because its operatives are best prepared to carry out an urban warfare-style attack,” he said.
Zarate says that the group also has great potential to grow as a threat, partly because of its success in establishing a sustainable means of financing its activities, to the tune of over $1 million in revenue a day.
“They run a war economy that has a local dimension,” says Zarate. “With an organisation like this, it’s very hard to affect their financing when they figure out how to fund themselves, or run an economy.”
The U.S. has developed tools to confront this problem — as Zarate explained, the Treasury Department could sanction companies in the legitimate economy that either directly or indirectly profit from businesses linked to ISIS. The use of financial regulations as a counter-terror tool is just one of many post-9/11 national security innovations meant to stop a terrorist attack, which include the re-organisation of the U.S.’s intelligence infrastructure, along with more controversial efforts, like NSA’s surveillance of the internet.
The result, as Gartenstein-Ross put it, is that “to carry out a 9/11 style attack is much more difficult today than when 9/11 occurred, by several orders of magnitude.”
But that doesn’t mean that the U.S. homeland is totally safe from ISIS. The nature of the group, and the threat that it poses to America, will likely undergo major changes that can’t be easily anticipated.
After all, Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s forerunner organisation, had been defeated to the point of irrelevance just a few years ago, in the aftermath of Iraq’s Sunni “awakening” and the accompanying U.S. troop surge. That once-hobbled and diminished group now rules over a self-declared state in the heart of the Middle East, and poses enough of a threat to warrant a prime-time presidential speech.
If the group holds onto its safe haven, it could change one again, into an entity that poses a much more concrete threat to the continental United States.
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