The former director of the National Counterterrorism Center says it is important to “keep the threat in perspective,” but also to realize the Islamic State “is only one group we are concerned with.” But in his assessment, even as strong as the Islamic State has shown itself to be in Syria and Iraq, it does not pose an immediate threat to the United States homeland.
Speaking Wednesday at a forum hosted by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, Matthew Olsen said his center and other government agencies are tracking “11 insurgencies in the world” and see groups such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab in Somalia or Boko Haram in Nigeria “adapting their tactics.” That shift includes looking for “simpler, smaller attacks”—such as the one launched in a shopping mall in Kenya—and changing the way they communicate with one another, often bypassing electronic devices.
Most of Olsen’s speech and the questions afterward centered on the rise of the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and comparing it with al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorism attacks.
Financed now by illicit oil sales and ransom payments, ISIL is capable of “horrific acts of violence,” as shown by the beheadings of two captive American journalists in recent days and the killings of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis in territory that it has taken over. The war on civilians and non-Sunni ideologues has been particularly true since the start of 2014 with the fall of Fallujah.
The killings of Muslims led core al Qaeda, based in Pakistan, to distance itself from the Islamic State. The group is headed by Abu Abdullah Rashid al Baghdadi—who claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed—and operates from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Olsen estimated the group was taking in $1 million a day to fund its operations and pay its 10,000 foreign fighters. It has “an effective fighting force” and has support from Sunnis who were largely excluded from the Iraqi government of Nouri al Maliki. It also has used propaganda effectively in the West and the Muslim world to attract recruits to its fighting force by stressing its military victories and strict ideology. Olsen said about 100 of those fighters came from the United States, and Great Britain estimates about 500 came from there. He put the size of the territory it controls as about that of Great Britain, regions that the Syrian and Iraqi regimes did not effectively govern.
Having its roots in the al Qaeda in Iraq insurgency that began in 2004, Olsen said, after its reconstitution three years ago it was carrying out five to 12 bombing attacks per month in Iraq in 2012. That number has grown to 30 or 40 a month. “The threat is most acute in Iraq,” but al Baghdadi wants to take the “armed conflict to apostate regions” in the Middle East such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and to the West and United States. “They see us a strategic threat” over the long term.
The Islamic State “is not invincible” and has been pushed back by Kurdish and Iraqi security forces supported by American air strikes from critical infrastructure, such as a large hydroelectric power plant and dam in Northern Iraq. In addition, the United States and other allies have flown humanitarian aid to communities threatened by the Islamic State.
The most pressing threat to Americans, Olsen said, is to those serving at the embassy in Baghdad and in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Although It has the “potential to plan and coordinate attacks on the West and the United States” from its havens in the region, Olsen added, there “is no credible information [of a plan now] to attack the United States” nor did he see the cell structure al Qaeda established internationally to carry out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Although al Baghdadi “has not struck a public presence as others have,” Olsen described him as sharing the same ideology as Osama bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri.
Even with better coordination about terrorist threats among American agencies and with its allies and partners, there still is the possibility of “one, two” foreign fighters returning to the West to carry out an attack on their own, such as the recent bombing of a Jewish Museum in Brussels.
He pointed to recent successes in sharing information that led to the arrests of those involved in the bombings of two American embassies in Africa in the late 1990s and the killing of the American ambassador to Libya in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.
Olsen said, “There is no purely military solution” to eliminating the Islamic State. An effective strategy begins with establishing a more inclusive government in Iraq under Haider al Alabi, working with moderate elements of the Syrian opposition to end the Bashar al Assad regime, and joining regional and international efforts militarily, diplomatically, and economically to solve long-term problems that fuel extremist behavior, especially among disaffected young men.