Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Threat of Imminence: Examining Threats Against the West Inside Syria

     The United States and Arab coalition partners have officially begun their incursion into Syria striking various targets of different terrorist factions.  Many US lawmakers and members of the media have been playing up the threat level that terrorist groups pose inside Syria against the US homeland and the west.  But what exactly is the threat, how credible is this threat, and who are the major players involved?

     Depending on the organization, the threat is imminent.  The administration contends that a previously unheard of group to most Americans, the Khorasan Group, was "getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen," Attorney General Eric Holder stated to Yahoo News's Katie Couric.  Reporting by Reuters stated that US officials believed the Khorasan group, who some experts estimate to be roughly a few dozen in number, have "pursued the singular goal of plotting bombings in the United States and Europe."  The United States also did not plan to strike the Khorasan Group in concert with the strikes that hit the Islamic State inside Syria.  According to a report by National Journal, "For the last several months, a senior administration official said, striking Khorasan 'was an action that we were contemplating taking separate and apart from the growing threat' of ISIS.  'We might have been doing this anyway,' an official said, adding that U.S. intelligence of a potential attack was the driving force behind the strikes against Khorasan." 

     Attorney General Holder also stated in his interview with Yahoo that "we don’t have any specific credible information about specific plans that they had, on the other hand the intelligence did lead us to believe they were in the process of the execution phase of general plans that we know they were interested in."   It was thought that they were planning some type of aviation action according to Holder who linked the heightened commercial aviation security measures recently to credible information concerning the threat of an attack from this group, who Holder noted the US Intelligence Community (IC) has known for two years.  

     If there was no specific information, then why the hype for a group exponentially smaller than the Islamic State - who is considered a full blown army - yet thought to be more of a threat than the Islamic State?  According to some terrorism analysts, the Khorasan Group came directly from the bin Laden era of al-Qaeda and in fact, Khorasan's purported leader was thought to be a "member of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle at the time of the 9/11 attacks."  According to terrorism expert and journalist Peter Bergen, who spoke at a policy discussion hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center this week, the Islamic State does not possess the capability to attack the US or the west outside of Iraq and Syria, but the Khorasan Group can.  Bergen added that the Khorasan Group has the track record to carry out large scale aviation attacks given their long terrorist roots and extensive training over the years, while most fighters who join the Islamic State possess no combat experience.  Will McCants, Director of US Relations with the Islamic World Project at the Brookings Institution, also noted at the Bipartisan Policy Center, that the Khorasan Group is part of the old al-Qaeda guard and is used to taking orders from core al-Qaeda, which is now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri and headquartered in Pakistan (due to the heavy drone campaign and ground war waged by the United States in Afghanistan that pushed al-Qaeda out of old save havens and strongholds.)

     What about the Islamic State?  As stated previously, they do not have the capability to strike outside the region.  In fact, Bergen added that several terrorist groups in the region, including smaller splinter groups, are bogged down and focused more on local agendas.  The Islamic State currently fits this mold as they are engaged in defending the territory they have gained as some assert they have overreached and stretched themselves thin.  McCants reiterated the notion that the Islamic State does not possess the external capability which is why their spokesperson urged for lone wolf attacks.

     The prospect of lone wolf attacks are somewhat scary and threatening because with the advent of social media, anyone can become self-radicalized through YouTube - case in point, the Boston Marathon Bombers.  McClatchy quoted the audio tape released by the Islamic State, which through English translation stated, "If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be."  McClatchy also reported that National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen stated at a congressional hearing last week that, "a lone Islamic State supporter could stage an attack in the US."

     There is also the threat the estimated 12,000 foreign fighters pose to the west.  I previously examined the threat(s) foreign fighters pose to the United States and the west (here and here) but to elaborate slightly, Peter Bergen noted that the world is much more aware and on alert to the foreign fighter crisis than they were during the Afghan-Russia war in the 1980s.  Cully Stimson of the Heritage Foundation stated at a national security policy discussion this week that members of the Islamic State are not crossing the Rio Grande based on his research, a fear ginned up by members of Congress relating the conflict in the Middle East to immigration and border security issues back home, though Stimson stated that fighters with passports can just enter through JFK.   

     Lastly, what about al-Qaeda?  The administration has asserted that core al-Qaeda has been decimated and is on the run.  Al-Qaeda's official branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, was also hit during the new offensive in Syria by the US and coalition forcesAccording to the Wall Street Journal, "Rebels and activists contacted inside Syria said they had never heard of Khorasan and that the U.S. struck several bases and an ammunition warehouse belonging to the main al Qaeda-linked group fighting in Syria, the Nusra Front.  While U.S. officials have drawn a distinction between the two groups, they acknowledge their membership is intertwined and their goals are similar."  In fact, experts have asserted that the Khorasan Group and the Nusra Front are linked given that they are both al-Qaeda.  

     In addition to the Khorasan affiliation, several experts warn of an attack by al-Qaeda affiliated groups because the Islamic State has "stolen their thunder," in the words of one terrorism expert.  Gerald Seib, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, stated at a national security policy discussion that US officials are more worried near term about groups other than the Islamic State because these groups must prove their relevance as the Islamic State is "sucking the oxygen out of the room."  Mary Habeck, Professorial Lecturer of Strategic Studies at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, stated at the Bipartisan Policy Center this week that al-Qaeda has to try and top 9/11, which for them is not an easy feat, while the Islamic State has nothing to live up to.  Habeck believes that the Islamic State could be effective with smaller scale attacks such as shooting up malls as seen in Kenya by the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab.  In addition to this unsubstantiated threat, at least through open source material, Habeck harped on the unprecedented coordination between terrorist affiliates.  Habeck stated that several groups are coordinating to attack the west, including veteran bomb maker of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Ibrahim al-Asiri (who was responsible for building the unsuccessful underwear bomb and several other non-metallic, undetectable bombs), who has traveled to Syria.

     The United States and the west face several credible long and short term threats.  Most specifically, though, is the threat of ideology.  Catherine Herridge, Chief Intelligence correspondent at Fox News, stated at the Bipartisan Policy Center this week that al-Qaeda is an ideology that while it might not be shared by all groups (the United States is the far enemy that must be attacked) several groups inside Syria and around the globe have adopted it.  Herridge elaborated by saying that Boko Haram in Nigeria has adopted this ideology and in line with Bergen's point, while vowing to attack the US, Boko Haram has also been focused locally.   Homegrown terrorism and lone wolf attacks would appear to be the biggest threat to the United States and the west, especially with the advent of social media.  Western governments have begun new initiatives to better share information and prevent radicalized fighters from returning home.  Domestic efforts to prevent radicalization before it foments would be time well spent.  Though, the IC and international law enforcement entities have their work cut out for them.

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