ISIS barks louder, but it’s no Al-Qaeda: expert
An imminent large-scale attack on the United States by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants is not likely, and the group is not comparable to pre- Sept. 11 al-Qaeda, a leading U.S. counterterrorism expert said Wednesday.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Brookings Institute, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, said that despite its dramatic rise, the militant group lacked the capacity that al-Qaeda once had to carry out such attacks on American cities, according to The Guardian.
Olsen was speaking a day after the release of a video showing ISIS militants beheading Steven Sotloff, the second American journalist to suffer such a gruesome death in a month.
He acknowledged that the militant group had made dramatic territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, but played down the risk of a spectacular al-Qaeda-style attack in a major U.S. or European city, adding: “There is no credible information that [ISIS] is planning to attack the United States.”
There was “no indication at this point of a cell of foreign fighters operating in the United States – full stop,” the departing director of the National Counterterrorism Center told the audience at the Brookings Institute think tank.
His assessment marks a contrast with reports indicating panic and in the West over the prospect of foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq.
The alarm has been particularly resounding in the UK, from where as many as 500 fighters have traveled to the region to fight with ISIS. The masked militant who appeared on video beheading Sotloff, and before him another American journalist, James Foley, is British.
However, Olsen warned that the militant group has displayed unprecedented skill at using the Internet to disseminate its violent propaganda, and that could inspire a “lone wolf” sympathizer in the U.S. to carry out a terror attack.
Olsen said that the main U.S. concern was returning fighters, who he added were most likely to commit lone attacks, and played down the likelihood of a more spectacular terrorist strike.
He said more than 1,000 Europeans and more than 100 Americans are believed to have traveled to fight in the war in Syria, and a considerable number of those are believed to have joined ISIS.
But Olsen conceded that these fighters could return to their countries of origin, or travel to other locations in the Middle East to strike at Western targets.
“Left unchecked, [foreign fighters] will seek to carry out attacks closer to home.”
But “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 cautioned.
He said the core al-Qaeda was still the dominant group in the global jihadist movement, even if ISIS’ propaganda machine rang louder.