How Much Does ISIS Really Threaten America?

"The threats facing the American homeland today, mostly of the 'lone wolf' variety, are threats the United States has faced for years."

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson made news recently by claiming that “without a doubt we have evolved to a new phase of the global terrorist threat.” His basic argument  was that ISIS and similar groups are “more decentralized, more complex, [and] more diffuse.”

While some concern is warranted, there is no need for alarm on the scale we are currently witnessing. The ISIS threat is overhyped, giving the group more power than it deserves while distracting from bigger threats. More to the point, there is no new phase of terrorism, just the same phase—but with a different ability to promote use of usual tactics.

Indeed, the threats facing the American homeland today, mostly of the “lone wolf” variety, are threats the United States has faced for years. What is needed now is a new way of dealing with an old problem.

In an era of increased connectivity, the ability of terrorists to contact lone-wolf candidates is greater than ever—and American leaders are worried. Terrorist organizations, like ISIS, have used the means of this hyper-connected era, especially social media, to great effect. A Brookings Institution study showed that ISIS has a “sophisticated and innovative methodology” that makes use of the “at least 46,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts.” This social media strategy—and the appeal of ISIS’ cause—has attracted lone wolves to carry out strikes in the West, with the brutal attack in Paris so far being the most significant. The United States is worried sick about a potential terrorist-inspired lone wolf operation on its own soil and is scrambling to tighten security at military bases and malls alike.

In addition, ISIS’ mastery of social media and messaging inspired a cadre of foreign fighters and people sympathetic to its mission. Many fighters have gone to the battlefields in Iraq, Syria, and beyond in hopes of establishing an Islamic state. Nicholas Rasmussen, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called the rate of foreign fighters traveling to the area “unprecedented.”

The worry for Western governments is that these fighters will obtain advanced asymmetric warfare training and use them to great effect back in their home states. The thirty to forty Americans who have traveled to the Middle East—a dozen or so who may have joined ISIS—worry U.S. law enforcement because, upon their return, they pose a threat to homeland security.

These trends are certainly concerning, but they do not equate to a “new phase” of terrorism for the U.S. homeland. The reasons why are straightforward.

For one, ISIS’ main focus is consolidating gains and grabbing new territory in Syria and Iraq. What it has been able to do there certainly constitutes a new phase in the way terrorists operate, but does not radically change the danger calculus on American land. Indeed, ISIS is not yet fully focused on bringing chaos to the West. Yes, it wants to eventually destroy Western targets, but that is currently a lesser concern for ISIS. And, the lone wolf attacks the group does inspire will continue to be smaller and less catastrophic than has been seen in America’ recent past. Further, al-Qaeda—the bigger threat to the United States—is not at the capacity level at which it once was due to the United States. Its ability to pull off a spectacular attack like 9/11 is substantially reduced, although not impossible. So while the United States should still be vigilant for a large-scale attack, the country can breathe a little easier.