Best Defense

What’s the hot national security phrase of this week? Seems to be ‘potential threat’

By David Sterman Best Defense guest columnist  Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, repeatedly used one phrase to describe the likelihood of Islamic State attacks in the United States: “potential threat.” Olsen, speaking at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, assessed that the threat posed to the United States by the Islamic State ...

By David Sterman

Best Defense guest columnist 

Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, repeatedly used one phrase to describe the likelihood of Islamic State attacks in the United States: “potential threat.”

Olsen, speaking at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, assessed that the threat posed to the United States by the Islamic State was most acute, direct, and immediate in Iraq, where it threatens U.S. personnel in Erbil and Baghdad. He then added that the group is also capable of conducting smaller attacks on U.S. forces based elsewhere in the region. Finally, he argued that there is a potential for them to plan an attack in the West. 

Olsen said he saw no imminent threat to the United States. He said there is currently no credible information regarding an Islamic State plan to attack the United States. Asked by Bruce Riedel, the director of the Brookings Intelligence Project and moderator for the event, to compare the Islamic State’s network and cell structure today with Al Qaeda’s structure in 1999, Olsen stated that the Islamic State currently lacks the type of cell structure Al Qaeda had in those years, and moreover that Western counterterrorism efforts have improved since then. Asked again about Islamic State cells in the United States by an audience member, Olsen reiterated that there is no indication of a cell in the United States emphasizing the point by saying “full stop.”

At each point, however, Olsen warned of the potential for the threat from the Islamic State to the United States homeland to grow. He listed it with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Qaeda Core as a place to focus resources and attention compared to groups like Boko Haram or the Libyan militias, which he portrayed as generally lacking the intent and capability to conduct attacks on the United States. He made clear that in his analysis there is no doubt that the group sees the United States as a strategic threat and will inevitably confront the United States further if left unchecked.

David Sterman is a research associate at the New America Foundation.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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