Many publications have uncritically accepted Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s claim about the number of Americans who have gone to fight with ISIS—a figure that New America Foundation terrorism expert Peter Bergen argues is dramatically exaggerated. Other media commentary simply assumes that if Westerners go to fight with ISIS in Iraq or Syria, they’re destined to attack Europe or the United States. But that’s not true. Bergen notes, for instance, that of the 29 Americans who have gone to fight with the Somali jihadist group al-Shabab, none have tried to commit terrorism against the United States. One reason is that many of them ended up dead.
Press coverage of ISIS often ignores the fact that, in the past, the group has not targeted the American homeland. Jihadist groups, even monstrous ones, don’t inevitably go after the United States. Al-Qaeda began doing so as part of a specific strategy.
Keating stresses that for the most part, “the much-discussed threat of ISIS’s international fighters returning to their home countries to carry out attacks has been theoretical”:
As David Sterman pointed out in an analysis for the New America Foundation this week, “no one returning from or seeking to join a Syrian jihadist group has even been charged with plotting an attack inside the United States.”
Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, the Florida man who returned to the U.S. for a time after training in Syria in 2012 and was under surveillance by the FBI, tried but failed to recruit friends to the cause, and eventually returned to Syria where he carried out a suicide bombing. If anything, greater U.S. involvement in the conflict will make ISIS—a group that until recently was most concerned with local territorial gains—more rather than less likely to target U.S. interests and citizens.
That’s what makes Yglesias uncomfortable with the way Obama talked up the threat on Wednesday night:
Public opinion always matters in politics and therefore in policymaking, but the fact of the matter is that the American people have this a bit mixed up. The beheadings are not the most alarming thing ISIS did this summer (try taking Mosul or genocidal violence against religious minority groups) and the rise of ISIS isn’t even the summer’s most alarming foreign policy crisis (try Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and apparent probing of Estonian and Finnish borders). There is no good reason for the United States to take maximal action against ISIS, not least because none of our potential partners in the region are going to.
Alarmist rhetoric and a policy of wise restraint make odd bedfellows. If the US catches some lucky breaks (or ISIS some bad ones) it may all work out for the best. But Obama’s speeches are writing checks his policy can’t necessarily cash. And eliminating ISIS’ ability to occasional kidnap westerners who travel into the conflict zone is much more difficult than eliminating its ability to capture new Iraqi cities or threaten major oil fields. If another shoe drops in a bad way, there is enormous risk that the president has set the country up for a cycle of unwise escalation.