The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria isn’t close to raising its flag over the White House, as its leaders warned it would do in a fiery video message last week.
But experts say the United States would be making a big mistake in underestimating the group’s potential to carry out or inspire attacks on the U.S. homeland.
Bellicose rhetoric aside, ISIS has made significant gains in territory in Iraq and Syria that are slowly but surely giving it a field from which to launch attacks on the United States or to inspire followers to do so.
The group has also gained weapons, equipment and millions in cash, as it has taken over towns and cities in Iraq.
Such gains make it easier for the group to attract followers, Sanderson said.
“When people sign up for this, and they travel a long way, they don’t sign up for the bottom of the rung team. They go for this one that’s doing the most,” he said.
The gains have clearly spooked lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who have backed the Obama administration’s airstrikes on ISIS positions.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDems get it wrong: 'Originalism' is mainstream, even for liberal judges Human rights leaders warn against confirming Gorsuch Feinstein sees slipping support among California voters: poll MORE (D-Calif.) said Friday that the group was focused on recruiting fighters to send to the West to “attack us in our backyard.”
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said ISIS was creating a “terrorist safe haven” for itself from which to launch attacks.
A senior U.S. intelligence official on Monday said that the group’s leaders have said they seek “direct confrontation” with the United States.
“So the intent is there, and we are concerned the capability is growing,” the official said.
The group has reportedly drawn recruits from other terrorist cells, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has previously stated its aim to strike the U.S.
But experts say that, while ISIS has the intent and desire to attack Americans in their backyard, they are much more focused on Iraq. Sanderson said they want to lock up their holdings to preserve “long-term revenue sources” for criminal activity.
ISIS has raided banks and taken weapons and equipment abandoned by Iraqi troops.
Iraqi officials estimate that the group could have as much as $2 billion in its war chest, according to media reports.
Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said ISIS has been attracting recruits with a range of technical expertise, including engineers who might help with its bomb-making capabilities.
But Wehrey said the group would have to set up camps and clandestine training networks in order to carry out an attack on the United Stats.
“It’s an entirely different skill set” to train potential sleeper agents in crafts such as bomb-making, he said.
On the other hand, Sanderson said someone already in the United States could hatch a scheme “in the name of ISIS and go on their own rampage.”
In 2009, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people at Fort Hood Army Base in Texas. Hasan had several communications with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born, Yemen-based cleric who had worked to recruit people for al Qaeda before the mass shooting.