Don't Take Terrorism Threats at Face Value.
By Scott Stewart - May 14, 2015
The Islamic State has demonstrated in the past year that it is quite adept in its use of social media as a tool to raise money, recruit fighters and inspire grassroots jihadists to conduct attacks. This week, however, its social media network was heavily focused on making threats. On May 11, Twitter users associated with the Islamic State unleashed two seemingly unrelated threat campaigns. One using the hashtag #LondonAttack, displayed photos of London and weapons (including AK-47 rifles and what appeared to be suicide bombs) and urged Muslims in the United Kingdom not to visit shopping malls. The second campaign threatened to launch a cyber war against the United States and Europe.
The Islamic State took credit for the botched May 3 attack in Garland, Texas, saying it would carry out harder and "more bitter" attacks inside the United States. Coinciding with the Islamic State's threats, FBI Director James Comey warned that his agency does not have a handle on the grassroots terrorism problem in the United States. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson noted that the United States has entered "a new phase in the global terrorist threat, where the so-called lone wolf could strike at any moment." Michael Morell, the former Deputy Director of the CIA, added his voice by claiming that the Islamic State has the ability to conduct a 9/11-style attack today.
While these statements and warnings paint a bleak picture, a threat should never be taken at face value — when placed into context, these claims aren't as dire as they seem.
When analyzing a direct threat from a person or organization it is important to understand that in most cases they come from a position of weakness rather than power. The old saying "all bark and no bite" is based on this reality. This applies to personal threats as well as terror-related threats. Terrorism is frequently used by weak actors as a way of taking asymmetrical military action against a superior opponent. Despite its battlefield successes against the Iraqi and Syrian governments and militant groups, the Islamic State is certainly far weaker militarily than the United States and Europe.
An important part of threat evaluation is assessing if the party making the threat possesses both the intention to conduct such an action and the capability to carry out that intent. Indeed, many threats are made by groups or individuals who have neither intent nor capability. They are made simply to create fear and panic or to influence the conduct or behavior of the target, as in the cases of a person who sends a "white powder" letter to a government office or a student who phones in a bomb threat to his school to get out of taking a test.
Generally, if a person or group possesses both the intent and capability to conduct an act of violence, they just do it. There is little need to waste the time and effort to threaten what they are about to do. In fact, by telegraphing their intent they might provide their target with the opportunity to avoid the attack. Professional terrorists often invest a lot of time and resources in a plot, especially a spectacular transnational attack. Because of this, they take great pains to hide their operational activity so that the target or authorities do not catch wind of it and employ countermeasures that would prevent the successful execution of the scheme. Instead of telegraphing their attack, terrorist groups prefer to conduct the attack and exploit it after the fact, something sometimes called the propaganda of the deed.
Certainly, people who possess the capability to fulfill the threat sometimes make threats. But normally in such cases the threat is made in a conditional manner. For example, the United States threatened to invade Afghanistan unless the Taliban government handed over Osama bin Laden. The Islamic State, however, is not in that type of dominating position. If it dispatched a team or teams of professional terrorist operatives to the United States and Europe to conduct terrorist attacks, the very last thing it would want to do is alert said countries to the presence of those teams and have them get rolled up. Trained terrorist operatives who have the ability to travel in the United States or Europe are far too valuable to jeopardize with a Twitter threat.
Rather than reveal a network of sophisticated Islamic State operatives poised to conduct devastating attacks on the United States and Europe, these threats are meant to instill fear and strike terror into the hearts of one of their intended audiences: the public at large. I say one of their audiences because these threats are not only aimed at the American and European public. They are also meant to send a message to radicalize and energize grassroots jihadists like those who have conducted Islamic State-related attacks in the West.
Examining the Statements
First, it is important to understand the context of the statements made by FBI Director Comey, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Johnson and former CIA Deputy Director Morell.
Comey's statement about not having a complete handle on the grassroots terrorist threat is true. The very nature of such operatives makes them difficult for governments to combat. However, the FBI has been very successful in interdicting grassroots plots in recent months. In fact, I cannot recall so many grassroots operatives being arrested so closely together. However, one of the factors driving Comey's recent remarks is his steadfast belief that technological developments, such as encryption, are creating "dark spaces" that the FBI does not have the ability to investigate. Comey contends that there is no place in the physical world that the FBI cannot get a warrant to search, but technology has permitted criminals and terrorists to create virtual places where the FBI simply cannot penetrate even if they procure the proper search warrants. Comey's recent statement is part of his campaign to convince the public and congress that the FBI needs the ability to investigate those places.
Secretary Johnson's statement about the new jihadist threat is also nothing new. Indeed, I heard him make the same statement last November and took issue with it then. Leaderless resistance, the terrorist operational model that stresses the importance of lone wolf operatives, is simply not a new problem in the United States. It has existed for decades and been actively promoted in the jihadist world since at least 2004.
Michael Morell is on a book tour and attempting to sell as many books as possible. One way to accomplish that is to make eye-popping claims. If the Islamic State had the capability to launch a 9/11-style attack inside the United States, or a similar spectacular terrorist attack, it would have already done so. Instead, the Islamic State has been forced to rely on grassroots operatives to conduct less than spectacular attacks on its behalf. Furthermore, the pre-9/11 paradigm has changed and there is simply no way an airline captain is going to relinquish control of his aircraft to be used as a guided cruise missile — nor would the passengers permit it. Because of this, it is very hard to imagine the Islamic State conducting a 9/11-style attack.
Certainly, the Islamic State is making threats and government officials are concerned, but in practical terms today's jihadist threat is no more severe than it has been in the past several years. Frankly, there has not been a time since 1992 when some jihadist somewhere was not plotting an attack against the United States, and occasionally some of them succeed.