“There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people across the country who are receiving recruitment overtures from the terrorist group (ISIS) or directives to attack the U.S….It’s like the devil sitting on their shoulders, saying kill, kill, kill.”
These comments were made by FBI Director James Comey, to reporters in Washington, D.C. in May of this year amid the backdrop of a federal investigation that foiled an attack in Garland, Texas involving two Islamic State group sympathizers. Since that thwarted attack, U.S. agencies have been especially vigilant in their efforts to stamp Islamic State efforts to inflict damage at home. U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that ISIS recruiting efforts “represent an unmatched level of sophistication demonstrated by terrorist organizations in the aftermath of 9/11.” The threat to the U.S. homeland is real and Islamic State efforts at attacks from terror sympathizers from within pose a far greater threat than even its predecessor al Qaeda. The Islamic State group is also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, told the USA Today, “ISIL’s multifaceted outreach and leveraging of social media is threatening to outpace the government’s capabilities across the intelligence community.” Clearly, the Islamic State is no longer the “JV” team and is now in a league all its own. Unlike previous terror organizations, the Islamic State has created sophisticated media centers that house well-honed public relations operations creating professionally crafted videos and newsletters. As a result, it has leveraged its social media sophistication into the successful recruitment of a cadre of sympathizers throughout the West, including the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. State Department said it knows of “dozens” of U.S. citizens fighting with the Islamic State and the Canadian government claims there are at least 130 that have joined the brutal terror group.
Since 9/11 the U.S. increased spending on military and counterterrorism offensives to fight the battles on foreign soil to keep the U.S. safe. However, the enemy is now in the midst, living in the shadows. An Imam told the International Business Times: “I cannot believe that there is no one from ISIS on the ground here in Canada or the U.S. or Europe. They are now recruiting, so they are absolutely here. IS people, those who are very rigid fanatics, they do live in this country, they do recruit. They do facilitate in recruitment.” To further illustrate the effectiveness of the Islamic State and the clear threat they pose to the homeland, U.S. citizen Douglas McCain, was killed fighting alongside the militant group in Syria. It was later discovered that he lived in the same building as a classmate who joined al Shabab, the Somali militant group with ties to al Qaeda.
Already this year, in addition to the thwarted attack in Garland, Texas, U.S. officials have foiled an attack on the U.S. Capitol; a New Jersey resident attempting to provide support to ISIS from New York and New Jersey; a Florida man plotting to set off a backpack bomb on a Florida beach; at least a dozen attacks slated to occur leading up to and during the Fourth of July holiday. Clearly, equally as important as the formation of a terror-state throughout the Middle East is the death of Americans within the United States. What is also evident is any efforts or attempts at combating Islamic State recruiting efforts are anemic at best as demonstrated by the continued rise of sympathizers willing to strike a blow at the U.S. citizenry in the name of the militant group.
Back in February, the White House hosted a summit on combating violent extremism but very little has been done since that one-off event on the scale of Islamic State protracted efforts. Alarmingly, Mr. Comey considers the Islamic State a greater threat within the U.S. than al Qaeda and one of the militant group’s central aims are concerted, coordinated and sustained attacks within the United States. To that end, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have performed admirably. However, as the Boston bombings and more recently, the Chattanooga shootings have shown, such efforts by those committed to violence and destruction can — and will — slip through the cracks.
The enemy is no longer at the gates. They have penetrated U.S. safeguards and more importantly, American ideals. ISIS is capturing the hearts and minds of the young, impressionable and vulnerable at home. Through the strokes on a keyboard or slick production of a video, savage and barbaric extremists are turning U.S. citizens into terrorists. The threat is within and taking the fight to the Islamic State abroad will not be enough. Now, the battle must be waged and won from within.
• Eric Ham is a former U.S. Senate National Security Fellow. He serves as Co-Chair of the Fragile State Strategy Group and is co-author of S.O.S.: A U.S. Strategy of State-building. Follow him @EKH2016.