Just How Big a Threat to the U.S. Is ISIL?

It didn't surprise anyone that most Republicans were displeased with President Obama's speech about ISIS (which he called ISIL, another of its names) last night, and it would be natural to conclude that the key division at work is between a president and party reluctant to use military force abroad, and an opposition party with near-limitless enthusiasm for military adventures. There's plenty of truth there, but there's an even more fundamental divide, even if it's not going to be spoken by President Obama or that many Democrats. The real question is whether ISIL actually constitutes a threat to the United States.

For Republicans, it's so obvious that ISIS does threaten us that there isn't any use debating it. ISIL has seized large swaths of territory and picked up weapons left behind by the Iraqi army, they're well-funded thanks to pillaging banks and selling oil on the black market, and they have dreams of a caliphate spanning the entire Middle East.  So of course they're a threat to us here at home.

But just in the last few days, people are starting to raise questions about whether that's actually true. Here's a piece in today's New York Times:

Despite the attention ISIS has received, when American counterterrorism officials review the threats to the United States each day, the terror group is not a top concern. Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain the most immediate focus. That is because ISIS has no ability to attack inside the United States, American and allied security officials say, and it is not clear to intelligence officials that the group even wants to.

In a speech Wednesday morning, Jeh C. Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, said: "We know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present."

Those intelligence officials could be wrong, of course. But they aren't the only ones saying it. The AP writes: "It is useful to remember, though, that while it is a formidable force that controls roughly a third of Iraq and Syria, there also has been an inclination to exaggerate the group's capabilities. 'I think sometimes there's been a tendency to sort of overestimate the technical sophistication of the Islamic State,' said Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center." Peter Bergen and David Sterman note that there may be as few as a dozen Americans fighting with ISIS, and the threat of them coming back to launch terrorist attacks here is small.

The answer you'll hear from some on the right in response to these arguments is: "They're beheading people!" Which is true—there's no doubt that ISIS is particularly brutal. But there isn't a perfect correlation between a group's brutality and the threat it presents to the United States. The murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff were horrific, but the truth is that in and of themselves they tell us nothing about ISIS's capability of doing harm to the U.S. within the nation's borders. What they do tell us is that ISIS is smart about using social media and wants to provoke a response from us. Now it may be that the response they'll get is one that eventually results in their demise. But they seem to believe that it's in their benefit to be seen by the world as engaged in a battle against the Great Satan, a battle they think they might win.

Unfortunately, some conservatives are arguing something similar. John McCain, a man known for his deep and nuanced understanding of foreign countries he'd like to start bombing, said, "the president really doesn't have a grasp for how serious the threat from ISIS is"—right after Obama announced his plan to combat the group. McCain's belief is that the threat to the U.S. is so extraordinary that it demands a much more intense military engagement to keep us all from getting killed. Barack Obama doesn't agree, and the contrast with his predecessor was vivid, if you have a long memory for these things. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush said, "our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." Obama is not given to that kind of grandiosity in describing either the existential peril we're supposedly in or the glory of our coming triumph. Last night, he said: "We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm." He also said ISIS could pose a threat to the United States "if left unchecked," which is very different from saying they do pose a threat right now.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying the threat from ISIS is zero. And it won't take much for some deluded 19-year-old to set off a bomb he made using plans he got off the internet in an American city and leave a note declaring himself a member of ISIS. That eventuality is almost certainly made more likely, not less, by waging war against them, but right now there isn't much to suggest that they're actually planning some kind of complex attack on the United States, no matter how brutal they may be in Iraq and Syria. Even so, our understanding of what kind of a threat they pose is limited—and we can't predict where they'll be in six months or a year after this new effort has been underway for a while. But this is the time to ask these questions, because the answers aren't as obvious as some would have us believe.

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