The Threats We Forget

The Islamic State and Ebola are the crises du jour, but a host of other persistent threats to national security are no less pressing. And combatting them will require unity of effort.


On October 16, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein described the Islamic State (IS) and the Ebola outbreak as "twin plagues" unleashed upon the world. IS, the terrorist group which is gaining territory in Iraq and Syria and trying to create a "house of blood"; and Ebola, which is spreading in West Africa and other parts of the world, are "two monumental crises" that the world must face together, he said.

There are many more differences than parallels, but the comparison is apt. Both IS and Ebola have the capacity to inflict terror, panic, and death. As the raw number of infections of a disease increases, so does the likelihood a person will carry it to another country: these are known as "exports" — and an Ebola export or IS export threatens U.S. domestic security.

While IS and Ebola have rapidly catapulted into the spotlight, they are not the only global threats the United States faces. President Barack Obama is fixated on both issues. Still, the administration and Congress must work together supporting a robust national security strategy to protect the United States from al Qaeda, cyber attacks, and other terrorism problems arising from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — not just the crises du jour. This comprehensive strategy should include critically important homeland security requirements, streamlining and reforming government, and strengthening the FBI to protect U.S. citizens from several imminent threats.

Even if Obama’s strategy, which is to aggressively attack the "network of death" with allies and airstrikes, quickly damages IS in Iraq, the commensurate political progress will require time, patience, and years to actually work. We cannot afford — nor can the region — an Iraq which becomes a host to terrorist groups. The 9/11 Commission stated that if Iraq turned into a "failed state" it would become a direct national security threat to the United States. And yet, Washington’s role in degrading the threat and encouraging Sunni/Shiite governmental balance has to be limited. The president has clearly stated that there will be "no boots on the ground." Even where U.S. troops are engaged on the battlefield, there are no givens. As American forces continue to exit Afghanistan, we see terror groups filling the vacuum. In the end, both these countries must help themselves — creating capable military forces, protecting their citizens, fighting against the enemy — in order for the overall strategy to work.

Islamic groups are enticing and successfully attracting women to join jihad. In Colorado, three female teenagers were detained last weekend by federal officials when they departed Denver suburbs to join fighters in Syria. The "lone wolf" or single shooter challenge is very difficult to detect and prevent, yet improved intelligence, working closely with local law enforcement, and countering violent extremist programs require collaboration and creativity.

Over the past decade, al Qaeda has become more decentralized and dangerous. The Obama administration has efficiently destroyed and degraded their leadership, yet because they are nimble, flexible, and resilient they have spread to more than a dozen countries and reconstituted themselves. Since the Obama policy of using drones has been to mercilessly pound and punish them in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they have adapted and mobilized into Yemen, North Africa, and — in early September — announced a branch in India. Their bomb-making skills and technology capabilities are quickly growing, and they actively target our aviation system. They will certainly continue to attempt attacks on the United States and our close partners. Thus, we must execute a "no sanctuaries" policy for any terrorist groups, fortify our diplomatic posts and military bases, and cooperate with other countries to halt the spread of the radical jihadist ideology.

But attacks may come from closer to home. Back in early September, the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail cited testimony before a Senate committee stating that more than 130 Canadians have traveled overseas to enlist as foreign fighters and half have returned back to Canada. Over the past few days, we have witnessed two terrorist attacks in Canada, including a gunman killing a soldier at a war memorial and invading the Canadian Parliament. This tragic and shocking event may galvanize Canadian support for additional intelligence resources and capabilities: the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are stretched over an enormous territory and may require new technologies and additional personnel. Parliament will be considering new laws and powers in the weeks ahead, and Washington must continue to closely collaborate with Canadian law enforcement to prevent radicalized jihadists from crossing into either country.

Meanwhile, equally silent but no less virulent threats exist. Internet vulnerabilities are quickly exceeding our nation’s capability to protect it. It seems that every day we are informed that another government agency has been breached or a private company has been hacked. The current threat is largely from China, Russia, and Iran, but non-state actors are increasingly inflicting more damage in the digital realm. Both IS and al Qaeda are skilled with social media and learning new technology; cyber-terrorism could be next on their list. And yet Congress is failing to address this problem, which would be ameliorated by encouraging private/public sector cooperation and streamlining oversight of Congressional homeland security committees.

The world is an unpredictable place right now — and things could grow worse. The Islamic State might quickly escalate geopolitical problems in the Middle East, destabilize Jordan or Turkey, and begin a more systematic export of radicalized fighters around the world. That is why the United States needs to take immediate and bipartisan action against these threats. There is no quarter for partisan politics or Sunday talk show antics. The immediate agenda should include immigration reform, consolidating the Department of Homeland Security, refining the role of the FBI, and modernizing the congressional oversight system. Both the Islamic State and Ebola threats require a strategic containment policy, a collaborative world response, a Congress actively performing its constitutional responsibilities, and resilient, dynamic border policies.

The 9/11 Commission underscored the importance of America acting with "unity of purpose" and "unity of effort" after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Clearly, the elevated threats of today require the same actions — perhaps even more so. A strong national security and homeland security agenda should unify Democrats and Republicans. It’s time the administration and Congress woke up to this fact. If they don’t find a way to collaborate against these ominous threats to the United States, our leaders will face serious consequences from voters in the years to come. Inaction and paralysis makes for deadly consequences.

Tim Roemer is a former U.S. ambassador to India and a former member of the U.S. Congress from Indiana.

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