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Propaganda Watch: Fearmongering the Threat Posed by the Islamic State
How much of a threat does the Islamic State militant group pose? That’s a question that depends very much on whom you ask. With American diplomats assembling an international coalition to launch air strikes against the brutal group — which has murdered more than 1,700 unarmed Iraqi soldiers, threatened minority groups with genocide, crucified numerous ...
How much of a threat does the Islamic State militant group pose? That’s a question that depends very much on whom you ask.
With American diplomats assembling an international coalition to launch air strikes against the brutal group — which has murdered more than 1,700 unarmed Iraqi soldiers, threatened minority groups with genocide, crucified numerous Iraqi civilians and beheaded a trio of Westerners — senior members of the Obama administration have sometimes struggled to get on the same page in describing the militants. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said the Islamic State was "as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen" and "beyond just a terrorist group." Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey has called the group a "trans-regional and global threat." But counterterrorism chief Matthew Olsen maintains that there is "no credible information" that the militants are planning to strike the U.S. homeland or have the capabilities to do so.
Taken together, the Obama administration’s statements on the group paint a picture of an increasingly powerful, well-funded, and well-armed group with lethal ambitions in the Middle East but one whose threat to the United States remains limited. Many outside experts share that assessment.
Here at home, however, the debate over the Islamic State is taking on an increasingly hyperbolic tone, with Republican critics of the administration — and even some Democrats — struggling to outdo each other when it comes to painting ever more alarming pictures of the group. Below are five of the politicians and pundits making eye-opening claims about the Islamic State.
1. Lindsey Graham
In an interview Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, said Islamic State militants are literally coming to kill us all.
"There is no way in hell you can form an army on the ground to go into Syria, to destroy ISIL without a substantial American component," Graham told "Fox News Sunday," using an alternate acronym for the group. "This is a turning point in the War on Terror. Our strategy will fail, yet again. This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home."
2. Jim Inhofe
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican, believes that Islamic State militants are making progress towards building weapons capable of destroying entire cities. "ISIS, they are really bad terrorists, they’re so bad even al Qaeda is afraid of them," Inhofe told a local Fox station last month. "They’re crazy out there and they’re rapidly developing a method of blowing up a major U.S. city and people just can’t believe that’s happening."
Perhaps Inhofe is right, Olsen is wrong, and Islamic State militants are indeed plotting an attack right now inside America’s borders. American intelligence officials have certainly been wrong before about the threat posed by terror groups, and the Islamic State has alarmingly large numbers of fighters with American passports who could return to the U.S. to carry out strikes here at home. But the phrase "rapidly developing a method of blowing up a major U.S. city" goes far beyond what experts inside and outside of government say about the group’s capabilities. There is no substance here, only speculation likely designed to inspire fear and drum up support for military action.
3. Rick Perry
And in the category of rank speculation to inspire fear, we have Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who believes that Islamic State fighters could be coming across the U.S.-Mexico border right now. "Individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be, and I think it’s a very real possibility that they have already" crossed the border, Perry said in remarks last month.
Be afraid, be very afraid of this notion, for which there is no evidence.
4. Bill Nelson
Do you think that it’s possible that one day the black flag of the Islamic State will fly over the White House? Consider the things that have to happen in order for such a thing to occur. The Islamic State would need to amass a huge army and invade the United States, or, perhaps, manufacture a coup in a country that has never had one, or, perhaps, carry out a spectacular assault on the White House and seize control of the building in a doomed suicide assault.
All these scenarios sound pretty unlikely, right? But nevermind, Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson think their desire to put a black flag atop Washington’s most iconic building is an indicator of the threat they pose. "This is a terrorist group the likes of which we haven’t seen before, and we better stop them now," Nelson said earlier this month. "It ought to be pretty clear when they start cutting off the heads of journalists and say they’re going to fly the black flag of ISIS over the White House that ISIS is a clear and present danger."
5. Bill O’Reilly
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly thinks the Islamic State is just like the Nazis. Take it away Bill!
"The situation is almost identical to what happened in the 1930s, when Hitler and his Nazi thugs were gaining power…There is no difference in the mentality of the Nazis and ISIS. They are identical in their hate and tactics."
We couldn’t agree more, Bill! Except for the fact that, you know, the Islamic State is an insurgent group without the control of a state-apparatus, didn’t gain power in a democratic election, and lacks anything near the military firepower Hitler had at his disposal. (Though to be fair, they have amassed an impressive array of American-bought Humvees and armored vehicles.)
But don’t worry, Bill, just go with it.
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll