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How to Understand the ISIS Threat

Talk show rhetoric doesn't equal good intelligence on the domestic danger posed by Iraq's terrorists.
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Americans have become so accustomed to going to war based on lies that they hardly flinch when the latest round of bellicose innuendo surfaces. The public knows that Iraq was a foreign policy disaster, that Syria is more of the same, and that the current transnational crisis encouraged by Washington’s missteps and engulfing both countries is likely to turn out even worse. All of which makes it more difficult for the usual inside the beltway players to come up with a compelling argument in favor of direct intervention in Iraq or providing still more aid to the “vetted” insurgents in Syria.

The latest selling point for the need to take firm action against the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is that it is a threat against the United States and Western Europe. Indeed, it is probably the only argument that has any traction. British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that his country will be targeted and that assistance to Baghdad is necessary, a refrain similar to that being voiced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has assured the American public that the Obama administration is taking steps to make sure that such an attack never materializes. Sen. Lindsey Graham claims that the “seeds of 9/11 are being planted all over Iraq and Syria,” while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers warns that “this is a problem that we will have to face and we’re either going to face it in New York City or we’re going to face it here [in Iraq].”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker’s recent featured op-ed in the Washington Post is equally lacking in subtlety in making the argument for an American return to an active role in Baghdad: “We would be foolish to think that ISIS will not plan attacks against the West now that it has the space and security to do so.” The subliminal message being delivered is “act now before a guy with a beard, carrying a Kalashnikov, moves in next door.” Perhaps not so oddly, we have heard variations on that theme before, something about a mushroom cloud rising over Washington.

And just as in the case of the mushroom cloud claim, one has to ask “Where is the evidence?” The intelligence community has been largely silent about the impending threat, apart from admitting that it has limited capabilities to collect information in Iraq and Syria largely because the CIA no longer knows how to spy in places that are challenging. That admission has been coupled with generic assurances that Washington’s spooks have been monitoring the situation and are concerned over developments.

Given the apparent general lack of reliable information regarding the metastasizing Syrian insurgency, one is compelled to ask where the intelligence is to back up the claim that ISIS is intending to expand its activity to the so-called Christian world, which would seem to be at odds with their much more obvious regional agenda in the Middle East. Does it really make sense for ISIS to take steps that would unite a gaggle of Western nations against it at this time, when success at creating a quasi-independent state in the heart of the Arab world is within its grasp?

I suspect that a paucity of reliable intelligence is being shoehorned into an acceptable narrative for policymakers to regurgitate. The promotion of the alleged threat includes a conflation of several quite separate issues. It is based on the indisputable fact that a number of young Muslims ostensibly citizens of European countries and the United States, some of whom are indigenous converts to Islam, have gone to perform jihad in the Middle East and South Asia. As the punditry would have it, they must be planning to return home some day and raise hell, a line of reasoning that has spawned several Congressional hearings hosted by the Rep. Peter King of New York on the so-called home-grown terrorism threat.

It would probably surprise Peter King to learn that political Islam and its terrorist offshoots really do not care much about the United States. Islamic terrorism is overwhelmingly targeted against ostensibly Muslim governments, suggesting that the leap across the Atlantic Ocean is not inevitable except insofar as Washington is seen as the principal supporter of regimes that the insurgents are seeking to topple. But the persistence of the argument that the U.S. and Western Europe are in the crosshairs of a vast international terrorist conspiracy invites some further inquiry.

There are three separate issues that should be addressed. First, and most important, is there any actual evidence that groups like ISIS either intend or have the capability to expand out of the Arab heartland and attack European nations or the United States? I think the answer is clearly “no,” because if such intelligence existed policymakers would be citing it directly to support their desire for a free hand to intervene in Iraq and Syria.

Second, conceding that Western raised and nurtured jihadis do exist, how many individuals are we talking about? Was Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki a one-off, or are there dozens or even hundreds of home-grown terrorists? The New York Times has reported intelligence sources suggesting that there might be 70 American jihadis, a round number that is quite likely a guesstimate. If the intelligence community, FBI, and Congress have no reliable information regarding the possible scale of the problem, derivative assumptions being made regarding the nature of the threat should be greeted with considerable skepticism.

Third, if it can somehow be demonstrated that the Western jihadis are real and pose a definable threat, someone should be asking how these people came to the United States in the first place and why their disaffection, if that’s what it is, has resulted in turning to terrorism as a response. I would suggest two possible lines of inquiry. First, it is necessary to examine immigration policy to learn how groups and individuals have been able to enter the United States through government-funded resettlement programs without any ability on the part of Embassies overseas or the Department of Homeland Security to vet the immigrant candidates on security grounds.

Some of the alleged American jihadis are reported to be disaffected Somalis from Minnesota. One has to wonder just how an apparent concentration of Somalis wound up in Minneapolis in the first place, as it would be impossible to do serious background checks on them given the longstanding lack of state structures and reliable information in their homeland. There is no U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu to do the work, and there are no public records accessible to determine if one is a criminal or has been associated with terrorist groups. It is difficult to understand who decided that available evidence suggested that the Somalis in question might somehow be transformed into good American citizens.

The other line of inquiry would have to be an assessment of whether the Somalis and others were turned rogue by their experience while in the United States, particularly whether the war on terror and its associated invasions of Muslim states had a particular impact on their views of Washington’s role in the world and its willingness to deal fairly with their co-religionists. There is undoubtedly some evidence that that is the case, but I am not suggesting for a moment that external issues should in any way exonerate or attempt to explain away someone’s decision to become a terrorist. Nevertheless, it certainly would be helpful from a law enforcement perspective to try to understand what drives the individuals who are attracted to politically motivated violence.

Given the lack of good intelligence, it perhaps should not be surprising that there has been little serious discussion of the alleged terrorist threat. If there are ISIS terrorists actively preparing for and capable of staging terrorist attacks in the United States, it would be a serious matter indeed, though one might in any case question the hyperbole of a second 9/11 being advanced by some of the advocates of immediate military action. But if the danger is real, the government has failed to make the case in any reasonable fashion, nor has it taken preventive action to address the policies that might have created the homegrown jihadi threat in the first place.

And if the alleged plot is in fact being orchestrated using former residents of the United States, substantially increasing its plausibility, that too should be something that the White House ought to be examining in a serious way. Yet apart from generic fear mongering, vague numbers, and allegations about Americans traveling to the Middle East to engage in jihad, there has been little discussion of what the current terrorist threat actually is, and no consideration at all of reasonable steps that might be taken to contain it.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.