The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has been tied to at least 75 terrorism plots against Western countries, with the United States as the group’s main target, according to a recent report by the House Committee on Homeland Security.
The Committee’s report, “Terrorism Gone Viral,” revealed a significantincrease in terrorist plots against the West over the past several years. In 2014 there were 19 ISIS-linked plots against the West; in 2015, the figure more than doubled to 48. The high success rate—with more than 40 percent of total plots executed—indicates that the group will likely continue to initiate frequent attacks, versus long-term plots.
Disturbingly, more than one-third of ISIS-linked terror plots were aimed at the United States or its interests overseas. These plots included the tragic San Bernardino shooting in December 2015, which killed 14 and injured many more; an attempted ISIS-inspired attack in Garland, Texas; numerous attempts to attack New York City landmarks; and many others.
“ISIS has reached an unprecedented level of terror plotting against the United States and our allies,” said Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX). “The group’s focus on ‘do-it-yourself’ jihad has allowed them to franchise their attacks worldwide, achieving a tempo of violence that has surpassed even Al Qaeda’s most violent years. However, this report reminds us that we cannot win by simply bombing terrorist safe havens.”
McCaul continued, “Today’s jihadists are finding shelter in virtual safe havens, too, and recruiting with the ease of a retweet. That is why a counter-ISIS strategy focused on Syria and Iraq just won’t cut it. We need a global plan to defeat Islamist terrorists and a robust coalition to see it through.”
ISIS-inspired attacks targeting the West are not only growing in number, they are getting deadlier. In the second half of 2014, an average of one individual died in each successful attack, compared to the first half of 2015, which saw the average death toll rise to 11.
The report also noted that US officials are growing increasingly concerned that terrorists are “going dark”—the public safety problem created by failure of law enforcement to keep pace with technology—making it increasingly difficult to mitigate attacks.
“Those charged with protecting our people aren’t always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism, even with lawful authority,” Comey explained in a statement in 2014. “We have the legal authority to intercept and access communications and information pursuant to court order, but we often lack the technical ability to do so.”
The report noted that a number of high-profile terrorism cases have involved ISIS-linked attackers encrypting their communications or making their data inaccessible to authorities, including in Garland and Paris. In the Garland case, the suspect reportedly exchanged 109 encrypted messages with a known terrorist overseas before his attack, and in the Paris case, the attackers allegedly used encrypted communications in advance of their operation.
“In both instances authorities were apparently unable to intercept the messages ahead of time, and the inability to decrypt them after-the-fact has hindered investigations,” the report explained.
Another alarming trend uncovered is that the line between inspired and directed plots is getting blurrier. For example, an individual can start off self-radicalized and later gain ties with ISIS. Many lone-wolf actors are not actually acting alone and are later discovered to be linked to ISIS operatives overseas.
“The extent of their collaboration is unclear, making it difficult to determine whether the plot was directed, aided, encouraged, or simply inspired by ISIS,” the report stated. “As a result of the group’s distributed approach to attack plotting—rather than a clear command-and-control structure—a growing number of cases fit this mold.”
The Committee also expressed concern that individuals associated with ISIS will pose as Syrian refugees in an attempt to infiltrate the United States through the United States’ refugee program. Terrorist exploitation of the recent wave of Syrian refugees will be exacerbated by lax counterterrorism screening in the West.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently noted that ISIS is “taking advantage of the torrent of migrants to insert operatives into that flow” to target Western countries and that the group is “pretty skilled at phony passports so they can travel ostensibly as legitimate travelers.”
As Homeland Security Today previously reported, while the US has a history of welcoming refugees, the Syrian conflict presents a special case, since Syria is home to one of the largest confluences of Islamist terrorists in history. Consequently, US officials fear the refugee process could become a backdoor for jihadists.
Last year, McCaul sent a letter to the Department of State to express concern over the agency’s desire to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the United States. McCaul commented, “The United States has historically taken a leading role in refugee resettlement and humanitarian protections. But we cannot allow the refugee process to become a backdoor for jihadists.”
Furthermore, in June 2015, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing to review the potential threat posed by terrorists exploiting refugee resettlement programs.
Subcommittee Chairman Peter King (R-NY) commented, “For Americans, opening our doors to those who flee violence, war, and exploitation is part of who we are as a nation. America has a long and proud history of providing safe harbor for refugees. Refugees admitted to America include Congressman Tom Lantos (Hungary) and scientist Albert Einstein (Germany), among thousands more who have contributed to US society.”
“But,” King noted, “We have also had refugees and asylum seekers take advantage of US safe haven to plot and carry out attacks.”