No Defensive Strategy to Address a Growing Terrorist Threat

As the Islamic State group increases its threats around the world, the United States is grossly unprepared to track radicalized members and sympathizers, or to even know how many there are in the United States and abroad. At this point, an international coalition effort is the best hope for thwarting this unpredictable, yet ever-growing, “lawless” group.

The United States is not shielded from the threats of the world and has borne witness to fatal terrorist attacks on domestic soil, from the tragedy of 9/11 in 2001, the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, and most recently the horrific lone wolf atttack on 16 July 2015 that left five servicement dead in Tennessee. Yet, many Americans still perceive terrorism as a problematic international issue as opposed to a domestic one. Americans must stay vigilant and keep in mind an important point: al-Qaida, in its infancy, was comparable to the Islamic State group (IS). However, Americans ignored al-Qaida’s existence because they were across the ocean and did not see a threat emerging in the United States until the tragic events of 9/11. The world now bears witness to the violence of IS as it spreads from Syria to Iraq, and most recently infecting embattled Libya.

A Rapidly Expanding & “Lawless” Threat

The international community will see IS continue to develop in Libya, taking full advantage of the ongoing chaos of a country unraveling, destabilizing, and becoming “lawless” since the onset of violence in early 2011. Recently, there have been a number of attacks on foreign embassies in the region and IS is continually gaining popularity. Comparably speaking, IS’s reach will widen and become reminiscent of al-Qaida’s expansion with loyal offshoots – or franchises – emerging throughout the region from Syria to Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya. Over the past year, the world has become witness to one of the most well funded terrorist groups as it marches through swaths of land mercilessly killing thousands and continuing to gain popularity each day.

Most concerning, with the expansion into Libya, IS will further weaken a country that clearly is still suffering from a devastating civil war and unrest. Additionally, Libya presents IS with a new base of operations from which to initiate attacks in North Africa and elsewhere in the region. Intelligence estimates as many as 3,000 fighters loyal to IS are currently present in Libya. It is important to remember that IS did not appear in Libya until roughly a year ago in the middle of 2014, and its support is rapidly mounting. Militants originally from Libya, while fighting in Syria, had pledged allegiance to IS and then returned home and organized in this chaotic “lawless” region. In less than one year, IS has moved quickly through Libya and has formed three caliphates in the region, each with its own IS governor.

True to form, the group has swiftly established its supremacy and is enforcing its strict brand of Islamic law. There are dangers, though, of leaving IS alone in Libya. When left alone elsewhere, the results have had greater consequences for Americans – for example, the attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in September 2012. However, what could be most alarming about the occupation and infiltration into Libya is the certainty that IS could use Libya’s coastline as a launching pad for European-bound terrorists.

Dr. Aref Nayed, Libyan Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, warned in a February 2015 Breitbart News interview that IS currently has control over coastal territories in the northern Libya region that can serve as a stage for terrorist attacks on Europe. Nayed stated, “The situation is that they have consolidated their control on Sirte – it’s a major city that’s about an hour and 15 minutes by plane from Italy.” He further stated that, “If they continue to hold on to Sirte, it’s extremely dangerous. This is in the middle of the coast of Libya, very close to Europe, and it has logistical capacity to be a real platform of terror on the Mediterranean.”

Radical Cells & Sympathizers

In fact, the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has vowed to lead the conquest of Rome as he calls on Muslims to immigrate to this new land to fight under the IS banner. Disturbingly, an estimated 276,000 migrants entered the European Union illegally last year, and “lawless” Libya is the foremost hub for most people aiming to reach southern Europe. Italy, which continues to battle illegal immigration and is in the forefront of this migration wave, is concerned that extremists might be sneaking into the country along with migrants.

Aside from utilizing Libya as a launching pad for IS militants into Europe, IS’s outreach and recruitment has seen thousands of European fighters head to Syria and beyond. The growing number of Europeans being recruited by IS is a fundamental concern, adding fears that they could return home to launch attacks within the region. IS already has directed several attacks in Europe through this scenario and it is likely there will be more – much like the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, in May 2014 that killed four people. The attack involved a Frenchman named Mehdi Nemmouche, who was a radicalized IS sympathizer and had recently returned from fighting with Islamist militants in Syria. The investigation confirms that the Brussels shooting was part of a planned strategy by IS. That attack has raised awareness in relation to the risk of Europeans going to fight in Syria and then returning and staging attacks in Europe.

It is still early in the investigation and not yet concluded if Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez in Tennessee was inspired by IS. But what authorities have learned is the deeply disturbed man struggled with not only mental illness and drug abuse, but at the same time was alienated from the United States’ policies in the Arab world. What will unfold in the upcoming months will be the FBI’s focus on Abdulazeez’s trips abroad and whether someone he made contact with during his travels might have inspired the attacks, or somehow set in motion his lethal planning of the attacks. Nevertheless, after Abdulazeez returned from the Middle East, changes were apparent to people close to him – all signs that fall directly in line with the radicalization process. There is still no direct evidence that Abdulazeez was inspired by the IS, but the evaluation of all electronic media is not yet complete.

Howerver, there have been frequent claims of IS cells, as well as IS sympathizers, already entrenched in the United States. It would be naïve to assume anything different. In February 2015, the FBI’s Section Chief of the Counterterrorism Division, Michael Steinbach, told CNN that, “There are individuals that have been in communication with groups like IS who have a desire to conduct an attack, and those people are living in the U.S. right now.” Steinbach admitted that the FBI finds it extremely difficult to keep track of every American traveling abroad who can join IS or receive training by foreign terrorist organizations, similar to trips to Jordan taken by Abdulazeez.

U.S. Inability to Thwart a Growing Threat

Advances in social media and technology have allowed IS access to the United States and its citizens unlike before the use of social media and encrypted online communications. Ahead of law enforcement surveillance’s reach, IS is progressively reaching new sympathizers and encouraging attacks within country borders. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in March 2015 that more than 180 Americans have gone or have attempted to travel to Syria. But it is difficult to approximate the number of sympathizers inside the United States.

A 5 June 2015 CNN report quoted FBI’s Michael Steinbach as stating that, “There’s hundreds, maybe thousands [of followers in the United States]. … It’s a challenge to get a full understanding of just how many of those passive followers are taking action.” This statement is concerning due to the fact that the FBI is the lead agency for crisis management response to acts of terrorism, which would include measures to identify, acquire, and plan the use of resources needed to anticipate, prevent, or resolve a threat or act of terrorism. Reminiscent of what happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee, being unable to identify or track “passive followers” and being unable to establish how quickly one of these followers becomes radicalized make threats difficult to thwart.

Stopping attacks on U.S. soil must start with a clear strategy and a thorough plan. The current administration lacks not only a methodical plan or strategy, but a plan in general. President Barack Obama admitted nearly a year ago in August 2014 that the United States still lacked a strategy for defeating the growing extremist threat emanating from Syria. At the G7 Summit in Germany on 7 and 8 June 2015, Obama further reiterated, “When a finalized plan is presented to me by the Pentagon, then I will share it with the American people.” Obama added, “We don’t yet have a complete strategy.”

Due to the lack of efforts to defeat IS abroad, the United States is left to defend itself domestically from this growing international threat. Historically, some of the militants have been trying to return to their countries of origin to carry out terrorist attacks. This should serve as a wake-up call for Washington, D.C., to resolve and make border security a top priority. Whether the United States has a policy for IS abroad or not, response efforts in the United States must be taken in order to be ready for such an attack. Regardless of size or scope, it will take the full efforts and cooperation of an integrated response concept – all responders and their support assets are coordinated for an effective and efficient response.

Never Isolated & Always a Risk

Terrorism is never an isolated threat that affects certain areas; a single attack can affect everyone. Whether additional threats emanate from an incident or the myriad hoaxes that often follow, every department – federal, state, and local – should be prepared to respond. Law enforcement agencies have taken great strides in preparedness over the years since 9/11, particularly local and state law enforcement agencies, which have taken progressive actions by: (a) increasing the amount of employees involved in the emergency response planning; (b) working more closely with federal agencies and updating their outdated response plans for chemical, biological, or radiological attacks; and (c) reallocating resources to focus on terrorism preparedness within the department.

Far too often, though, agencies use “perceived risk” as a significant predictor for taking actions to develop a level of preparedness. Perceived risk should never be used as a predictor for agencies – regardless of size – making strides to improve their terrorism preparedness, as it will inhibit their ability to function in the integrated response concept. As witnessed in Tennessee, terrorism also should not be considered isolated to New York City or Washington, D.C. As determined in a recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit report dated June 2015, 73 airport workers across the United States were “linked to terrorism.” The data indicated the individuals were working for major airlines, airport venders, and other employers nationwide. The OIG investigation further indicated that the Transportation Security Administration is responsible for massive security breaches at some of the country’s largest airports. Such breaches call the security of all airports across the country into question – all this amid a growing threat by IS militants warning of attacks inside the United States.

Since terrorist acts are typically unexpected and catch many countries off guard, it is imperative to maintain preparation and the best possible response to an attack. When it comes to IS, the challenges faced by the world are enormous and complex. Preparing for a threat from IS is equivocal to forecasting the weather. The difficulty for law enforcement lies in not only having the ability to know where supporters and sympathizers are, but also understanding how quickly they become radicalized. Unfortunately, a lone wolf like Abdulazeez is impossible to predict and almost as impossible to identify. IS is far more than barbarism, far more than just terrorism, far more than simply dropping a few bombs. Drones cannot defeat an ideology. Military action is never an easy option, but whether military intervention is the best answer, it will take an international coalition effort to make the commitment work – anything less will result in failure.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking.

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