IS (Islamic State) poses a significant threat to Americans, but the militant Islamic group has declared "caliphate in Iraq and Syria" lacks the capacity that al-Qaeda once had to carry out large scale attacks on US soil, America's top counterterror official said today (September 3).
“IS poses a direct and significant threat to us” and “has the potential to use its safe havens to plan and coordinate attacks in Europe and the United States," Olsen said, speaking at an event hosted by the Brookings Institute.
Yet, director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCC) Matthew Olsen, but said the group is not as capable of carrying out a large-scale attack as al-Qaeda was before 9/11, Olsen said.
Director Olsen warned, however, that the violent propaganda of IS, which is also known as ISIL, could inspire a "lone wolf" sympathizer in the US to carry out a terror attack.
COMMENT: "IS is not yet an al-Qaeda pre-9/11," Olsen emphasized. “We are not what we were pre-9/11. We are so much better postured, in so many ways, to see, detect, stop any attack like what we saw on 9/11.”
Olsen added, "We have no credible information that IS is planning to attack the United States," Olsen said. He said that "in the near term, we're focused in protecting our personnel on the ground in Iraq."
In the last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron has stressed the threat posed by fighters with IS who hold Western passports, having been recruited to travel to Syria and fight with the jihadist group. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that the issue has been on US radar for "months."
An estimated 100 Americans have traveled to fight with IS, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) has said, while even more have traveled to Syria from Europe.
NCC Director Olsen estimated 12,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria to fight against Assad's regime in the last three years.
"Many [foreign IS fighters] are likely to possess western passports and travel documents,” Olsen acknowledged.
The threat exists of a lone wolf, radicalized by IS, carrying out an attack on his or her own in the US, Olsen said. Such an attack would be "limited" in scope and "smaller scale" than the larger-scale of the 9/11 attacks launched by al-Qaeda in the past.
IS rose swiftly in Syria during the fighting against Bashar al-Assad's regime, and then advanced rapidly across the border to seize large swaths of Iraq in the last year. With a significant cash influx from smuggling and ransom, a battlefield strategy that is "both complex and adaptive," and a sophisticated online propaganda machine, IS could supplant al-Qaeda atop the jihadist hierarchy.
"IS threatens to outpace al-Qaeda as the dominant voice" in the global jihadist movement, Olsen said. It has "outpaced any other extremist group in how they've used the Internet to spread their image."
But IS has not reached the threat level of pre-9/11 al-Qaeda, Olsen said, and the US is more equipped to see and counter such threats.