By Kristina Wong - 07/23/14 08:27 PM EDT
Top U.S. officials warned Wednesday that a Sunni extremist group controlling parts of Syria and Iraq had grown into a threat that is “worse than al Qaeda.”
“It is al Qaeda in its doctrine, ambition and, increasingly, in its threat to U.S. interests,” Brett McGurk, a deputy assistant secretary of State, told lawmakers at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. “In fact, it is worse than al Qaeda.”
Elissa Slotkin, acting principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, added that the group has threatened: “We’re coming for you, Barack Obama.”
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, abbreviated as ISIS or ISIL, has captured major towns in both countries and threatened to move on Baghdad, leading President Obama to deploy nearly 750 troops to Iraq.
The testimony from senior officials sparked alarm and frustration on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers said more should have been done to counter ISIS sooner.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said the threat of ISIS fighters infiltrating the U.S. was “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general.”
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told The Hill on Wednesday that the threat from ISIS had been “blinking red a long time.”
“Now it’s flashing more frequently and is a lot brighter,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of fighters who are from European countries that are visa waiver countries, which means all they have to do is shave their beards and look like normal, responsible civilians and walk into the United States of America without a visa.
“It’s a real challenge for our intelligence community to identify them and get their names on a watch list.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, officials discussed steps for countering ISIS, including pressuring countries in the region to close their borders to stop the spread of fighters and offering U.S. training for local Iraqi security forces and centrist Syrian groups.
But it is still unclear whether the administration is planning any military response. U.S. advisers on the ground in Iraq have yet to begin helping local units as the Pentagon reviews an initial intelligence assessment that found embedded American forces would be easy targets for extremists.
Lawmakers expressed concerns over the delays but also remained deeply divided about what military steps the U.S. should take.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the administration had ignored the threat for too long and had rejected Iraqi requests for drone strikes as early as August 2013.
“What it seems like is the administration is just paralyzed. They just don’t know what to do,” added Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Iraq War veteran.
“I’m renewing the call to the administration for massive manned military air strikes to push back this very, very bad cancer that’s encroaching on the Middle East,” he said.
Other lawmakers though expressed caution and said any solution must include political reforms in Baghdad.
“I supported the president’s decision to send assessment teams to Iraq, but I’m cautious of our future action. We cannot end up in another sectarian quagmire in Iraq,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the committee’s ranking member.
Lawmakers cautioned against providing Iraq with more military help until a stable government was in place. Critics of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki say his Shiite-majority government has alienated Sunni and Kurdish minorities and emboldened ISIS. Several lawmakers called for him to step down.
“Maliki is not a good guy just because we installed him. Now we need a new prime minister,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said.
McGurk said the administration had not ignored the threat and had already offered military assistance to Iraq.
“We set up intelligence fusion sharing centers, we helped them with the Hellfire missiles precision strikes, we helped them in terms of training forces on the ground of special operations,” he said.
But he cautioned that the focus should be on supporting an Iraqi unity government, requiring political reforms initiated by Baghdad.
“This is a uniquely Iraqi process, with Iraqi political dynamics. And the outcome will reflect that process,” McGurk said.
“There will not be an exclusively military solution to the threat posed by ISIL,” Slotkin added. Iraqis must do the heavy lifting.”
This story was updated at 8:27 p.m.