A new report from the West Point counterterrorism center challenges the notion that the Islamic State only recently became a major terror threat, describing the network’s gains in Iraq as a crisis four years in the making.
Meanwhile, Fox News has learned that top aides to President Obama expect the threat from the organization, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to outlast Obama’s time in office.
The details underscore the challenge facing the U.S. government and its allies as the president and military advisers weigh how — and where — to confront the Islamist militant forces.
“ISIL did not suddenly become effective in early June 2014: it had been steadily strengthening and actively shaping the future operating environment for four years,”the report from the West Point center said.
The report said that the “shattering” of Iraq’s security forces in June is a “case-in-point, the result of years of patient preparatory operations.”
The report, obtained in advance by Fox News, was published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, an independent, privately funded research group. It was written by Michael Knights, with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The report pointed to a long trail of warning signs, after leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “re-booted” the organization in 2010. The report said it has developed a “highly-motivated cadre of light infantry forces” since 2012, while launching major attacks like a wave of car bombs across multiple cities that lasted until the end of 2013.
Despite these warning signs, President Obama earlier this year compared ISIS and related groups to a “jayvee team” during an interview with The New Yorker.
The White House has since defended those remarks, claiming the president was not referring only to the Islamic State. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes also claimed earlier this month that the network indeed “has gained capacity in the last several months.”
Rhodes said the Islamic State poses “a greater threat today than they did six months ago.”
Left unclear is when that danger might diminish.
With the Islamic State now controlling large swaths of territory across Syria and northern Iraq, senior Obama administration officials have repeatedly referred to the terrorist army as a “long-term” threat.
Asked if that means that the dangers posed by ISIS will extend beyond Obama’s time in office, a senior State Department official told Fox News: “Probably. Probably.”
The official hastened to add that the U.S. has embraced similarly lengthy time frames in its post-9/11 efforts to combat other major terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that such a view — especially given the success against Al Qaeda in those regions — should not be mistaken for a lack of initiative or zeal in the president’s approach.
The official also stressed that the administration does not see a 9/11-style attack on the American homeland as among the threats the Islamic State presently poses. Rather, the group is thought by U.S. policymakers to threaten Washington’s regional allies and interests, as many administration officials have emphasized in recent weeks.
The State Department source also pointed to the variety of methods the administration is using to address ISIS. These range from “kinetic” operations aimed at “taking their leadership off the battlefield” to online initiatives designed to choke off the group’s financing to diplomatic activities that will stem the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS’ breeding ground, Syria.
“We are also working on getting others to stand up and push them out,” the source said.
The West Point report did detail the organization’s potential weaknesses.
The report said ISIS leaders are “crafting far-sighted political-military campaigns that are resilient enough to survive the deaths of their progenitors,” but their ability to “continually shape and control the conflict will be sorely tested” as the pace of the counteroffensive accelerates.
The Obama administration is currently weighing whether to expand its air campaign from northern Iraq into Syria.
“Although they may boast a deep bench of talented individuals following years of prisoner releases, prison breaks and recruitment, leadership casualties will nonetheless complicate their ability to hold the initiative in the future,” the report said.
The West Point article said ISIS has benefited from the “unpreparedness of its enemies” but such factors “are diminishing.”
“As a defensive force, ISIL may struggle to hold terrain if it is attacked simultaneously at multiple points or if its auxiliary allies begin to defect,” the report said.
Still, the report noted the group is absorbing “whole networks of militants into its ranks.”
Fox News’ Catherine Herridge and James Rosen contributed to this report.