Top officials crisscrossed the Capitol over the past two days, giving urgent warnings that ISIS represented a threat “worse than Al Qaeda,” in the words of one State Department official, with the capability to create a sanctuary for global jihadists working to threaten American interests.
The self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is no longer merely a terrorist organization, a top State Department official told House and Senate lawmakers, but “a full-blown army seeking to establish a self-governing state through the Tigris and Euphrates Valley in what is now Syria and Iraq.”
“[ISIS] is Al Qaeda… in its doctrine, its ambition, and increasingly its threat to U.S. interests,” said Brett McGurk, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. ISIS is “targeting all Iraqis .. who disagree with its twisted vision of a 7th century caliphate.”
But while ISIS shares Al Qaeda’s ambitions, it shown that it can be even savvier, officials testified before the House and Senate foreign affairs committees this week.
“[ISIS] has proving to be… more effective in terms of organizing and developing a state structure than even core Al Qaeda, and that is why it is more than just a terrorist organization—it certainly doesn’t have the global reach in terms of terrorist capacity as core Al Qaeda, but it has the sophistication to develop what has really becoming a state-like sanctuary for a global jihadist movement,” McGurk said. “They’re a self-sustaining organization.”
These heightened warnings come even as The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel reported from Baghdad that internal divisions with the self-declared Islamic State threaten to tear it apart.
“ISIS loves the propaganda that makes it seem like the scariest group in the world. And ISIS really is as brutal as it claims to be, though not yet half as strong,” Siegel wrote.
That didn’t seem to stop top administration officials from magnifying the danger ISIS poses to American interests. Pentagon official Elissa Slotkin told senators Thursday that the U.S. had begun increasing surveillance flights in Iraq to some 50 per day to counter the ISIS threat.
“They are self-funded, they have control over significant territory, they are tested in battle, they are a serious threat. While we don’t assess right now that they are doing distinct homeland plotting… they are open about it, that they are coming for the U.S.,” Slotkin warned. “I don’t want that to fester.”
The ISIS threat was particularly potent, she said, because fighters with the organization were “very, very experience and war-tested.” Slotkin also said that a number of Western passport-holders have traveled to Syria to interact with ISIS, and that ISIS was conducting “active plotting in Europe.”
“In Baghdad jut this week, there was a suicide bombing—there was a German, there was an Australian. ISIS is able to funnel about 30 to 50 suicide bombers a month into Iraq. We assess almost all foreign fighters—it would be very easy for ISIL to funnel that cadre of dedicated suicide bombers” to other regional capitals, Europe, or even the U.S., McGurk told Senate lawmakers Thursday.
ISIS’ s stated intent, Slotkin told members of Congress, was “we’re coming for you, Barack Obama.”
But outside of the threat of terrorist attacks, ISIS’s actions in the Middle East could impact the United States by disrupting global energy markets.
“Iraq, through 2035, will account for 45 percent of all of the growth in oil energy exports. If Iraq were to collapse in a major civil war, the effects to our own economy here at home would be quite serious,” McGurk told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The resulting economic shocks, he said, would be “devastating.”