FPI Fact Sheet: The ISIS Threat to America

May 18, 2015

The recent attack against the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Texas, offers a troubling reminder that ISIS, also known as the Islamic State or ISIL, directly threatens the United States. The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) believes the following fact sheet will prove useful for policymakers and the general public to understand the nature and scale of the threat. For a separate FPI fact sheet that analyzes the history and ideology of ISIS, please click here.
I. The ISIS Global Franchise
ISIS is not a unitary organization with a single chain of command, but an international movement that attracts independent supporters throughout the world. As Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in April 2015, “In a way it’s a franchise. … The problem is they’re international, and I don’t think the international community realizes that they have to be dealt with internationally. So today we are focusing on” ISIS, “but at the same time in 2015 we have to have a holistic approach.”

  • ISIS’ international supporters work to advance the group’s cause without necessarily taking direct orders from its leaders. As James B. Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said after the May 3, 2015, shooting attack in Texas, “In a way, the old paradigm between ‘inspired’ and ‘directed’ breaks down here.” “It’s not a useful framework,” he added.
  • ISIS offers prospective supporters two choices: Either join the group in Iraq and Syria or conduct attacks at home. In an audio recording released in May 2015, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urged Muslims to “migrate to the Islamic State or fight in his land wherever that may be.” The New York Times reported that ISIS released the recording “with translations in English, French, German, Russian and Turkish, an unusual move suggesting that the group was hoping for maximum exposure.”
  • ISIS’ aggressive and highly sophisticated social media campaign facilitates the group’s global reach. “They are shooting out into the ether-sphere … over 90 thousand messages a day,” said John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security, in May 2015. He added: “It’s to millions of people across the globe. And what they’re trying to do is convince young people to go over and ultimately slaughter civilians in a vicious war.”
  • Thanks in part to ISIS’ recruitment efforts, foreign fighters now comprise the majority of the group’s forces in Iraq and Syria. According to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, ISIS now retains 20,000 foreign fighters—including 3,400 Westerners and 180 Americans—out of a total force of some 31,000.
  • ISIS believes that its efforts will ultimately lead to the creation of a global caliphate. As ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-’Adnani said in March 2015, “We want, Allah willing, Paris before Rome and before Al-Andalus, [and] after that we will blacken your life and blow up your White House, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower, Allah willing ... We want Kabul, Karachi, the Caucasus, Qom, Riyadh, and Tehran. We want Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Sana’, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Amman. And Muslims shall return to ruling and leadership everywhere.”

II. ISIS’ American Franchise
The FBI is investigating suspected ISIS supporters in all 50 states. “This isn’t a New York phenomenon or a Washington phenomenon,” said FBI Director James B. Comey in February 2015. “This is all 50 states and in ways that are very hard to see.” In May 2015, Comey noted: “The haystack is the entire country. We are looking for the needles, but increasingly the needles are unavailable to us.”

  • ISIS’ leadership explicitly encourages lone wolf attacks. In congressional testimony in February 2015, Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI, cited one recent example of a video ISIS released via social media that reiterates “the group’s support of lone offender attacks in Western countries. This video specifically advocates for attacks against soldiers, law enforcement, and intelligence members.”
  • ISIS’ reliance on social media for the recruitment of Americans makes potential sympathizers extremely difficult to track. “Because of the use of the Internet, we could have little or no notice in advance of an independent actor attempting to strike,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in May 2015. Nicholas J. Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in February 2015 congressional testimony that the home-grown violent extremists cultivated by ISIS on U.S. soil “can potentially operate undetected and … can plan and execute a simple attack without providing us warning.”
  • The recent shooting attack in Texas against a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest marks the first successful attack in the United States that ISIS' central leadership has claimed as its own. As Defense Secretary Ashton Carter put it, “it’s concerning that there are individuals like this who draw their inspiration from ISIL, and finally, it’s yet another reason why the defeat of ISIL is important. … It has this larger meaning because of the ability of a movement like this to inspire a certain sort of person.”
  • Over the past year, law enforcement officials have arrested multiple ISIS-inspired extremists plotting to attack the U.S. homeland. The FBI has charged, among others, an Ohio man for planning to attack the U.S. Capitol Building; two Illinois men seeking to attack a U.S. military facility; a Kansas man for attempting to detonate a bomb at a U.S. military base in that state; a New York man for plotting to kill U.S. soldiers who had returned from Iraq; and another New York man for offering to slay the President of the United States if ISIS so ordered. The bureau has also said that a New York man’s hatchet attack last year on a group of four NYPD officers in Queens constitutes an act of terror inspired in part by ISIS.
  • Pro-ISIS groups have waged cyberattacks on the United States. In perhaps the most dramatic case, in January 2015, a pro-ISIS group known as the Cyber Caliphate hacked the Twitter and YouTube accounts of U.S. Central Command. In February 2015, the Cyber Caliphate hacked the Twitter accounts of Newsweek and the veterans’ group Military Spouses of Strength, the website of the International Business Times, and the breaking news system of a Maryland television station. “We observe all the movements that you are doing from your devices,” another pro-ISIS group stated in a video released in May 2015. “Soon you will see how we control your electronic world."
  • Over the past year, law enforcement officials have arrested numerous Americans planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS. To date, the FBI has brought charges against Americans seeking to travel to Syria from multiple states, including North CarolinaNew YorkMinnesotaWisconsinPennsylvania, and California, among others. Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, said in May 2015 that the ideology of ISIS is “increasingly resonating” with Americans.

III. ISIS’ Threats of Mass Destruction
ISIS seeks to execute massive terror attacks that would devastate American lives and infrastructure. Ahmad Rashidi, a former prisoner of ISIS who escaped to Turkey, told Meet the Press that ISIS is “happy” about the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria because it makes the group seem as important as al-Qaeda, which ISIS seeks to surpass in brutality. “They want to be more better [sic] than al-Qaeda,” Rashidi said. “They want to do something more better than the World Trade Center.”

  • ISIS has threatened to repeat the attacks of September 11, 2001. In an April 2015 video titled “We Will Burn America” that includes footage of the World Trade Center’s destruction, ISIS threatened to “burn [the] United States again.” “America thinks it’s safe because of the geographical location,” the video stated. “Thus you see it invades the Muslim lands, and it thinks that the army of the Jihad won’t reach in their lands. But the dream of the American to have safety became a mirage. Today there is no safety for any American on the globe.”
  • The former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has warned that ISIS seeks to commit a 9/11-like attack. "If we don't get ISIS under control," said Michael Morell, who also twice served as the CIA’s acting director following the departures of Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, "we're going to see that kind of attack." "They have announced their intentions,” Morell further wrote in Time, “just like bin Laden did in the years prior to 9/11.”
  • ISIS has researched the use of weapons of mass destruction against the West. According to a report in Foreign Policy last year, Syrian rebels recovered a laptop from ISIS that included a document explaining how to develop biological weapons. “The advantage of biological weapons is that they do not cost a lot of money, while the human casualties can be huge,” the document stated. The computer also contained a fatwa from a Saudi cleric justifying their use. “If Muslims cannot defeat the kafir [unbelievers] in a different way,” the fatwa said, “it is permissible to use weapons of mass destruction. Even if it kills all of them and wipes them and their descendants off the face of the Earth.”

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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