Top Counterterrorism Official: Islamic State Formidable, Not Invincible
"As formidable as the Islamic State is as a group, it is not invincible," Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in a briefing at the Brookings Institution.
"There is no doubt that the United States is gripped by the violence we see in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State poses a direct and significant threat to us," Olsen said. "The group's rapid success on the battlefield, its brutal tactics, its claim to be the new ideological leader of the global jihadist movement — these all account for our intense focus on the group and the threat it presents."
The Islamic State's battlefield strategy is both complex and adaptive, Olsen said. It employs a mix of terrorist operations, hit-and-run tactics and paramilitary assaults to enable the group's rapid gains. It capitalized on the failed states of Iraq and Syria, exploiting their weakened infrastructure.
Despite the rapid rise of the Islamic State, al-Qaida remains the main target of U.S. focus, he said. Its satellite groups including al-Shabaab, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Boko Haram have continued to perpetrate international acts of terrorism on a large geographic scale.
Though originally an ally to al-Qaida, the Islamic State was denounced by al-Qaida for its objectionable tactics.
Its brutal methods, paired with an extremely successful propaganda machine, have made the Islamic State a force to be reckoned with. And though it has not done so yet, the group threatens to outpace al-Qaida, Olsen said.
"Today, the Islamic State has more than 10,000 fighters," said Olsen. "Its strategic goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate through armed conflict with apostate regimes."
Those numbers are continuing to grow as foreign sympathizers are joining the cause, he said.
"We do know that more than 12,000 foreign fighters have flocked to Syria over the past three years, including more than 1,000 Europeans and more than 100 Americans," Olsen said.
"These foreign fighters are likely to gain experience and training and eventually to return to their home countries — return to their home countries battle-hardened and further radicalized," he added.
This model of terrorist-sympathizers returning home is what concerns the National Counterterrorism Center most, Olsen said. These offenders can perform lethal, small-scale attacks acting as lone wolves or under the direct instruction of Islamic State leaders.
At this point there is no credible information that the Islamic State is planning to attack the United States. He added, "We are not what we were pre-9/11. We are so much better postured, in so many ways."
Olsen expressed confidence that the Islamic State can be defeated with the right tools and approach.
As a result of the 120 airstrikes performed by U.S. forces, the group is losing arms, equipment and territory. Olsen cited that its greatest weakness is its inability to defend against coordinated military attacks.