A Clearer Picture of the Islamic State’s Threat

September 17th, 2014

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By CHHS Research Assistant Timothy Rice

In an unusually rapid escalation of perceived strength, the Islamic State (IS) has graduated from a mere “jayvee team” of terrorists, as President Obama described IS in January of this year, to join Al Qaeda in the big leagues. Months after his comment, the U.S. government began to characterize IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS, as a cancer that must be dismantled and destroyed. This rise in concern comes on the heels of widely-reported genocidal measures IS has undertaken against Iraqi minorities, and most recently, the filmed beheadings of two American journalists. As Republicans and Democrats unite to expand military strikes in a preemptive strategy to follow IS to “the gates of hell,” Americans wonder: Is this group a temporary, barbaric gang wreaking havoc abroad, or is it actually an army stronger than Al Qaeda that poses an unprecedented threat to the U.S. homeland?

In February, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Jeh Johnson, referred to IS as a “matter of homeland security.” The group’s reported assets in terms of personnel, income, equipment and weapons would support the Secretary’s statement. But what about their capability to carry out a successful attack on the U.S.? Just last month Secretary Johnson stated that DHS was unaware of any specific, credible threat to the U.S. homeland from IS.

Nevertheless, Americans get the polar-opposite impression from images of beheadings, mock crucifixions, and claims from other policy makers that America’s homeland is actually in the crosshairs. A senator on the Senate Armed Services Committee recently indicated that IS was rapidly developing a method to blow up a major U.S. city. Likewise, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated last month that IS posed an imminent threat to U.S. interests, adding that they were “…beyond anything we’ve seen, so we must prepare for everything.” Adding to this sense of fear, the United Kingdom recently raised its terror alert level from “substantial” to “severe” due to intelligence that a terrorist attack was possibly imminent. In the face of these statements and actions, Americans find themselves feeling uneasy.

Conceivably the most balanced statement that fuses these two views came from the spokesman for General Dempsey, America’s highest-ranking officer. General Dempsey’s spokesman stated that IS was “a regional threat that will soon become a threat to the U.S. and Europe.” This succinct summary of the terrorist group’s gradual threat distinguishes between their current danger level in the Middle East and the future threat level to the U.S. homeland if IS grows unchecked.

Consistent with this last message, President Obama sought to provide clarity on IS in a speech to the nation on September 10th. Given strategically on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, Obama clarified that IS was a regional threat without any known plot to attack the U.S. homeland. President Obama went on to outline a steady, relentless counterterrorism strategy to dismantle IS where they are, in Iraq and Syria, robbing the terrorists’ capability to attack the U.S. The U.S. will advance this objective through hundreds of airstrikes, the deployment of about 500 military service members, and a coalition of international partners. In the face of significant challenges – including a war-weary populous, a remarkably unstable Middle East, and an uncertain coalition of Arab states – the nation appears to support this strategy.

Although the past eight months have produced a confusing assortment of messages, President Obama’s speech provided Americans with a better sense of the threat level of IS, as well as a clearer picture of the Nation’s offensive strategy to ensure IS does not become a threat to the U.S. homeland. While the official message from the White House limits the threat of IS to the Middle East, a defensive strategy to mitigate and contain future terrorist threats is just as important as our airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Through improvements made since 9/11, including intelligence sharing, rapid integration of emergency management agencies and heightened awareness by citizens of suspicious activities, the US remains vigilant on both the offensive and defensive fronts.

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