Is ISIS Planning A Mass Attack? Intelligence Officials Say It's Possible, But It's Not Their Only Concern In The Middle East Right Now
A senior U.S. Intelligence official told CNN on Friday that fundamentalist terrorist group ISIS may be harboring plans for a large-scale attack, although the intelligence community as a whole remained divided on the topic. Some have voiced concern over the group's departure from its typical, lone-wolf incursions — most of which have occurred in the form of suicide bombs or shootings — a sign that the leaders may be planning increasingly devastating strikes meant to overshadow regional competitors. If ISIS is planning a mass casualty attack, said the official, it would mark a major shift in the current Middle Eastern conflict.
Part of the possible changes could stem from ISIS' greatest rival, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which generally sticks to high profile attacks, such as the hijacking of commercial airliners and foreign embassy offensives. Now that AQAP has issued its own appeal to followers in order to encourage them to commit more lone-wolf style attacks like the ones carried out by ISIS, top ISIS leaders had begun to feel the pressure to change their routine and outmaneuver the competition.
"I think they're taking a lot of the new recruits that don't have time to train, who have not been brought up in their systems, and they're using them to create the type of mass casualty which produces the media attention," said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a military analyst at CNN. "[It's] exactly what they want, that shows they're still powerful."
While the United State's regional allies have done their best to stem the tide of terror attacks in recent months, they've become overwhelmed by the skilled fighters flocking to pledge their allegiance to ISIS.
"They have brought hundreds of new fighters, well trained, well armed, very good networking," said Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi, in a statement to reporters during a recent meeting of international intelligence communities in Paris. "We are trying very hard on our part, but this is a transnational organization ... it needs all the intelligence of the world, and we are not getting much."
U.S. Defense officials disagreed with al Abadi, pointing to their contribution of some $500 million in supplies and weaponry, as well as over 2,000 military personnel committed to training and support efforts. More likely, they argued, was the fact that Iraqi soldiers simply had "no will to fight" their enemies.
Al Abadi countered that ISIS' aggressive tactics in the key city of Ramadi had driven his military from its encroaching position outside city boundaries in May, setting them back significantly. According to al Abadi, ISIS fighters had loaded several large trucks with explosives and parked them on the frontlines of the offensive, detonating them in what al Abadi called a "mini nuclear bomb." The counter-offensive caused troops further back down the Iraqi line to flee in panic.
An American Special Forces officer speaking with Politico columnist Michell Prothero alleged that ISIS allegiants were "just better fighters", and that they had the know-how to exhaust the already skittish Iraqi troops. He explained,
They have fire discipline. They cover each other’s advances. They keep moving. The Iraqis do none of these things
In the meantime, U.S. military forces have continued training Syrian rebels as well, which, as CNN reported this weekend, has not gone as planned. Around half of those trained have either deserted or been captured by the superior-skilled ISIS fighters, said intelligence officials — a further blow to U.S. efforts.
Whether ISIS leaders have sensed that growing weariness among their rival forces or are simply taking advantage of the confusion brought on by the continuous warring between weakened Syrian rebels and newly committed Turkish troops — both of whom are aligned with U.S. coalition forces — the terror group's shifting focus has caused concern among the international community.
At least for now, some military officials have explained, international intelligence communities should take whatever comfort they can from the fact that rising support from Middle Eastern allies has put a hold on any serious advancement by the terror group.
"I believe [ISIS is] in a stalemate," said Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Robert B. Neller, when asked by frustrated Arizona Sen. John McCain during a Senate hearing last month whether ISIS was winning the war. "[The current U.S. airstrike strategy] has stemmed the tide against ISIS, but it is not removing them from Iraq."