The threat from the Islamic State in America
Americans in the U.S. are facing the greatest foreign extremist threat that we have encountered since 9/11. The threat emanates almost exclusively from the so-called “Islamic State”, which is also referred to as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. While it may seem counter-intuitive, as the broad Western and Arab coalition slowly defeats the Islamic State militarily in Iraq and Syria, the threat of Islamic State terrorist attacks in the West and U.S. is actually increasing. We are already seeing these type of attacks – witness Paris, Brussels, Jakarta, Berlin, Orlando, San Bernardino, Chattanooga and Nice to name a few. What we are dealing with regarding the Islamic State is a kind of hybrid group that has really not been experienced before. The Islamic State operates simultaneously in military, terrorist and civilian spheres. Islamic State leaders remain committed and determined to continually striking the Homeland through both “inspired” and “directed” attacks.
To frame the magnitude of the current threat from the Islamic State in the Homeland, one only needs to look at current trends. Analysis of recent Islamic State-linked attacks or plots against the U.S. and West reveal that the U.S. remains the number one target of the Islamic State outside of Iraq and Syria. Islamic State operatives are achieving greater success in carrying out their attacks (a 44 percent “success” rate in 2016 compared to a 31 percent rate in 2015), and Islamic State attacks are getting deadlier (an average of 58 casualties per attack in 2016 compared to 48 casualties per attack in 2015 and 3 casualties per attack in 2014). Over the last two years there have been more than 18,000 people killed worldwide in Islamic State-linked attacks, with 50 percent of those attacks occurring in areas not previously considered at risk of terrorism. Finally, during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the Homeland, U.S. law enforcement was arresting on average about 1.5 Americans per month for links to Al-Qaida terrorist activities. From 2014 to present, U.S. authorities have been arresting on average about 4 Americans per month for ties to the Islamic State. This means we are interdicting about 300 percent more Americans for association with the Islamic State than we did for Al-Qaida.
In terms of a target deck, Islamic State operatives tend to attack or plot attacks against three main target sets in the Homeland – civilians, police and the military. The targeting of these three sectors is not random, and is based on the radical Sunni extremist ideology and doctrine that drives Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaida. We can further break down the civilian sector target set and state that the transportation sector has been and remains a primary target for Islamic State-linked attacks in the U.S. This includes airports, commercial aviation, trains, subway systems and ports. Large public gatherings such as festivals, parades, and nightclubs are also a primary target set within the civilian sector.
In terms of the Military target set, U.S. military bases, processing centers and recruiting offices have all been targets of Islamic State-linked attacks and plots. Finally, there is a growing trend not only in the U.S., but overseas as well, of Islamic State-linked attacks directed against law enforcement personnel. With regards to tactics, techniques and procedures for carrying out Islamic State attacks in the U.S. and West, operatives tend to favor simple methods that have worked well in the past. The use of small arms, automatic weapons and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) will continue. We will also continue to see the use of edged weapons (knives, axes and hatchets) and vehicles as primary means for carrying out attacks.
All Americans in the Homeland and overseas must remain vigilant and practice good situational awareness as we move through this period of increased threat of terrorist attacks in our country. Heightened awareness and knowledge will lead to more chances for us to disrupt and deter planned terrorist acts within the Homeland.