Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 12, 2015

The Evolving Islamic State Threat

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Mike Walker on May 12, 2015

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)







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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2015 @ 6:47 am

Thanks Mike for this useful post. You probably don’t remember me but I cleared you Ethics Papers for you confirmation as Deputy Director of FEMA. I retired from FEMA, however, on October 1st 1999.

For whatever purpose I thought you provided several useful tools to FEMA management including knowledge of National Security issues and policy making.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2015 @ 6:56 am

Late last evening I saw the hour long interview of Mike Morrell by Charlie Rose. In getting a TV back after over a decade without one I have watched Charlie Rose and his show rather closely. He fills a gap that is terrifically useful to me.

Morrell entered CIA service in 1980 and retired in 2013. He is the perfect example to me of the clueless leadership in Washington. I don’t include him in that set for a number of reasons. He is a leading example of how skillful and articulate briefers rise in the National Security community. Briefing is NOT decision making. You can be a wonderful and skillful briefer and a very lousy decision maker. The CIA has had lousy leadership for many years and continues to do so. I won’t list their catastrophic misses here but Morrell listed several during his interview. And revealed that the CIA funded his graduate education furthering his post-employment opportunities.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2015 @ 7:08 am

This September 11th 14 years since the WTC towers fell. All the “experts” seem to conclude that the threat of attack is greater than on 9/10/2001. Especially the so-called LONE WOLF!

What has really been the outcome of the military/civil effort of the USA in this almost 14 years? FAILURE and the US leadership circles seem to have no clear idea why! So why?

Just as Morrell was totally clueless as to history of US and Iran before 1979 and could not even guess that the US playing its role as key proliferator of nuclear weapons had provided detailed knowledge of nuclear energy in the form of power reactors. Trying to keep up the role of key proliferator the Russians have agree to build 10 nuclear power reactors in Iran, and fund and operate them, over the next 25 years. The Russians well understand the links between power reactors and weapons development. US leadership refuses to acknowledge ATOMS FOR PEACE was actually proliferation for weapons development. Read the 2007 book IN MORTAL HANDS FOR A START!

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2015 @ 7:14 am

There is another kind of PROLIFERATION by the USA in the last 14 years. SOCIAL MEDIA! All seem to agree that this USA developed technology is the leading source of RADICALIZATION!

And the US leadership remains clueless on ENCRYPTION and USAGE of Social Media. Just as Hillary Clinton has no concept of how her private e-mails and server [Clinton Foundation Server] were probably hacked.

Odd that none of the Presidential candidates has described in detail their use of Social Media and their security. Can you imagine the rise to power of Hitler in the context of Social Media?

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2015 @ 7:15 am

P.S. Mike Morrell says AL NUSRA and AQAP bigger threat to US than ISIS!

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 12, 2015 @ 9:31 am

IMO seize and hold and body counts represent failed thinking by any group measuring success by armed violence.

Comment by Donald Quixote

May 12, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

Would we be able to not respond to another 9-11 like or smaller attack – adhering to their playbook with boots on the ground?

With the many current economic, infrastructure, health and other homeland security threats to our nation with possibly larger and more serious consequences, what would be the impact of another 9-11 type attack? If nothing more serious happens, it is everything. If something worse happens in the same time period, the terrorist attack may just be another summer weekend in Chicago for the number killed and injured – off the political and media radar screen

Pingback by Prepper News Watch for May 12, 2015 | The Preparedness Podcast

May 12, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

[…] The Evolving Islamic State Threat […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 13, 2015 @ 8:30 am

Don Q! IMO all it would take is to have the area of the next catastrophe environmentally contaminated to foil relief efforts.

THE EPA IS AT AN ALL TIME LOW UNDER THIS PRESIDENT FOR PREPAREDNESS AND RESPONSE. It has been totally distracted by litigation and litigation threats on its rules and rulemaking. Just as those who exulted in the James Watt and Anne Gorsuch/Rita Lavelle era under President Reagan at the Department of Interior and EPA.

One of many national tragedies accelerating under this lame duck President. IMO of course.

Comment by S. T. More

May 15, 2015 @ 10:55 pm

Mr. Walker, thank you for your post regarding former Acting CIA Director Morell’s appearance on the Charlie Rose show and the discussion of the threat posed by IS. I do think threats like this are highly underestimated in this country while the indicators of the threat this group poses are everywhere. Yet, the crux of the Morell interview was less about IS and much more about the enduring threat posed by Al Qaeda. He made, I believe, a compelling case why the current threat remains AQ and the future threat is IS.

Mr. Cumming, thank you as well or your post about the Morell interview, which I also watched. I share your view about the important space in public discourse that Rose plays, but I must disagree with your view that Mike Morell is the “perfect example… of the clueless leadership in Washington.” While we both agree that he was no doubt a skillful and articulate briefer, demonstrated by the clear and compelling manner in which he made his points and responded to questions, I have a different take on your statement that: “Briefing is NOT decision making. You can be a wonderful and skillful briefer and a very lousy decision maker.”

I disagree with your statement because I don’t view the CIA as a decision-maker, but as an entity that conducts analysis and makes assessments of what they believe to be the current and anticipated situation regarding threats to the United Sates. They also, as Morell discussed propose potential actions—particularly in situations such as enhanced interrogation techniques. Yet, as he also noted, the decision-maker is the President, after it has been vetted and approved by policy makers, lawyers, members, of Congress. So, in my view, the CIA while making assessments, and proposing possible actions does not make decisions. Appropriately so. Clearly the CIA may get its analysis wrong and its make flawed assessments, but that seems to me to be a known risk in the world of intelligence. To the extent that your comments go to the issue of the flawed assessments made by the CIA under Morell regarding the effects of the Arab Spring, I think he acknowledged that to be the case, but I think he also provided a candid and in my view, likely correct view that the CIAs flawed assessment really didn’t matter in the end because even if they had predicted that the Arab Spring would provide an opportunity that Al Qaeda would exploit, the US would nonetheless have been unable to stop that from happening.

Finally, Morell also provided two compelling points toward the end of the interview. He noted his deeply concern about the seriousness and unprecedented nature of the national security risks facing the nation, and went on to note that they are ultimately intelligence problems. I think he is right, and this should concern us all. It should also make us—especially our elected officials—think clearly, and in a non-ideological and non-partisan way about how best to strengthen US intelligence efforts to address those threats.

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