Note: The following is based on a May 11, 2015, series of tweets by Mike Walker who tweets as @New_Narrative
Former CIA acting director Mike Morell says it is only a matter of time until the Islamic State (IS) attempts another 9-11. He is correct. It is also past time for policymakers to level with Americans about the true nature of the IS threat.
Last year, when the IS took a swath of territory in Iraq & Syria the size of the UK, analysts said we had nothing to fear here in the United States. They believed IS to be a regional Middle Eastern threat focused solely on advancing their so-called “caliphate”. Based on that analysis, policymakers embarked on a slow-motion air war that would not defeat IS for years.
Unfortunately the analysts were wrong. The IS group is not only focused on building and sustaining their caliphate; they are especially focused on creating an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. Last August, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said IS leaders have an “end of days” strategic vision.
Based on centuries-old prophecy, IS leaders foresee a coming final battle with “infidel” forces at Dabiq in northern Syria. They even named their English language magazine “Dabiq” to emphasize their commitment to this apocalyptic vision.
In recent months, IS has rapidly expanded outside their self-proclaimed caliphate, establishing cells in more than a dozen countries. They are even challenging the Taliban in Afghanistan; and growing strength in Libya from where they plan to attack Europe.
Here at home, in just the last 4 months, more than 30 people have been arrested on IS terror-related charges. Analysts who earlier said IS was only focused on building its caliphate are now saying “lone wolves” are the problem.
The DHS secretary warned Sunday that lone wolf attackers could strike the US at any time without warning. No doubt, there will be more Garland-type attacks. The IS has been promoting homegrown terror in the US for some time. In fact, the FBI director says IS recruiters could now be in touch with thousands of potential followers inside the US.
But promoting self-starting lone wolves is only one aspect of an evolving Islamic State threat. Jihadist ideologue Abu Mus’ab al-Suri wrote the blueprint for a global jihadist movement in 2005. Central to his voluminous doctrine was a message to the West that “you cannot defeat us if we are everywhere”. It is clear the IS group is unleashing an “everywhere” strategy.
Al-Suri also said that encouraging self-starters was only part of a global plan for violent jihadist victory. He also supported accelerating the apocalypse, and criticized bin Laden over 9-11 because the attack wasn’t big enough.
Today, Western policymakers have wisely decided not to put our own “boots on the ground” against the IS. The IS group wants the West to intervene on the ground so they can fulfill that prophecy. No doubt IS leaders have looked at the history of global violent jihad and concluded that 9-11 was a watershed event. They may now believe the US would respond to another 9-11 with boots on the ground like we did in 2001.
Yet, Western analysts insist the real threat to the US homeland continues to be al-Qaeda (AQ) and its affiliate, AQAP. No doubt AQ would like to be the main threat to the United Stays, but they are way short of financial resources and talent. And our counter-terrorism war against AQ overseas has greatly diminished their capacity to effectively attack.
Today, it must be acknowledged that the terrorist threat is far more complex than it was after 9-11. In 2015, it is the IS that is well funded and has captured the imagination of a new generation of eager violent jihadists. Thousands of Western Europeans and perhaps hundreds of Americans have already joined the IS cause.
Last week, the IS claimed to have sleeper cells in 15 American states poised to strike. That’s IS propaganda for sure, but a well-financed group with a growing cadre of Westerners cannot be discounted.
In recent weeks we have also been seeing an IS social media campaign entitled #WeWillBurnAmericaAgain. Words are cheap, but you don’t have to be an analyst to understand they are talking about another 9-11.
Of course, the next 9-11 doesn’t have to be a spectacular attack like 2001, but could be simpler attacks in many locations. All terrorists need today are assault rifles and a little luck. Would such a terrorist swarm equal another 9-11?
The FBI has honestly reported they worry about what they don’t know. It is a matter of resources. The reality is that “thousands of contacts” cannot be monitored in real time as we saw in Garland, Texas.
Rumor has it that the IS leader, al-Baghdadi, has been severely injured and has named a temporary successor. If true, it demonstrates the continuing durability of the IS group, not its fragility. And if the interim leader is indeed Abu Alaa Afri, the future of the IS group could become even more interesting.
Not much is known about Afri, but he is believed to have had the confidence of Osama bin Laden himself. Bin Laden is revered in the IS group as he is in al-Qaeda. In fact, IS insists AQ’s leaders have betrayed bin Laden.
Few believe a merger between al-Qaeda and the IS group is very likely. Some very hard feelings have yet to soften. IS may not need such an alliance, anyway, as they are gaining supporters from even AQ’s closest affiliate, AQAP. But analysts cannot completely rule out some sort of an alliance, perhaps with AQ’s al-Nusra in Syria.
Some say the IS threat to the US homeland is being overblown, despite IS’ ability to attract thousands of followers. Many believe the IS cannot pull off the equivalent of another 9-11, and that they are already being rolled back in Iraq. Yet, most analysts do agree on one thing: the IS group will not be defeated in Iraq for years, if ever in Syria. As long as the IS group holds territory and maintains the facade of a caliphate, they will represent a growing threat.
If the FBI is maxed out, will state and local law enforcement be able to prevent an Islamic State 9-11?
More broadly, how do we defeat the IS group without putting “boots on the ground” as IS leaders want us to do?
And if we defeat IS militarily overseas, how do we prevent another al-Qaeda or Islamic State from rising up again?
Policymakers should address these important questions before the next successful attack.
(Mike Walker is a former acting secretary of the Army and former deputy director of FEMA)