ISIS is moving to the 'top of the list' of counterterrorism worries

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Marco Werman: Some US politicians and pundits appear to be concerned about riling up ISIS and the possibility that the group might attack Americans here at home. Over the weekend, one politician even claimed "They're coming." Today, we heard news about the arrest of 40 people in Kosovo who are suspected of fighting with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. So, if these extremists were commuting between Kosovo and Iraq, isn't it possible that others might target the US. We put the question to Matt Levitt. He's the director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Matt Levitt: US officials are now saying that they're more afraid of ISIS than al-Qaeda and that some 100 or so Americans have gone or have tried to go to Syria to fight - not all with ISIS - but now increasingly with ISIS. The concern, of course, is that these people could come back. Even if they didn't go with the intention of targeting Americans - if they went, for example, to Syria to defend the Sunnis from the Assad regime, that they might come back further radicalized. Werman: So in this kind of loose organization that we can call ISIS, how close would you say ISIS really is to launching some sort of attack on US soil. Levitt: I think anybody that tries to answer that question definitively is lying to you. I don't think outside of the intelligence community, and maybe even within it, I don't think we know. But we do know that they are even more extreme than al-Qaeda, they are the only group to have been kicked out of al-Qaeda. They have an immediate interest in establishing this caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq. But our intervention there, which I would argue should have come earlier, does make them more angry at us and this has been one of the things that American and European countries have said is one of the reasons they've been hesitant to intervene, for fear of making them more interested in targeting us sooner than they might otherwise have been. Werman: You differentiate between ISIS core and ISIS-inspired fighters. Is there any evidence now that ISIS core has sleeper cells either in Europe or the US? Levitt: We do know that there are people who have returned from Syria, and this is not just ISIS, but as ISIS becomes more dominant, we know that people are leaving ??? and other groups and joining ISIS. They're leaving al-Qaeda and joining ISIS. And so we know that a lot of people who have gone and fought with these groups, including ISIS, have now returned home, especially to Europe, and the Europeans are very, very focused on this. I've had the opportunity to sit with the leaders of several European intelligence agencies and this is their #, #2, and #3 priority. Werman: A lot of reports bring up the fact that many of these ISIS fighters hold Western passports. Does that make life easier for these jihadists, at least in terms of mobility? Levitt: Absolutely. They have full rights, not only in their country but the ability to move within the European Union and abroad. As I mentioned, some of these countries in Europe have these waiver programs with the United States, which could make it much easier for them to come here. It's not like in the movies - we don't necessarily know of every single person who's gone and come back. It's not as easy as it seems. Werman: What concerns you about ISIS the most? Is it the possible threat against foreigners on their home soil or something else? Levitt: There are two sets of threats that ISIS presents and they are abroad and at home. Because ISIS is so extreme and so committed, we really have to take them seriously. Their intent is very, very high. Their capabilities in the region are very high. What we don't know is what their capabilities are abroad. In the intelligence community, we traditionally define the terrorist threat as threat equals intent plus capability. So the first concern is their activities in the region, this attempt to establish a radical Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and then abroad. The second is that Las Vegas rules do not apply in Iraq and Syria. What happens there does not stay there. We've already seen this in terms of at least one act of terrorism in Belgium targeting the Jewish museum and we're very concerned about further spillover abroad from Australia to Europe and of course the United States. Werman: Does ISIS keep you awake at night? Levitt: No. Look, I deal with these things day in and day out, so you learn to compartmentalize. So I sleep okay. But in terms of the things that I worry about from a purely counterterrorism perspective, ISIS is at the top of the list. Werman: Matt Levitt, who is the director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thanks very much. Levitt: It's always a pleasure.