ISIS Terror Threat Overrated?

Former Obama counterterrorism officials John Cohen and Daniel Benjamin discuss the impact of ISIS recruiting and the threat of an attack on American soil.
5:43 | 09/14/14

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Transcript for ISIS Terror Threat Overrated?
Now our "Closer look." The beheading of the british aid worker and the two American journalists makes it clear that Isis has become a threat to westerners in the middle east, but whether that threat extends to the homeland is the subject of debate. With U.S. Air strikes pounding targets and slowing the advance of Isis in Iraq, it was easy to think Isis could be contained overseas, but it was the secretary of defense himself who gave this alarming warning. So, yes, they are an imminent threat to every interest we have whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else. Joint chiefs chairman martin Dempsey added to those concerns. If they were to achieve that vision, it would fundamentally alter the face of the middle east and create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways. But those frank statements created an urgency that the white house did not want. Top administration officials began walking the statements back. We have no credible information that isil is planning to attack the homeland of the United States. In our view any threat to the U.S. Homeland from these types of extremists is likely to be limited in scope and scale. Instead of the imminent threat, which Hagel warned about, the white house now says it is a potential threat. Whether it is potential or imminent, the threat from Isis is resonating across the country. A poll this week showing 90% of Americans believe Isis poses a serious threat to the united States. And more now on the threat here at home, Daniel Benjamin served as ambassador-at-large in counterterrorism coordinator for the state department in the Obama administration. And John Cohen was counterterrorism coordinator at the department of homeland security until just two months ago, and you saw the Isis threat emerge, and as we are coming on the air, there is a flight from Geneva to Beirut which has been escorted by fighter jets to land in Rome because some of the baggage didn't match the passengers. It really does show you how tense things are right now. So, John Cohen, you were most recently in department of homeland security. How serious do you think the threat is to the homeland? It's a very serious threat. Obviously, as you've seen from earlier parts of the show, Isis as an organization poses a significant threat to U.S. Interests in the region, but what's different is that we have thousands of westerners from Europe, from the United States, from Canada traveling to the region, becoming more extreme in their ideology, becoming better trained, becoming linked with these extremist organizations, and that is why this situation is different than situations we've dealt with in the past. And, Dan Benjamin, you have said this week that you think the threat is slightly exaggerated. I do think the threat has been exaggerated a bit domestically. I think it's important to remember that we have spent billions and billions of dollars improving our intelligence collection and our homeland security capability since 9/11, and I think that we can deal with the threat. I think it's also important to remember that in 2003 and after, we had a fair number of foreign fighters, not as many as we have now, going into Iraq, going into Afghanistan, and while it's important to worry about them and to guard against them coming home and causing trouble, we did not have a serious foreign fighter problem at home after, you know, a major war in Iraq and a major war in Afghanistan. But, John Cohen, I want to turn to you, and we talk about the person in the basement being radicalized and you won't know anything will happen until they will emerge and possibly carry out an attack. How do you fight that? We fight it at the community level. The difference with this situation is that we have serious intelligence gaps in Syria and in that region. We also do not have the same types of capabilities we have in other parts of the world to address threats that may be emanating from within Syria and that part of the world. What we also have is a concerted effort, a very sophisticated effort, by Isis and other groups in Syria to inspire or recruit westerners. As you pointed out, in some cases it may mean traveling to the country to engage in the conflict, and we've already had several Americans who have conducted lethal attacks. In other cases it may mean people leaving there and carrying out lethal attacks as well as we saw in Brussels. And, Dan Benjamin, quickly, if you will, why is this Jihadi message resonating, do you think? Well, it's resonating right now because Isis has done what its predecessor groups had failed, and that is it's holding territory, it seems to be on a roll and seems to be succeeding. That's part of it. I think part of it is also the attraction of the sectarian fight in the middle east, and I think that, you know, we often view this as being about us. We have a bad history of thinking it's all about us as we did in Vietnam, as we did in thinking that saddam hussein was going to be a threat to us when he was trying to keep his own people cowed and subservient. This is very much about what is going on in the region. I do think we have to worry about the long term. I do think we have to worry about the self-radicalized at home. The ft. Hood shooter is the most likely outcome, but this is really about a conflict in the region. And one that will be going on for a very long time. Thanks to you both.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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