Though much Islamic State rhetoric may be bluster, analysts say the terrorist group is sufficiently wealthy and has enough social media savvy that, if unchecked, it likely could execute a 9/11-scale attack in the U.S. a few years from now.
In the latest indication of U.S. counterintelligence difficulties with “lone wolf” attacks, the FBI director said Thursday that the agency warned local police and sent them an intelligence bulletin several hours before a Muhammad cartoon-drawing contest that a man with Islamist terrorist ties might show up there.
FBI Director James B. Comey insisted in a roundtable discussion with reporters that the bureau didn’t know that Elton Simpson and a fellow American Muslim planned to shoot up the event by an anti-Shariah group in Garland, Texas.
“What I’ve seen so far looks like we did it the way we were supposed to do it,” said Mr. Comey in his first public remarks since the Sunday gunfight in which Simpson and accomplice Nadir Soofi were killed. “We didn’t have reason to believe that he was going to attack the event.”
But the event already had been identified as a potential target for Islamist violence: Simpson had a conviction on terrorism-related charges, and his social media activity had brought him under investigation anew in recent months.
The Islamic State has capitalized upon and praised the Garland attack this week, posting another online threat against the U.S. two days ago, claiming it has 71 trained guerrillas in 15 states.
Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in Texas, said that while he doesn’t think the Islamic State has operatives in the U.S., and its words are “rattling the saber, in my opinion right now,” he would be less confident of such a judgment later.
“If this came out two years from now, I would say there’s probably a couple of operatives here right now in this country,” said Mr. Addicott, former senior legal adviser for U.S. Army Special Forces, in an interview with The Washington Times.
He said that the Islamic State probably can’t carry out large-scale attacks in the U.S. right now and may be hoping more to inspire lone wolf attacks for which the group can later take credit.
But, he cautioned, such limitations can easily disappear, the Islamic State is certainly working on gaining that capability, and it has the means to be successful. Mr. Addicott said U.S. counterterrorism tactics and intelligence tools need to improve so the U.S. can stop its militants “before they get to the airport.”
“ISIS has billions of dollars — with a ‘b’ — and if they plan an attack from over there, it’s going to be 75 percent successful and larger than 9/11,” he said.
Through its use of Twitter accounts, an online magazine and other forms of social media outreach, the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, has become “a harbinger of radical social change” in how terrorism is conducted, said J.M. Berger, an analyst for The Brookings Institution specializing in U.S. relations with the Islamic world.
At a Thursday hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Mr. Berger also warned lawmakers that “we’re getting creamed on social media.”
He added that it’s a “U.S.” issue more broadly, because the social media defeats are “not just by ISIS, but also by Russia, Iran and Syria.”
Mr. Comey spoke similarly Thursday, noting that social media technology makes it easier for the Islamic State and other terrorist groups to hook up with possible sympathizers in a way impossible in earlier eras. He said the Islamic State has thousands of English-language Twitter users worldwide and hundreds in the U.S.
“The siren song sits in the pockets, on the mobile phones, of the people who are followers on Twitter,” Mr. Comey said. “It’s almost as if there’s a devil sitting on the shoulder, saying ‘Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!’ all day long.”
Lawmakers at the Homeland Security panel hearing agreed that the U.S. needs to find creative ways of combating the Islamic State since it’s becoming clearer the U.S. military won’t be able to quash it on its own, and that current social media countermeasures aren’t working.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and the panel’s ranking member, noted that the group has been using social media to call upon and to inspire supporters to attack the U.S. military, its facilities and law enforcement officers.
“These new tactics mean that we can no longer rely solely on our ability to use military force to eliminate a terrorist threat,” he said. “We must — in partnership with our allies overseas — start examining the root causes of why Westerners join the ranks and act in the name of ISIS and al Qaeda. We must continue to evolve our own counterterrorism tactics to address these root causes.”
The federal government has been spending “millions and millions of dollars” on “old-school” media tactics that are “crude” and is not doing enough on social media platforms to counterbalance the extremist siren calls of the Islamic State, said Sen. Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Democrat.
In an interview with The Washington Times following the hearing, Mr. Booker said more collaboration among the government’s intelligence agencies is necessary.
“I’m not bashing anybody. They’re dedicated, hardworking public servants that are working with scant resources, fractured across many different agencies,” he said. “I’m just saying that it’s time for us to re-examine our approach to doing this. Could we coordinate it better? Could we have a more unified strategy that works for both public and private partnerships in doing this? Can we be investing more of our resources?”
Even before the bloodshed in Garland, there have been several examples of Americans being inspired by the Islamic State to plan terrorist attacks, even if they might not be under the group’s formal operational discipline — as the Sept. 11 attackers were to Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda hierarchy.
• In March the FBI arrested Illinois Army National Guardsman Hasan Edmonds, 22, and his cousin, Jonas Edmonds, 29, on suspicion of planning to attack and take hostage soldiers at a U.S. military facility in Northern Illinois on behalf of the Islamic State. The duo wanted to strike fear into the hearts of Americans “and break their will,” according to court documents.
• Just a few weeks later, in early April, federal authorities apprehended John Booker Jr., a 20-year-old Army recruit, and accused him of attempting to set off a car bomb near a Kansas military base. Court documents show that Mr. Booker embarked on the elaborate plan because he wanted to scare soldiers into quitting the military. He was charged with trying to provide material support to the Islamic State.
• On Thursday, 21-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell, who had been arrested earlier this year and accused of planning a complex attack on the U.S. Capitol that involved killing officers and employees using semi-automatic rifles, was accused of providing material support to the Islamic State. A federal grand jury on Thursday brought the additional charges in a four-page indictment accusing the Ohio man of attempting to support a foreign terrorist group, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.