Conflict & Justice

How scared should Americans be of the Islamic State?

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Promotional images of Islamic State fighters.

The bearded man in military fatigues looks directly at the camera, holding his automatic weapon and smiling serenely.

“We will raise the flag of Allah in the White House,” he says.

Those are the words of Abu Mosa, a press officer for the Islamic State (IS), speaking to a reporter from Vice News. If this is his idea of a charm offensive, he may need a few more lessons.

Make no mistake: IS is quite a fear-inducing group. In the six months or so since the group — previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (and by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL) — broke with Al Qaeda, it has defied expectations and eclipsed its former senior partners.

It started reeling in territory in Syria and Iraq, going a whole lot farther and faster than anyone predicted.

Major cities have fallen under its control: Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, to name a few. The Obama administration had stayed resolutely back, insisting that the abysmally dysfunctional Iraqi government simply had to step up and address the problem on its own.

“We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves,” the president said of the factions in Iraq, speaking to New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman last week.

It was not until an entire people — the Yazidis — were threatened with extinction in a hilly area of northern Iraq, while American personnel were feeling the pinch at the US Consulate in Erbil, that Barack Obama authorized the use of military force in Iraq last week.

GlobalPost inside Iraq: This Yazidi man has lost 63 relatives to the Islamic State

The airstrikes conducted since Thursday may slow the fighters a bit, but will probably not stop them, according to US defense officials.

The operations have unleashed a squall of complaint in the US: Military action in Iraq is either too little or too much, depending on where one sits on the political spectrum.

With that in mind, let’s try unraveling some of the hyperbolic rhetoric to see just how worried the US should be.


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1. Is the Islamic State an existential threat to the US?

It appears likely that the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been wanting to settle the score with his old captors ever since he walked out of a US detention camp in Iraq in 2009.

“I’ll see you in New York,” were his parting words, military officers who were there told The Daily Beast.

The intervening five years have done little to calm his temper. In January, he warned the US that war was coming.

“Beware America ... soon you will be forced into direct confrontation,” he said in an audio message.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is taking the threat seriously. In fact, he’s scared stiff. In an interview with Fox News on Sunday he went into full-scale Henny Penny mode, warning that the homeland was in imminent jeopardy.

“I think of an American city in flames because of the terrorist ability to operate in Syria and Iraq,” he told host Chris Wallace on Sunday. “Mr. President, be honest with the threat we face. They are coming.”

Graham may have been the most frantic of the doomsayers, but he was not alone.

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) was also sounding a sky-is-falling note on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“Every day that goes by, ISIS builds up this caliphate, and it becomes a direct threat to the United States. They are more powerful now than Al Qaeda was on 9/11. … I lost senators and constituents on 9/11. I didn't want to do that again,” King told host David Gregory on Sunday.

Both men are calling for direct military action against the Islamic State, a prospect that could be politically problematic.

A June poll by the Washington Post/ABC News found fewer than half of respondents, 45 percent, supported launching airstrikes against Sunni extremists in Iraq, and only 30 percent supported deploying ground troops.

The trick will be to find a middle ground between Graham’s warnings of an “existential threat” and Obama’s tough-love, reluctant action.

“The Islamic State is focused more on its near enemy right now. But there is no reason to think they will not shift their focus in the future.”

“The Islamic State is definitely not an ‘existential threat’ to the United States,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “No terrorist group is, if we go by the literal meaning of the word.”

But, he added, this does not mean that the US can view the crisis with complacency.

“The Islamic State is focused more on its near enemy right now,” he said. “But there is no reason to think they will not shift their focus in the future.”

 

2. Is there an increased risk of a terrorist attack at home?

It is not just the hard-line Republicans who are sounding the alarm. Administration heavyweights like John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have also voiced concern about IS’ future aims.

“We will continue to coordinate with our allies in the region and the international community to assist Iraqis to confront ISIL's brutal ideology which poses a severe threat to Iraq, the region, and the United States,” Secretary of State Kerry said in Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday.

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Read more: Here's what we know about Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Iraq Interior Ministry/AFP/Getty Images)

Hagel, the defense secretary, has also deemed IS a threat to national security. Speaking at a naval base in Georgia in July, he was firm about the danger.

“This country should not make any mistake on this, nor anyone in Congress: This is a threat to our country. This is a force that is sophisticated, it's dynamic, it's strong, it's organized, it's well financed, it's competent,” Hagel said.

But the danger is not immediate, says Mike Morrell, former acting CIA director and a CBS News security analyst. It will be at least a year before IS could pose any real threat to the US, he said, but getting more deeply involved does increase the risk.

“That’s one of the downsides of US involvement,” he told CBS News in June. “The more we visibly get involved in helping the [Iraqi] government fight these guys, the more we become a target.”

 

3. Is the government doing enough to keep Americans safe?

Since 9/11, the US government has spent nearly $770 billion by some estimates on measures designed to prevent another attack. It created the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Safety Administration and passed the Patriot Act, which allowed the government virtually unfettered access to citizens’ private lives, all in the name of security.

The security agencies claim that they have thwarted dozens of attacks, but the jury is still out.

There have been disasters averted, such as the “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried unsuccessfully to take down an airplane on Christmas Day 2009. The attack was foiled, not by Homeland Security, but by a concerned passenger, who was not being paid the $6 million per hour that the DHS was getting.

 

4. Is the government doing too much to keep Americans safe?

Civil libertarians have been griping about the Patriot Act almost since its inception in 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

It doesn’t take a radical to chafe at sweeping surveillance, intrusive searches at airports, and Big Brother signs instructing the public, “If you see something, say something.”

But in general, Americans have been cautiously supportive of an enhanced security state.

Few, perhaps, will lose sleep over the fate of Donald Ray Morgan, an American who had been tweeting support for Islamic extremists. He was arrested at New York’s JFK Airport on Aug. 2, on charges of “being a felon in possession of firearms.”

CNN’s headline expressed the prevailing view: “Man arrested after overseas trip, accused of sympathizing with ISIS,” although an FBI spokesperson told the media that Morgan had not been charged with terrorism.

It is certainly noxious, unhealthy and unwise to express support for certified evildoers like the Islamic State.

Now it might get you arrested.

Stay tuned.

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