Exactly how great a threat does ISIS, the Islamist group terrorizing northern Iraq, pose to the United States? Neither the White House nor the Pentagon has given a clear answer. Monday night, defense officials said President Barack Obama had authorized surveillance flights over Syria, signaling the president could be considering striking ISIS in territory it holds along the Syria-Iraq border. I talked with retired Army Lt. Col. James Carafano to get more insight into the threat ISIS poses. Carafano studies national security for The Heritage Foundation.
We heard Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel say recently that ISIS, also known as ISIL or Islamic State, is a serious threat to us. Now Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is saying the group is not so much of a threat right now, which echoes prior statements by President Barack Obama. Is ISIS a near-term threat to the United States? If you look at the past history of what we’ve seen in these Islamic extremist organizations, ISIS would definitely raise a lot of concerns. On one hand, they have employed almost all the tactics, procedures, and techniques that we have seen used in the last two decades, and they seem to combine them very effectively. They definitely seem to have the organizational capability and the capacity to learn “best practices,” and that’s got to be concerning. The second thing to be concerned about is, as we see in all these conflicts, there’s a pipeline bringing fighters in. When those foreign fighters come in from abroad, they go back and they teach other people, they train other people, they inspire other people, they organize cells, and they conduct attacks themselves. Already over 10,000 foreign fighters have flooded into Syria and Iraq. The third reason we have to be concerned is Iraq is a lot closer than Afghanistan, and it has a lot better access to quickly get to the West and get to western targets. That’s a big problem. And then, of course, they have an enormous amount of resources. They’re very well-funded. They’re very well-organized. If you listen to their propaganda and doctrine, they’ve been threatening to attack the West. You add all that up, and any person with prudence or judgment would say this could very well be worse than what we saw on Sept. 10, 2001—something waiting to happen.
How do you respond to those who say, “Don’t worry about ISIS right now. They’ve got their hands full in Iraq and Syria. They’re not an immediate threat?” There’s no basis to say, “Oh well, they’re busy now.” First of all, they have constantly sought to show that they’re aggressive, they’re winning, and they’re in the game. Even when they took a strategic pause and they stopped expanding, they were out doing propaganda, threatening people to take the World Cup out of Qatar. After we started bombing, they deliberately held a hostage that they’d had for years, pulled him out, and executed him to show that, “We can still hurt you.” So the notion that they’re just going to wait and not come after us until after they’ve consolidated. … I don’t know where the evidence for that comes from. As far as I know, there is none.
The nation is war-weary. There are many people who appreciate that the administration has taken a more cautious approach in the application of U.S. force around the word. Others say the United States has taken its foot off the gas in the war on terror? What do you say? The administration has long trumpeted that it’s gone after al-Qaeda leadership and taken them down. That, for them, signals an end to the transnational terrorist threat. Many of us have been pointing and saying, hey, look, any of these groups, if they have the ideology and the will, could certainly become an al-Qaeda-like threat overnight. The administration basically said, no, that’s not going to happen. That’s not realistic. … That made no sense because the reality is we’ve seen al-Qaeda try this before in Yemen. Yemen was intended to be an alternative operational base for al-Qaeda if they got kicked out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There’s a reason why we’ve been in Yemen for years … working with the Yemenis against [al-Qaeda]. We were trying to keep another base from standing up there. And so when Syria welled up, for people to say, “Don’t worry about that,” that went against all the operational experience we’ve had with these guys the last two decades. You have to go back and look at the two seminal speeches Obama gave, one at the National Defense University and the other one at West Point. In both of those speeches … he said, under my presidency I’ve done everything right. I’ve made the world safer, and there are no threats as far as the eye can see. He said that, and that has turned [out] demonstrably wrong. We just walked through the summer of chaos.
Would expanded airstrikes be enough to defeats these guys? Short of sending tens of thousands of ground troops back into Iraq, which nobody wants, what could the United States do to stop ISIS right now? When it comes to Iraq, you don’t have to pour tens of thousands of troops back in. There are plenty of troops in Iraq. The Iraqi military, if they have political leadership and are adequately supported, can certainly defeat [ISIS]. You’ve got Kurdish militias, you have other groups, Sunni tribes. Iraq is not what it was back at the height of the Sunni Triangle. There are troops that can take and hold ground. They’re not American; we just need to support them adequately. If we do that, I think they will be able to push ISIS out of Iraq. Unfortunately, while the administration has done some support, I think it’s mostly been designed to get this off the front pages. … It’s not focused on the core national security interest, which is: We have to drive ISIS out of Iraq.
Listen to Kent Covington and Lt. Col. James Carafano’s conversation about national security on The World and Everything in It: