ASCF Report | 6.13.16
By Alan W. Dowd

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently admitted that ISIS operatives mounting “a raid like they did in Paris or Brussels” here in the U.S. is “something we worry about a lot.”

To some, this seems like an impossibility. They reassure themselves that the oceans and friendly allies buffer us from the sort of influx of ISIS fighters that Europe is weathering. In reality, our enemies are using our friendly neighbors and our open borders as avenues into our country.

Networks and Skills

Consider what Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander of SOUTHCOM says about the gathering jihadist threat in the Americas: “We just have to recognize that this theater is a very attractive target and is an attractive pathway” for what he calls “the extremist Islamist movement.” Tidd reports that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) has attracted 100-150 recruits from Latin America, and he confirms that an unknown number have returned or attempted to return to the Americas. 

Gen. John Kelly, Tidd’s predecessor at SOUTHCOM, explains why this is so worrisome. According toKelly, while the Islamic State’s Latin American recruits are in Syria, “they’ll get good at killing, and they’ll pick up some real job skills in terms of explosives and beheadings and things like that.” He adds that existing human smuggling networks are “so efficient that if a terrorist or almost anyone wants to get into our country, they just pay the fare.” He grimly concedes that “The amount of movement and the sophistication of the network overwhelms our ability to stop everything.”

Consider that Mexico is home to thousands of Syrian nationals, many of them illegal immigrants who have been smuggled by drug cartels. Individuals affiliated with Iran, Hezbollah and al Qaeda are known to swim among this group, as YNet (Israel’s largest news outlet) reports. YNet describes the restive Mexican state of Chiapas as “a hub of radical Islamist activity.”

Consider that the Honduran press has uncovered “a criminal network that paid Honduran officials to illegally register foreigners as legal residents, which gave them access to documents that could then be used to gain broader access to the Western hemisphere,” as The Washington Times reports. At least 100 Palestinians and Syrians obtained these fraudulent documents. (If that number doesn’t raise concerns, recall that just 19 al-Qaeda operatives maimed Manhattan and the Pentagon, or that a seven-man ISIS assault team laid siege to Paris, murdering 130.)

Consider that in 2011, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano raised concerns about collaboration between Mexican drug cartels and jihadist terrorists. “We have, for some time, been thinking about what would happen if, say, al Qaeda were to unite with the Zetas” cartel. As evidenced by Iran’s 2011 plot to subcontract out the assassination of a Saudi diplomat to the Zetas cartel, concerns over collaboration between Middle Eastern terrorists and Mexican drug cartels are anything but outlandish.

Consider a 2014 Texas Department of Public Safety report warning that ISIS militants “are expressing an increased interest in the notion that they could clandestinely infiltrate the southwest border of U.S., for terror attack.”

Consider that leaked diplomatic cables reveal the U.S. seeking international assistance to monitor “the presence, intentions, plans and activities of terrorist groups, facilitators and support networks—including, but not limited to, Hezbollah, Hamas…[and] al Qaeda…in the tri-border area”—an ungoverned region where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay merge. The British newspaper The Guardiancalls the tri-border area “the beating heart of Islamic fundamentalism in South America.”

Nor is the threat limited to Latin America. Consider a 2015 Senate committee report that concluded, “The nexus between known or suspected terrorists in eastern Canada and the northern parts of the U.S. represents a significant national security threat… Communities in Minnesota and New York, which are adjacent to Ontario and Quebec, have recently experienced apprehensions of individuals on terrorist charges,” including operatives “charged with recruiting and conspiring to provide support to ISIL.”

Moreover, it is not a stretch to say that we have already endured Paris-style raids—and that the enemy is already here. Consider the soft-target attacks on Ft. Hood, the Boston Marathon, the Chattanooga recruiting center, San Bernardino and Orlando. Or consider that 71 Americanshave been arrested, indicted or convicted for joining or supporting ISIS; 250 Americans have attempted to travel to the Middle East to join ISIS; and the FBI has 900 active investigations into ISIS-inspired operatives in all 50 states.


The picture is just as worrisome overseas. The number of foreigner fighters aligned with ISIS in Iraq and Syria doubled between mid-2014 and the end of 2015. After almost two years of hamstrung U.S. airstrikes, ISIS controls some 20,000 square-miles of Iraq and Syria. Thirty-four militant groups from around the world—from the Philippines to Uzbekistan to Nigeria—have pledged alliance to ISIS. And 10 countries are ISIS “provinces.” A CNN analysisreveals ISIS and its disciples have murdered 1,390 people in 90 terrorist attacks in 21 countries outside Iraq and Syria.

Why is this happening? It’s at least partly a function of a White House that refuses to admit America is at war. In 2009, the Obama administration expunged  the “war on terrorism” phraseology from official pronouncements. In 2011, after the takedown of Osama bin Laden, the president declared that “The tide of war is receding.” In 2013, he said “core al Qaeda” was “on the path to defeat.” In 2014, he assured the American people that it was time “to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” and comparedISIS to a “JV team” in “Lakers uniforms.” And by 2015, U.S. defense spending had tumbled to 3.1 percent of GDP (down from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2010).

All of this was strangely at odds with the views of key national-security figures inside the administration. In 2009, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta said, “There’s no question this is a war.” In 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “We are a nation at war.” In 2014, Brett McGurk, President Obama’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, called ISIS—which, it pays to recall, reconstituted from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq— “worse than al Qaeda.” Far from confirming that the tide of war was receding, Gen. Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, argued: “We have to energize every element of national power—similar to the effort during WWII or during the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle.” In 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter reported, “We’re at war…There are American troops in combat every day.”

Indeed, after Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV was killed in a gun battle with ISIS fighters in northern Iraq, Carter confirmed the obvious: “He died in combat.” Yet according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, Keating “was not in a combat mission” but was “engaged in a mission to offer training, advice and assistance to Iraqi forces.”

It’s difficult “to energize every element of national power” if the White House insists we’re not at war.

Given that there are 41 jihadist groups in 24 countries today (up from 21 in 18 countries in 2004); that Clapper reports there are more terrorist safe havens today “than at any time in history”; that al Qaeda is resurging  in Afghanistan; that ISIS controls 20,000 square-miles of real estate in the heart of the Middle East; that ISIS has spread into Saudi Arabia, the Sinai, Libya, Yemen, Nigeria and Afghanistan; that sequestration is shrinking the reach and resources of the U.S. military, can anyone honestly say Washington is heeding Flynn’s counsel?

The hard truth is that fighting the enemy over there is preferable to fighting it here at home. That’s why the U.S. military’s post-9/11 campaign of campaigns—what some troops called “the away game”—was so crucial. By taking the fight to the enemy, U.S. forces took away its sanctuaries, shifted the battlefront and forced the enemy to expend its resources on survival. By pulling back and pulling out, Washington has taken pressure off the enemy. “The moment they cease to be fought against, they grow,” as Prime Minister Tony Blair observes.

President Bush (43) made his share of mistakes; all presidents do, especially wartime presidents. But his post-9/11 policies put America on the offensive—and the enemy on its heels. That’s not the case any longer. Instead, as Gen. James Mattis observes, it’s the United States that has withdrawn into a “reactive crouch.”

In short, there is a direct connection between what happens—and doesn’t happen—over there and what happens over here. As FBI Director James Comey warns of ISIS and other jihadist groups, “Their ability to have a safe haven from which to gather resources, people, plan and plot increases the risk of their ability to mount a sophisticated attack against the homeland.”