Skip to content

Panel: ISIS Poses No Direct Threat to the United States

Despite its effective advances in the Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses no direct threat to the United States, several panelists said in aSenate hearing Wednesday morning. Congress has focused much of its attention on the militant group as President Barack Obama prepares to address the world this evening about his plans for responding to ISIS�s attacks on civilians and American journalists in the region.

While ISIS�s actions have been mainly limited to the Middle East, the United States and Europe are on high-alert as many westerners have traveled to the area to join the militant organization. Current estimates by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCC) tally approximately 100 Americans who have either traveled to Syria to join ISIS, traveled to Syria and returned, or attempted to travel to Syria to join the militants.

As part of its annual review of threats to the United States and how the federal government is working to combat them, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee invited representatives from DHS, the NCC, and the FBI to discuss the threat ISIS poses to the homeland and what can be done to stop it.

�This year, our hearing takes on an added significance, as our nation confronts a growing terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria,� Chairman Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) said in his opening statement. �As we sit here today, our military is engaging in limited airstrikes in Iraq in an effort to dislodge and repel that threat.�

Within the Middle East itself, ISIS has engaged in a campaign of brutality that has been shared with the world via the Internet and social media. �Much of the world has been exposed to a steady stream of deeply disturbing images from that region in recent weeks,� Carper explained. �Brutal executions. Human rights atrocities. Repression of women. And a seemingly endless procession of masked militants defiantly waiving the black flag of jihad in celebration of their brutality.�

However, ISIS�s ability to carry out large scale attacks outside of the Middle East is currently limited and the greatest threat is inside Iraq, which combined with Syria forms the organization�s power center, said Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the NCC�part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Instead, the greatest threat to the western world right now is the individuals who have traveled to the region with western passports, which allow them an easier journey should they plan to return to their home country and carry out acts of terrorism.

�With the number of westerners who have gone to fight, the threat itself can manifest back in Europe and in the United States,� said Francis Taylor, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS. Especially at risk are southern and eastern European countries, which have intelligence communities that are less funded than other American allies throughout the continent and are less prepared to handle acts of terrorism.

To make up for other nations� less robust intelligence operations, Rasmussen said that the United States and its European partners need to continue to aggressively share information about possible threats. This information can be used to update watch lists and screening systems to help disrupt travel for those seeking to leave Syria and Iraq, he explained.

However, addressing the ISIS threat will require a multifaceted strategy and not a single prong approach, Carper said. �That strategy will need a military component and the development of a robust international coalition to execute it,� he explained. �Among the goals of that strategy is to ensure that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria does not establish a long-term safe haven from which it can launch attacks against either our allies or our homeland�much like we saw with al Qaeda in the days before 9-11.�

Rasmussen echoed Carper�s thoughts and said that the strategy should use the lessons learned in Iraq in weakening support for al Qaeda. After a more responsive government was elected in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, al Qaeda began to lose support for its operation as civilians turned to the federal government for support. The same trend could be continued in Iraq with the new prime minister forging a strong alliance with Sunnis in the country and working to advocate on their behalf.

As Carper suggested, this tactic would need to be paired with military strikes to shrink ISIS�s safe haven by attacking it. �Absent that, the ability to bring additional western operatives there, potentially train and equip and deploy them [to the west], will remain a threat,� Rasmussen said.

Additionally, the United States and other nations must work to understand the draw that ISIS has to attract westerners to its cause. Governments also need to counter homegrown violent extremism by spreading awareness through religious leaders, parents, and other community leaders who can address extremism at the local level.

�The most immediate threat [to the United States] comes from homegrown violent extremists who listen to propaganda, read it, decides he or she is going to answer the call, and takes up arms here in the United States,� Taylor said.

No concrete strategies were laid out during the hearing, which was followed by a closed hearing session so committee members could discuss classified information with the panelists. Instead, President Obama is expected to lay out his strategy for Iraq and Syria in an address at 9 p.m. EDT this evening.