Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and Syria pose a “multi-faceted threat” to the West but are “not invincible,” as US air strikes have exposed their weaknesses, a top US intelligence official said Wednesday.
Matthew Olsen, director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, said there is no “credible information” that ISIL fighters are plotting an imminent 9/11-style attack on the United States.
However, Olsen, speaking at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, refused to answer a reporter’s question about a potential “Minneapolis cell” that could act as sleepers in the US homeland.
At least 15 young men from the Somali-American community of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in the northern state of Minnesota had traveled to Syria to join ISIL, according to local news reports. US investigators estimate the total number of Americans to have made that trip for that purpose to be 100.
The FBI had arrested “more than half a dozen” people seeking to travel from the US to Syria to support ISIL, Olsen said.
He described ISIL as an “extremely dangerous organization” operating in a “chaotic part of the world”. Whereas ISIL fighters in 2012 committed between five and ten suicide attacks per month, they have now increased those attacks to 30 to 40 per month in addition to “horrific acts of violence” perpetrated against innocent civilians.
Olsen laid out a detailed assessment of the jihadists’ strength, saying the group takes in $1 million (1.3 million euros) a day from oil sales, ransoms, and smuggling.
The rise of ISIL can be viewed as a transformation of the global jihadist movement of which ISIL sees itself as the new leader, exploiting failed states and the lack of functioning governments, backing or orchestrating eleven insurgencies in the Islamic world, Olsen said.
By doing this, ISIL employs a sophisticated propaganda machine and making maximum use of social media, Olsen said.
ISIL terrorists also changed the way they communicate among themselves, avoiding electronic devices whenever possible, which makes it harder for the western intelligence community to track them and hunt them down, according to Olsen.
Nevertheless, “we have a good sense” of who ISIL’s shadowy leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi really is, Olsen said without elaborating.
“No terrorist group is invincible,” he added, “and we have the tools to defeat ISIL.”
Olsen estimated that the more than 120 US air strikes so far have been successful and have considerably damaged the jihadist infrastructure.
Echoing US President Barack Obama, Olsen said that there is “no purely military solution” against ISIL.
What is necessary is a broad-based comprehensive strategy of a “global coalition” that will ultimately be able to degrade the jihadists and support the moderate Syrian opposition as well as an inclusive Iraqi government, Olsen said.
Brookings Video: Threat Assessment of ISIL and Al Qaeda in Iraq, Syria and Beyond