- Based on the analysis of the facts and findings below, as of November 27, 2015, the Islamic State has the intent and capability to launch an undetected WMD attack against the American homeland. Absent specific actionable intelligence, there is no way to predict the specific date or location of an attack, or the type of attack that will occur, but it is clear from the intelligence that such an attack is feasible and credible.
On November 15, 2015, White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes stated that the Islamic State aspires to attack the United States in a manner similar to the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks but does not have the capability to do so. He based his assessment on only one criteria – the number of foreign fighters that had returned to Europe. He said that while thousands of European foreign fighters have traveled to Syria and then returned, only 40 Americans are known to have gone to Syria and returned. His assessment, however, does not address the key criteria that would allow an accurate assessment of the Islamic State’s intent and capability to launch such an attack.
The following analysis uses primary sources to answer the following relevant questions regarding the Islamic State’s capabilities:
- Does it have the intent and desire to attack the United States?
- Does it have the requisite number of personnel and operational experience to conduct such an attack?
- Does it have access to conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, and, if so, can it smuggle them into the country?
- Does it have the financial ability to finance such an operation?
Once established, an analysis of these facts leads to general findings about the capabilities of the Islamic State, and these findings allow for a logical and credible forecast of its ability to launch such an attack against the homeland.
Intent and desire to attack the United States:
The Islamic State has issued many direct threats against the United States that illustrate its intent and desire to attack inside America. The following are a few selected threats that illustrate this point.
- In August 2014, IS declared war against the US in a document sent to the family of beheading victim James Foley. It was addressed to the “American government and their sheep like people” and threatened the following (NOTE: all emphasis in the text was added by the Islamic State in the original):
Today our swords are unsheathed towards you, GOVERNMENT AND CITIZENS ALIKE! AND WE WILL NOT STOP UNTIL WE QUENCH OUR THIRST FOR YOUR BLOOD. You do not spare our weak, elderly, women or children, so we will NOT spare yours! You and your citizens will pay the price of your bombings! The first of which being the blood of American citizen, James Foley.
- The above threat was followed soon after by the Islamic State’s September 22, 2014, statement encouraging its followers to seek out and kill American, French, and Australian citizens in their homes with whatever weapons are available including cars, knives, and rocks.
- On April 11, 2015, the Islamic State released an 11 minute video that specifically promised another 9/11-style spectacular attack against the American homeland.
- On November 18, 2015, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, the Islamic State released two videos threatening attacks on the United States; one threatening to burn down the White House, the other showing images of New York’s Time Square in conjunction with a suicide bomber zipping his jacket over his suicide vest.
Threats that are not backed-up by trained, willing, and capable personnel are little more than propaganda. The Islamic State, however, has the requisite number of trained, combat-hardened, and ideologically motivated personnel to conduct attacks against the United States.
- The CIA estimates that the Islamic State has smuggled approximately 31,000 foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq. These individuals hail from over 100 countries, including 250 Americans, and 5,000 Europeans. But their sheer number of foreign fighters only tells part of the story. There has also been a qualitative change in the character of today’s jihadists – they are more ideologically extreme, and much more brutal than the jihadists of the bin Laden era. Because of the Islamic State’s extensive and widely disseminated video propaganda and statements of beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture, the revival of slavery, and the inhumane execution of prisoners, there is no doubt that, before they even leave home, the thousands of foreign radical Muslim fighters that flock to the new caliphate do so fully understanding and embracing its barbaric ideology and actions.
- In direct response to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’ assertion that the Islamic State is incapable of launching an attack against the US because relatively few Americans have gone to Syria and Iraq and returned, there is no Islamic State doctrine, policy, or ideological prohibition that requires it to create attack cells against the United States using only American operatives.
- The Islamic State emerged from al Qaeda in Iraq which provides some insight into how the organization might prepare and conduct an attack against the United States, and the historical record reveals that no previous al Qaeda-directed attacks against the United States have employed American operatives. Rather, all previous al Qaeda-directed jihadi operatives, including all of the 9/11 conspirators, as well as Richard Reid (the Shoe Bomber), and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Underwear Bomber), were non-Americans who entered the United States with legal visas. None of these attacks were discovered by American or Western intelligence agencies prior to their commencement.
- The fact that no previous al Qaeda-directed attacks were conducted by American citizens is not to say, however, that the Islamic State does not have the capability to include American citizens in an attack cell. Quite to the contrary, the Islamic State has an aggressive program to recruit Americans which has alarmed and overtaxed the FBI. According to FBI Director James Comey, in just the last year, the Bureau’s Islamic State case load has exploded to 900 active cases, a number, he says, that is quickly reaching the point of exceeding the Bureau’s personnel and financial resources. Worse, he says that the bureau is stymied in monitoring the most important of these cases because of the Islamic State’s use of digital encryption technology, which enables it to “go dark”.
A terrorist organization can have all the intent in the world and thousands of motivated personnel, but if it does not have actual experience in conducting military and clandestine operations its threats against an adversary are not necessarily credible. The Islamic State, however, has extensive experience in conducting both military and clandestine operations.
- On August 21, 2014, then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed this very question when he stated that the Islamic State demonstrates “a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess” that represents an “imminent threat to every interest we have”.
- This “…strategic and tactical military prowess” was demonstrated recently when, in less than two weeks’ time the Islamic State coordinated and carried-out the following three sophisticated clandestine attacks in Lebanon, Egypt and France:
- On November 12, 2015, just a day before the Paris attacks, an Islamic State team defeated the vaunted security measures of Hezbollah’s nerve-center in Lebanon and carried-out two suicide bombings, killing 43 and wounding 239.
- On October 31, 2015, Islamic State operatives conducted the first successful terrorist attack against a civilian airliner since September 11, 2001 when it thwarted security at the international airport at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt and placed an improvised explosive device on-board Russian Metrojet flight 9268. The bomb detonated approximately 20 minutes after take-off killing all 224 passengers.
- On November 13, 2015, the Islamic State alarmed all of the world’s western security and intelligence services when, undetected and by surprise, it conducted multi-location attacks in the middle of Paris where French security was operating at its highest alert status. In approximately half-an-hour, three teams, all armed with explosive vests and AK-47 automatic assault rifles, attacked six separate locations including the stadium in which the French president was watching a soccer game, murdering 129 individuals and wounding 350. This was the worst terrorist attack in France since the end of WWII, and represents the realization of the West’s greatest fears – that foreign fighters would return from Syria and Iraq to wreak havoc.
As stated above, the Islamic State was able to smuggle explosives undetected into Lebanon, as well as through airport security in Egypt to place a device on-board the Russian Metrojet flight. In Paris, it demonstrated that it had the ability to smuggle conventional explosives and AK-47 assault rifles into the center of Paris. These operations prove conclusively that the Islamic State can smuggle conventional weapons and explosives into very secure areas. Because of the brutal nature of the Islamic State and the fact that it recognizes no moral red-line, however, analysts must also consider the likelihood that future attacks in Europe or the United States will include weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical, biological, or radioactive weapons.
- On November 19, 2015, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned of just this possibility in future attacks against France stating: “we know that there could also be a risk of chemical or biological weapons”.
- On the same day, American and Iraqi intelligence officials revealed that the Islamic State created an organization dedicated to creating chemical weapons and has hired scientists from Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program and elsewhere to accomplish this task. Nobody knows how far the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program has progressed, but according to US officials, ISIS has already used mustard gas against in enemies in Iraq and Syria on at least four separate occasions. Weapons experts state that the Islamic State is likely only capable of manufacturing crude devices at this point, but a crude device detonated in a public space, such as a shopping mall, is all that is required for it to terrorize a civilian population.
- Separate from creating its own arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, over a year ago, the Islamic State seized already existing chemical weapons from Iraq’s al Muthanna chemical weapons complex. The seized weapons include munitions containing Sarin gas, Mustard gas, and the nerve agent VX. The al Muthanna chemical weapons complex was Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons production line that weaponized these chemical agents in the form of mortar and artillery shells. Many of these mortar and artillery rounds are not useable in their present form, but in 2006, then Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. General Michael Maples stated that, while these munitions could not be used as originally intended because of corrosion, “the agent remaining in the weapons would be very valuable to terrorists and insurgents”.
- In July 2014, IS fighters seized 88 pounds of uranium compounds from the University of Mosul that can be used to construct a radioactive dirty bomb, and in late November 2014, Islamic State operatives boasted on Twitter that the Islamic State had created a dirty bomb from this material. The Pentagon confirmed that the Islamic State has the capability to construct such a weapon.
Capability/Transporting WMD or conventional weapons into the United States:
Having access to such weapons of mass destruction and being able to transport them into the United States are two separate matters, which begs the question – “is it possible for the Islamic State to smuggle WMD into the United States?”
This question was definitively answered in March 2015 by US Marine General John Kelly, commander of US Southern Command in his testimony before Congress, in which he described the capabilities of drug smuggling networks and the possibility of terrorist organizations piggy-backing on these networks:
“Clearly, criminal networks can move just about anything on these smuggling pipelines. Terrorist organizations could seek to leverage those same smuggling routes to move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens or even quite easily bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States.”
- The Islamic State, however, does not have to rely on drug smuggling cartels to smuggle people or weapons into the United States. As recently revealed by the news media, after Islamic State troops were pushed out of the Iraqi city of Sinjar, Kurdish forces discovered that the Islamic State constructed 30 to 40 elaborate tunnels on its own. The tunnels, some spanning over 200 meters, were wired with electricity, and contained sleeping quarters and weapons storage areas. It is possible and credible that it could dig its own tunnels into the United States at the southern or northern borders.
- The Islamic State is described as the richest terrorist organization on earth. It has a war chest estimated at over $2 billion dollars accrued from: taxes, smuggling oil and antiquities, ransom for hostages, seized bank assets, donations from wealthy Gulf donors, the theft of all property and assets from the minorities it victimizes, and proceeds from zakat (tithing) and Muslim charities.
- On November 19, 2015, media reports revealed that the US Government recently discovered that it miscalculated the income the Islamic State makes from oil. Originally, the government estimated that it made only $100 million a year, but now realizes that it makes $500 million a year from its oil smuggling operation.
- Over the past year in numerous videos and statements, the Islamic State has specifically expressed its intent and desire to attack the American homeland, including a video presentation promising another 9/11-type spectacular attack.
- The Islamic State has tens of thousands of experienced and blooded foreign fighters in its ranks, many thousands of which come from Western Europe and require no visas to travel to the United States. This number also includes at least 250 American citizens, but this number is augmented by the 900 American citizens, spanning all 50 states, that the FBI is currently investigating as supporters and/or operatives of the Islamic State. It is likely that from among these thousands of operatives and supporters, the Islamic State could, at the very least, create and dispatch a 10 to 20 man team to the United States.
- The Islamic State demonstrated its “…strategic and tactical military prowess” when it launched three sophisticated terrorist operations in less than two weeks. By attacking Egypt, Lebanon, and France it demonstrated conclusively that it has the strategic intent and capability to launch operational teams to conduct terrorist operations outside of its immediate area of operation. All three of these attacks took Western intelligence agencies by surprise, establishing the fact that the Islamic State can smuggle its teams and weapons into very secure areas undetected. This is due to the operational security of the selected teams as well as the Islamic State’s use of very secure encrypted communications technology.
- The Islamic State has a two-pronged approach to chemical weapons; it is developing its own chemical weapons program, and over a year ago it seized existing chemical weapons and radioactive compounds from Iraqi institutions. Moreover, according to U.S. officials, it has already used chemical weapons on the battlefield on at least four separate occasions. The commanding officer of the U.S. Southern Command revealed in Congressional testimony that terrorists could easily smuggle personnel and weapons of mass destruction into the United States via the existing smuggling routes controlled by drug smuggling organizations on the border between Mexico and the U.S. Moreover, the Islamic State has the capability of unilaterally digging tunnels, as was discovered in the Iraqi city of Sinjar.
- With a war chest exceeding $2 billion dollars, the Islamic State can easily create, train, and fully support a ten to twenty-man operational cell dispatched to the United States to conduct terrorist operations.
- Despite the increasing number of American, Russian, and French airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq, there is no evidence that indicates the Islamic State leadership seeks to avoid further military confrontation with any of these countries. Quite to the contrary, all evidence indicates that it is actively trying to provoke additional confrontations. On November 24, 2015, the Islamic State released a new video that likely rates as the best piece of terrorist propaganda ever made; it throws down the gauntlet and tells the US and the international community to “bring it on!”
Based on the above facts and findings, as of November 27, 2015, the Islamic State has the desire, intent and all the capabilities required to launch an attack against the American homeland. Within its ranks it has the expertise, trained operatives, financial resources, and possession of WMD to carry-out such an attack. Absent specific actionable intelligence, there is no way to predict a specific date or location where attacks will occur. It is likely, however, that the Islamic State has the capability to launch an attack, undetected, within the United States at a time and place of its choosing.
Brian Fairchild was a career officer in CIA’s Clandestine Service. He has served in Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and Afghanistan. Mr. Fairchild writes periodic intelligence analyses on topics of strategic importance.