Few organizations in the world right now can boast the level of infamy and intimidation that the ISIS does. In a relatively short period of time, most Americans have gone from knowing little about the so-called "Islamic State" to perceiving its everyday operations and strategies as a bigger, more serious threat than even al Qaeda. Consequently, we're asking a predictable question: Could ISIS attack the U.S., and just how concerned should we be?
It's a tense question. False threats about possible terrorist incidents over the last decade have made many Americans wary — rightly so — of justifying military action on the basis of officials' say-so. It was only back in 2002 that National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice told CNN of Iraq and Saddam Hussein that "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" — the implication being that Saddam had or could soon have nuclear weapons, and needed to be eliminated to protect the United States. As it turned out, of course, this was wrong.
That said, there are some reasons to believe that ISIS poses a realistic threat to the U.S. — theoretically, at least.
The Nature of the Threat
According to CBS News, ISIS' ranks in Iraq and Syria have swelled, with roughly 5,000 foreign nationals joining to try to topple the respective governments of Iraq and Syria. The FBI believes about 100 of them may be American citizens. As such, the risk of hostile American citizens in possession of passports to reenter the country looms as a possible issue.
It's this same threat that's spurred UK Prime Minister David Cameron to promote legislation to make it easier to strip the passports of British citizens suspected of collaboration with ISIS. Republican lawmakers have called for a clearer-defined strategy against ISIS, citing this passport situation as a possible risk — former vice presidential candidate and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan among them.
What ISIS Wants
ISIS is an organization on the rise, and as such there are probably few things they'd like more than a major strike against a Western nation. Over a decade of American intervention in the Middle East, and the long-term stationing of military forces, have left anti-American sentiments high in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Former CIA chief Michael Hayden spoke on the possibility of ISIS striking the U.S. on Monday, telling CNN:
ISIS is a very powerful local terrorist organization, and probably a reasonably powerful regional terrorist organization But it's one that has global ambitions, and it has the tools. It's expressed the intent. ... American passport holders, European passport holders, it's expressed the intent. ... There's no way more powerful way to express their street credentials among the jihadist community than a successful attack against the West.
Basically, the crucial element in any potential ISIS plans is likely ability, rather than intent. Whatever you think of Hayden — and given his tenure as head of the NSA during the Bush administration, I'm sure many people are skeptical — the core of his argument does hold some weight.
According to Reuters, ISIS militants relayed a harrowing threat in a series of telephone calls with a reporter for the news agency in recent months.
The West are idiots and fools. They think we are waiting for them to give us visas to go and attack them or that we will attack with our beards or even Islamic outfits. They think they can distinguish us these days – they are fools and more than that they don’t know we can play their game in intelligence. They infiltrated us with those who pretend to be Muslims and we have also penetrated them with those who look like them.
Moreover, ISIS actually has taken actions directly against Americans, albeit not on American soil — a young American woman is currently being held hostage for ransom, in addition to the recent killing of journalist James Foley.
America's Role in Thwarting any Plans
None of this is to say that you need to be afraid. Firstly, there's no certainty that it's actually within ISIS' capabilities to carry out a major strike stateside, and secondly, the likelihood of being involved in a terrorist attack is incredibly low. At the very least, one would hope the oft-criticized surveillance programs the NSA has been running for years are being marshaled to this cause — whatever your broader political or philosophical oppositions regarding them, the strength of the American surveillance state is likely being fully employed against ISIS.
This is especially relevant in terms of ISIS' online presence. Given their propensity for using social media to threaten and intimidate — whether publishing videos of James Foley's death on YouTube and Twitter, or posting photos of American landmarks along with threats, they're leaving a record to follow, at the very least.
But They Are Armed, And The U.S. Helped
They already have a considerable haul of weaponry, for example — they're reportedly armed to the teeth with American-made weapons, left behind by the U.S. for the Iraqi military, and seized by ISIS in recent conflicts.
In that example lies maybe the most telling trend in all this: ISIS' influence in destabilized countries with enormous power vacuums and weapons stockpiles. It was a frequent criticism made by opponents of the Iraq War in 2002 — if you topple Saddam Hussein, what will replace him? What if the government can't hold its own under the pressure of a post-invasion Iraq?
Fortunately, ISIS isn't yet wreaking this level of havoc in states that have active nuclear weapons programs (looking at you, Pakistan). The threat of a destabilized nuclear state has long been terrifying, but neither Iraq nor Syria have those capabilities. But, once again, you get down to intent. If ISIS ever had an opportunity to nab advanced weapons, be they chemical or nuclear, they'd surely take it. It's all a matter of assessing how real the threat is, and what kind of response, if any, is warranted.
All that said, contrary to how things were during the color-coded threat level days of the Bush era, the Obama administration is trying to tamp down concern about any ISIS attacks within America. Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the ISIS domestic threat wasn't considered imminent.
We are concerned about the threat that is posed by [ISIS], but it is the assessment, as stated by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by the intelligence community, that there currently is not an active plot under way to attack the U.S. homeland.