WASHINGTON – U.S. counterterrorism policy revolves around efforts to prevent the creation of terrorist safe havens, such as the one al-Qaida enjoyed in Afghanistan, that enable terrorists to attack the West.
That’s why U.S. officials worry about “failed states” in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, and why U.S. forces launch drone strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in Yemen and elsewhere.
Thus, the United States must do whatever is necessary to ensure that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, cannot rest easy in the broad territory that it now controls from Aleppo, in Syria, to areas west of Baghdad, in Iraq – a territory that measures the size of Jordan.
With its European allies and such regional state actors as Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the United States must tap options that include air strikes on ISIS forces, greater support for Iraq‘s government, arms and other aid for moderate rebels that are fighting ISIS in Syria and greater intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
President Barack Obama, who clearly has no interest in returning a robust U.S. military presence to Iraq, nevertheless has dispatched 300 military advisors there in response to ISIS’ threat to Nouri al-Maliki’s government, and he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the United States also will launch strikes, deploy special operations forces and improve its intelligence operations to address the problem.
ISIS represents a particularly dangerous threat to the United States, one that grows as the radical group conquers more territory and – with such success – more easily recruits members and acquires more weapons and money. Citing multiple U.S. intelligence sources, NBC News labeled the ISIS threat against U.S. targets “extremely high.”
Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has declared an Islamic caliphate in the territory ISIS controls, warned America earlier this year, “Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day. So watch, for we are with you, watching.”
The United States learned the hard way not to take warnings from terrorist leaders lightly, for Osama bin Laden had issued similar threats against the United States before al-Qaida carried them out on September 11, 2001.
ISIS is an especially radical group – in fact, it’s been dismissed by al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as too radical for its tastes. As it conquers territory and captures U.S. military hardware, ISIS has been executing its prisoners, including Iraqi military personnel, in especially brutal fashion.
Not surprisingly, ISIS has roots in organizations of particular brutality. It’s an outgrowth of al-Qaida in Iraq whose leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, helped create the Abdullah Azzam Brigade and was himself known for wanton brutality.
That ISIS has its eyes set on the West is already evident. Law enforcement authorities have traced the group’s ties to terrorist attacks and to attempts that were prevented in recent years in Europe, including the May attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels that left three people dead.
As many as 100 Americans have teamed up with ISIS in Syria, raising the real possibility that hardened jihadists with U.S. passports may return to the United States with the goal of attacking the homeland. Consequently, the United States is working with other nations to beef up security at overseas airports.
“Any of these people can come back to the United States and they can carry out the type of attack that they’re being trained in in Syria,” Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, said recently. “All we have to do is risk one or two of them and we could have a very, very lethal attack here in the U.S.”
That’s a risk that the United States, with the memory of September 11 still lingering, simply cannot take.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Lawrence J. Haas is a former communications director for Vice President Al Gore and is senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. Readers may write him at AFPC, 1509 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20002.
This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.
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