Leading counterterrorism expert said despite group’s dramatic rise, it does not pose a direct threat of major attack on a US city
US intelligence officials have concluded that Islamic State (Isis) militants do not currently pose a direct threat of a major attack on an American city and, despite the group’s dramatic rise to prominence in the Middle East, is not comparable to “al-Qaida pre-9/11”.
Details of the current US intelligence community’s assessment of Isis were made public on Wednesday in rare public remarks by Matthew Olsen, the departing director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Speaking a day after a video emerged showing Isis fighters murdering Steven Sotloff, the second American journalist beheaded by the group in a month, Olsen conceded the militant group had made dramatic territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, and displayed an unprecedented skill at using the internet for propaganda.
He said it viewed itself as “the new leader in the global jihadist movement” although US intelligence officials maintain al-Qaida currently poses a more serious adversary.
But Olsen played down the risk of a spectacular al-Qaida-style attack in a major US or even European city, adding: “There is no credible information that [Isis] is planning to attack the United States”. He added there was “no indication at this point of a cell of foreign fighters operating in the United States – full stop”.
The leading counterterrorism expert said said it was “spot on” to conclude that Isis is significantly more limited than al-Qaida was, for example, in the run-up to 9/11, when it had underground cells across Europe and the US. “We certainly aren’t there,” Olsen said. “[Isis] is not al-Qaida pre-9/11”.
His assessment – effectively the view of the US government’s foremost terrorist monitoring agency – contrasts with the flurry of reports indicating alarm and even panic in western governments over the prospect of foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq.
The response has been particularly heated in the UK, the source of as many as 500 fighters who have traveled to the region to fight with Isis. The masked militant who appeared on video beheading both Sotloff and another American journalist, James Foley, is British, and the UK government has vowed a fierce response against returning jihadists.
Olsen said that returning fighters were what the US was “most concerned about”, but said they were most likely to commit lone attacks and played down the chances of a more sophisticated terrorist atrocity.
In comments at the Brookings think tank, he charted the rapid rise of Isis, which has exploited the three-year civil war in Syria, making stunning territorial gains, carving out a sanctuary from which to coordinate its expansion across northern Iraq. He said the group now commands 10,000 fighters and has laid claim to an area of Syria and Iraq roughly the size of the UK.
In doing so, the militant organisation has gained weapons, equipment and helped build on a financial war chest which, the US estimates, grows by $1m each day from illicit oil sales, smuggling and ransom payments.
But Olsen cautioned: “As dire as all of this sounds, from my vantage point it is important that we keep this threat in perspective and we take a moment to consider it in the context of the overall terrorist landscape.” He added that the core al-Qaida remained the dominant group in the global jihadist movement, even if though it has recently been outpaced by Isis’s sophisticated propaganda machine.
Olsen said that more than 1,000 Europeans and more than 100 Americans are believed to have traveled to the Syria to fight in the civil war, and a substantial portion are believed to have aligned themselves with Isis.
He acknowledged the risk they could return to their countries of origin, or travel to other locations in the Middle East, to attack other western targets. He said that “left unchecked, [foreign fighters loyal to Isis] will seek to carry out attacks closer to home”.
But he said the potential risk was of “individuals – one, two” attacking the US, rather than a coordinated, larger-scale atrocity. The acutest threat, Olsen insisted, was against US assets and personnel in the region, particularly in Baghdad. An attack on the US mainland was more likely to be “a smaller scale attack; brutal, lethal, but nothing like a 9/11 kind of attack”.
Paul Lewis in Washington
Wednesday 3 September 2014 21.06 BST
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