On the eve of the 9-11 Anniversary, the nation’s top anti-terror officials warned that this is a high tempo moment for national security, where we face a multitude of potential threats. No specific plot has been identified, but authorities say the most serious threat comes from ISIS, the radical Muslim terrorist organization that recently beheaded two American journalists in Syria.
Today, President Obama huddled with his national security team at the White House, the Secretary of Homeland Security warned that ISIS “is prepared to kill innocent Americans,” and the man most responsible for protecting the nation’s number one terror target, New York City, had this sobering assessment.
"ISIS creates a totally new area of threat for us and one that is probably even more potentially impactful on us than al-Qaeda," New York Police Commissioner William Bratton said in a speech today in New York. Bratton cited unrest in the Mideast and the rise of ISIS for making the terror threat “more significant.” The commissioner added that he is particularly concerned about the social media skills ISIS has shown, because it gives the group the ability to inspire from afar.
"Their ability to inspire not only those who will go there to fight and then potentially come back but also to inspire the so-called lone wolves -- the disaffected sitting there in their basements pouring over their computer terminals,” Bratton said. “They have an incredible ability to influence those young men and women."
In fact, 1600 miles away in a Denver area courtroom today, a woman who had been inspired online to go to Syria to join ISIS, plead guilty to aiding and abetting a terror organization. The FBI arrested 19-year-old Shannon Conley last April, as she was boarding a plane that would take her to her to the ISIS boyfriend she met on the web. And at a Senate hearing today, a senior Homeland Security official confirmed that ISIS followers had been active online recently, urging volunteers to infiltrate the U.S. via the southern border. It is unclear how capable the group is of doing this or of the credibility of the online discussions.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson today also cited ISIS media capability as an emerging threat. “Its public messaging and social media is as slick and as effective as any I’ve ever seen from a terrorist organization,” Johnson said.
Then he warned how brutal the group – also known as ISIL -- can be.
“Though we know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present, we know that ISIL is prepared to kill innocent Americans they encounter because they are Americans – in a public and depraved manner,” Johnson said. “We know ISIL views the United States as an enemy, and we know that ISIL’s leaders have themselves said they will soon be in “direct confrontation” with the United States.
But ISIS is not the only deadly threat to the homeland. Top-level sources have told ABC News that Yemeni bomb makers – skilled at crafting undetectable, plastic bombs – are now working with another group of al Qaeda radicals in Syria. Their goal is to perfect an undetectable bomb—then send a Western volunteer back home with it. Officials say 150 or so Americans have gone to Syria—or tried--and more than 1,000 foreign fighters from Europe and other friendly countries have joined the terrorists as well. Many are from the 38 so-called visa waiver nations - citizens who we allow easy access to the U.S.
Secretary Johnson said today that, “the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the intelligence community are making enhanced and concerted efforts to track Syrian foreign fighters who come from or seek to enter this country.” And he listed some of the steps being taken to deal with the threat posed by the foreign fighters in Syria. He said there is now enhanced aviation security partly in response to the Yemen/Syria bomb-maker problem. There is also enhanced screening at 19 overseas airports with direct flights to the U.S. Longer term, DHS is pursuing “pre-clearance” at overseas airports with flights to the U.S.
“To use a football metaphor,” Johnson said, “I’d much rather defend our end-zone from the 50-yard line than from our 1-yard line. I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders.”
But perhaps the most worrisome threat, Secretary Johnson said, is the hidden threat of homegrown radicals. They are difficult to detect, because they have no direct ties to any known radical group. The fear is that one might respond to the ISIS call and react with an unexpected, and deadly attack on U.S. soil.
Then there is our old nemesis, al Qaeda central, still trying to strike the U.S., and pressured by the rise of its radical rival, ISIS. They may be degraded, officials say, but they are still a real threat.