Four Reasons ISIS Is a Threat to the American Homeland

"The fact is groups like ISIS always think and act in terms of both local and global ambitions..."

With his prime-time address to the nation last week, President Barack Obama set the United States in motion for another protracted military conflict in the Middle East. This time, the target is the growing terrorist army known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which controls territory roughly the size of Belgium, and has become famous for its wanton brutality against anyone standing in its way.

But while roughly 90 percent of Americans now view ISIS as a serious threat to U.S. national security, there remains confusion over the degree to which the group directly threatens the American homeland.

For example, earlier this year, Obama described ISIS as a “Junior Varsity” version of Al Qaeda, specifically because he said it did not pose a threat inside the United States, but rather was “engaged in various local power struggles and disputes.” Just three weeks ago, Obama reiterated that point, saying groups like ISIS “were focused primarily locally,” not on the U.S. homeland.

Then in last week’s address, he said that while ISIS did not yet pose a direct threat to the United States, it could “if left unchecked.”

Efforts to differentiate threats posed by militant Islamist groups to the regions in which they operate, as opposed to the world at large, are certainly understandable, and important. As seen with the Obama administration’s new threat assessment of ISIS, it can mean the difference between passivity and intervention.

But such efforts are inherently flawed—not because understanding the local contexts of militant Islamist groups is not important (it is). But rather because viewing such groups as of either local or global significance is precisely the wrong way to approach the challenge.

The fact is groups like ISIS always think and act in terms of both local and global ambitions—or, in the parlance of the “defensive jihad” they believe they are waging, their targets are both “near enemies” (apostate Muslim rulers) and “far enemies” (the infidels that support them).

While some in Congress and elsewhere still believe ISIS is a localized problem of little concern to the United States, the inconvenient truth is that ISIS actually represents a dangerous new chapter in the global war being waged by Al Qaeda and its affiliated and inspired groups, and a clear and present threat to the U.S. homeland.

Four new “areas of concern” show why this is the case.

Quantity vs. Quality

Ever since the Taliban government in Afghanistan was ousted in late 2001, the core Al Qaeda group founded by Osama bin Laden has been without formal training camps and facilities. This has forced the organization to rely more and more on recruits and foot soldiers trained under less-than-optimal circumstances, sometimes just over the Internet.

Many terrorism experts believe the multiple “near-attacks” against the United States over the past five years—such as over Detroit in December 2009, in Times Square in May 2010, and on inbound cargo airliners in late 2010—are all signs that while the organization is not lacking in “quantity” of potential recruits, they lack the ability to effectively train “quality” foot soldiers to effectively carry out major attacks.

One of the great challenges ISIS poses is that it currently controls thousands of square miles of ungoverned territory; and it is recruiting highly motivated fighters from all over the world. This influx of fighters, along with the open space needed by ISIS commanders to formally train them, offers the group an ability to creatively think up and effectively carry out major attacks, including against the United States.

Fellow Travelers

The militant Islamist ideology that underpins ISIS is nothing new—it has been around since the Middle Ages, and has ebbed and flowed in prominence over the centuries under movements such as Wahhabism in Arabia, Jamaat-e-Islami in South Asia and the Muslim Brotherhood in the broader Middle East. Unfortunately, movements guided by this ideology are much more flowing than ebbing at the moment.

For example, while attention has been focused on ISIS in the Mideast, two other related challenges have recently exploded elsewhere. In Libya, an Islamist-dominated militia known as “Libya Dawn” has taken over enormous chunks of the country, and is also crossing the border of Tunisia and other parts of the region.

And a bit further south in Nigeria, a new offensive by the group Boko Haram has seized towns, villages and hundreds of square miles of territory in the northeast; potentially pushing well across the borders of Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

Though some take solace that local jihadi groups—such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ansar Dine in Mali—come from different regions, nationalities, tribes and so on, and have their own local grievances, they are also fellow travelers of the revolutionary global jihad. In fact, they are often connected by larger umbrella organizations—like Al Qaeda’s formal affiliate in Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which interacts with all of these groups.

For ISIS, this means vast swaths of new friendly territory is opening up in Africa and elsewhere, offering it more opportunity to recruit fighters and find logistical and other operational support for attacks it may wish to commit internationally.