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Expert tells Senators ISIS not following al Qaeda’s lead in planning terror attacks
By Steve Bittenbender
If the United States and its allies are to be successful in stopping further Islamic State terror attacks, then the countries must understand that the new wave of terrorist leaders have little in common with groups that preceded them. That was the lesson learned at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing earlier this week.
“While some have suggested the Islamic State is now pursuing an al Qaeda model in Europe, the Islamic State in many ways pursues an inverse approach to that of al Qaeda,” testified Clint Watts, a senior fellow for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.
For example, Watts noted that while al Qaeda sought recruits that did not have criminal records, which would enable them to pass borders more easily, Islamic State – also known as ISIS or ISIL – pretty much has an open door policy. As a result, Watts said that has increased their numbers tremendously. It also has allowed leaders to recruit relatives and neighbors. That means the fighters are connected more socially than by ideology, and by fighting in Syria before they return to Europe, they get a chance to become a more cohesive unit.
And, while European investigators knew those who committed the attacks in Paris last year and in Brussels last month, the sheer number of suspects make surveillance almost impossible, Watts said.
“There are far too many foreign fighters returning home requiring observation,” Watts said. “Absent corroborating intelligence from signal intercepts and human sources, determining which terrorists to pursue has become a nearly random decision.”
Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson said he wanted answers to three questions: what’s causing the attacks in Europe; how the threats are evolving; and, how do the most recent attack impact how the U.S. must protect its people, both at home and abroad.
“Over the past 15 months, we have passed laws to improve the security of our borders, strengthen the Department of Homeland Security, and protect the American people,” said Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin. “But I know there is more that we must do.”
While some have argued for more security measures, especially at soft target locations like subway stations, Sen. Tom Carper, the ranking Democrat on the panel, argued that such action would restrict people’s freedom.
“We might feel a little bit safer if we saw more obvious security at every public place we visit,” the Delaware senator said. “But those measures come at a high price, and don’t necessarily deter terrorists who do not value other lives or even their own.”
One thing the U.S. can do is work with European Union members in developing a unified plan to attack ISIS cells within the continent, Watts said. American intelligence agencies also should be willing to share information with their European counterparts to reduce those agencies’ learning curves.
Watts told senators that ISIS leaders do not see much of a difference between western Europe and America, aside from the fact their fighters have easier access to European targets. The biggest threat domestically, he said, isn’t someone coming from Europe or Syria under the guise of a refugee. Rather, it’s someone already in the States who is following what ISIS does online.
“The San Bernardino massacre and the shooting of a Philadelphia police officer provide just two examples of how successful Islamic State directed European attacks rapidly cascade into inspired attacks in the U.S. with little or no direct connection back to the terror group,” he said. “A rash of disrupted inspired plots across the U.S. accompanied these two more notable attacks.”
Johnson said the committee will hold another hearing on the topic later this month, featuring testimony from government officials.