U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is “beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
California Sen. Barbara Boxer says ISIS is “perhaps the most dangerous terrorist group the world has ever known.”
But there are several reasons to suspect ISIS may not yet have the capability to strike the American homeland, even as it threatens American interests and allies in the Middle East. The operative word is “yet.”
Below I list a few reasons that cause me to question ISIS’s current ability to strike outside Syria and Iraq, but don’t take these reasons as an argument for inaction. President Barack Obama ought to act now to degrade — if not destroy — ISIS, before it builds up a greater capacity to attack American targets on American soil.
1.) James Foley and Steven Sotloff’s beheadings could be seen as acts of weakness
As gruesome as the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were, they may have demonstrated ISIS’s inability to act against Americans outside of Syria and Iraq. Think about it. If ISIS really wanted to demonstrate its power and terrorize Americans, don’t you think it would have struck the American homeland if it had the capability to do so? Or, at least American interests outside the Middle East?
Instead, it murdered in the most horrific fashion two unarmed American reporters who had been captured in Syria. Totally despicable, morally indefensible, but the lowest of low-hanging fruit.
2.) ISIS might be becoming overstretched
ISIS has its hands full with the territory it already controls.
Just as it did when it was known as al-Qaida in Iraq, ISIS seems to be alienating the Sunni population in the territory it has conquered with its brutal Islamic governance. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
Initially, many in the Sunni-majority city of Mosul were pleased to see Islamic State fighters send the mostly Shiite Iraqi army fleeing after sectarian tensions in the country worsened under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But that enthusiasm faded fast.
“People aren’t sympathizing with them anymore,” said the doctor. “People wanted to get rid of the Iraqi army. But after the Islamic State turned against Mosul, the people of Mosul started turning against them.”
Residents say the rising resentment has come alongside rumors that homegrown militias are mustering troops in secret to overthrow the militants. Two such groups in particular, the Prophet of Jonah Brigades and the Free Mosul Brigades, have formed in the past few weeks, residents said.
The intelligence community estimates that ISIS has between 10,000 to 17,000 fighters. That makes it a rather large terrorist organization, but that doesn’t sound like an overwhelming force to continue to control cities and conquer more territory, especially if Sunni militias begin to rise up and join the fight against ISIS.
3.) Burning passports
American intelligence estimates that 300 ISIS fighters are American citizens, according to a report in the Washington Times. One great fear is that these radicalized U.S. citizens will use their American passports to come back to the U.S. and ultimately attack the homeland. It’s a real threat — unless, perhaps, the American fighters burnt their passports.
I know that sounds crazy, but there are several videos of foreign ISIS jihadis doing just that. These fighters believe they are no longer citizens of the country they came from but rather subjects of the newly formed “Islamic State.”
Now, as ISIS has expanded the territory under its control, it has shown that it can be quite strategic. So maybe someone in leadership suggested to the Westerners among them that it might be in the terror group’s best interest if they held on to their Western passports in case they came in handy down the road. But maybe not. Maybe in the euphoria of the Islamic revolution sweeping across Syria and Iraq a significant portion of Western fighters set their passports ablaze. Let’s hope so.
I emphasize that none of this is to say that the U.S. shouldn’t confront, degrade and ultimately try to destroy ISIS. Just the opposite. The U.S. should act now to defeat ISIS before it gains greater ability to attack the American homeland, as it has repeatedly threatened to do.
Now, completely destroying ISIS is no easy task and many military experts say that it will probably require American boots on the ground. But retired Air Force General Charles Dunlap recently wrote in Politico that air strikes alone could go along way to significantly degrade ISIS given how the terror group operates.
“ISIL arrogantly eschews the furtive, hit-and-run tactics that other Iraqi (and Afghan) militants used to escape being bludgeoned by U.S. fighters and bombers,” he wrote, using the acronym for an alternative name for ISIS. “Rather, they like to collect themselves into brazenly visible groups and use their reputation for savagery to scatter their already terrorized opponents.”
“All of this actually makes them vulnerable to a determined American air campaign,” he continued. “What’s more, ISIL’s penchant for operating openly—as well as for seizing, occupying and trying to administer territory instead of hiding quietly among the civilian populace—presents targeting opportunities that other terrorists assiduously avoid.”
President Obama has conducted some air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, but not a “determined American air campaign” and nothing over the border in Syria. Why not utilize this tool in our arsenal now in order to set back ISIS? It could weaken ISIS while Obama comes up with the grand strategy he told us last week he was still searching for.
Because make no mistake: Even if ISIS doesn’t yet have the ability to attack the American homeland — and I recognize, despite the reasons I laid out here, it remains a big “if” — ISIS will ultimately turn its attention to the United States if it is given the space to grow and strengthen.