- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2014

There is no current intelligence suggesting Islamic State militants are plotting attacks on the U.S., Homeland Security officials told Congress on Wednesday, but they acknowledged the dangers of a terrorist trying to sneak across a porous southern border or a lone wolf attack inspired by the insurgents’ advances in Iraq and Syria.

Hours before President Obama made his case for an expanded military response to combat the Islamic State — also known as ISIL or ISIS — top Homeland Security intelligence officials said the terrorists have the potential to develop into a direct danger to the U.S., but for now it’s a remote threat.

“ISIL’s ability to carry out complex large-scale attacks in the West is currently limited,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “Left unchecked, however, that capability is likely to grow and present a much more direct threat to the homeland.”

Lawmakers were not convinced the danger is so remote.

“Today, ISIS is the biggest threat to the homeland. These terrorists are brutal, driven and intent on attacking the United States,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican. “The largest concern is ISIS’s recruitment of foreign fighters, many of whom have Western passports that could ease their travel into Europe and into the United States to carry out attacks.”

As Mr. Obama pleads for support for his broader military campaign, members of Congress and the public are grappling with whether the Islamic State is enough of a threat to justify more American strikes and sending more military hardware to moderate rebels.

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Some lawmakers want to go further, saying expanded use of American troops, including special operations teams, should be on the table.

The public is already concerned enough about the danger to support an expanded campaign.

An ABC-Washington Post poll released this week found 59 percent see the Islamic State as a “very serious threat” to American vital interests, and another 31 percent say it’s a “somewhat serious” threat.

A Fox News poll released Wednesday found 50 percent of voters believe U.S. ground troops will eventually be needed to defeat the Islamic State, compared to 27 percent who said airstrikes alone will be enough. The rest were uncertain.

The Fox poll also found 78 percent believe the Islamic State “will try to launch an attack on U.S. soil in the near future.”

At the Capitol on Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, peppered Francis Taylor, a top Homeland Security intelligence official, with questions about whether Islamic State militants could exploit lax border security.

“I’m satisfied that we have the intelligence and the capability at our border that would prevent that activity,” Mr. Taylor replied.

Mr. McCain was skeptical, pointing to conservative activist James O’Keefe’s recent successful attempt to cross the border dressed like Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Taylor said officials had observed Mr. O’Keefe’s crossing — though he couldn’t say why they were unable to stop him.

“If I gave you the impression that I thought that border security was what it needed to be to protect against all the risks coming across the state, that’s not what I intended to say,” Mr. Taylor said.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, speaking in New York, said that while the U.S. hasn’t learned of any Islamic State plans to attack the U.S. itself, the terrorists are intent on killing Americans they encounter overseas.

Even without specific information of a threat, Mr. Johnson said the U.S. has stepped up its screening of passengers at about 25 overseas airports with direct flights to the U.S.

He also said intelligence officials are trying to track the thousands of foreign fighters who have poured into Syria to fight with the Islamic State, hoping to prevent any of them from returning to the U.S. to carry out attacks here.

But he said the biggest threat here remains a “lone wolf” — someone who isn’t part of an organized terrorist group but who is inspired by militants to attempt an attack. Such was the case with last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.

Mr. Johnson said his department will take one step to try to combat that danger later this week when it tells retail stores to pay more attention to their customers’ buying patterns.

Homeland Security will distribute a “long list” of everyday items that could be considered explosive precursors. Mr. Johnson wants retailers to report if they see any customers buying an unusual amount of those products.

He didn’t detail the list beyond the example of pressure cookers, which are common kitchen appliances but which were used in the crude improvised explosive devices the Boston Marathon bombers used.

“We can’t and we shouldn’t prohibit the sale of a pressure cooker. We can sensitize retail businesses to be on guard for suspicious behavior by those who buy this kind of stuff,” Mr. Johnson said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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