Perhaps nothing has added to the war hysteria more than the threat posed by Americans who have gone to fight for ISIS. “Trained and battle-hardened,” President Obama said in his primetime war speech, “these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.” This vague possibility is as close as the administration has been able to get in its quest to turn ISIS into “an imminent threat” to the United States. Even this threat isn’t much.
1. The size of this threat keeps shrinking. Some media reports have claimed 300 Americans are fighting for ISIS. Then, House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul claimed up to 200 Americans. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel dropped the amount to 100. Pentagon officials then clarified that it was actually only 12. FBI Director James Comey reported this week that the administration is sticking to the dozen estimate. Other officials have stated it is not more than a “small handful.” Often Americans who join rival groups to ISIS, including America’s Kurdish allies, are included in the total Americans “fighting in Syria,” which inflates the overall number.
2. We’ve dealt with this threat before. Throughout the 2000s, America has dealt with Americans who want to join up and fight with al-Qaeda and related groups abroad. More than 40 Americans went to fight with Al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate, in its war in Somalia with Ethiopia. Al-Shabaab also developed a sophisticated recruitment network in the United States. None of the 40 initiated or attempted to initiate any form of attack against the U.S., and fifteen of them were killed in Somalia. Other Americans and Westerners have gone to fight in both Afghanistan and Iraq without attempting attacks against the U.S.
3. These Americans are unimpressive. Before we panic about such a small number of Americans with ISIS, we must consider their capabilities. “Any threat to the U.S. homeland from these types of extremists is likely to be limited in scope and scale,” concluded congressional testimony for Counter-terrorism Chief Matthew Olsen. A U.S. citizen that joined up with al-Nusrah, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, put it bluntly: “Concerning my fighting skills, to be honest, I do not have any.” Sometimes, they fail to even reach Syria.
4. They’re going to Syria to fight in Syria. The assumption that these Americans want to come back to kill us is undermined by their desire to leave in the first place. Since it was announced that there were only 12 Americans fighting in Syria, two have already died there. Before them, another fighter actually returned to the United States before leaving to conduct a suicide bombing for ISIS. For the most part, it seems that they want to get out of the United States, which they see as a horrible wasteland.
5. They’re not coming home “to kill us all,” as Lindsay Graham has said. A comprehensive study on foreign fighters found that those who do return to their home country overwhelmingly return to their lives without committing terrorism. As one American Al Shabaab said he “would never attack the United States” because “my mom could be walking down the street.” Another American came home briefly only to return to die in Syria.
6. We have law enforcement to track down terrorists. The idea that we need a war to prevent a dozen Americans with zero skills is absurd. The billions spent on counterterrorism each year should be able to stop any threat from these individuals. Nine or more Americans have been arrested already attempting to join the Syrian jihad. Those ISIS “wannabes” that fail to find what they were looking for and return are placed under constant surveillance in an attempt to identify other potential recruits. More imminent threats can have their passport revoked pending interdiction.
Of course, the threat from would-be terrorist Americans is not nonexistent. Someone could escape surveillance, return to the U.S., and kill Americans, as happened in Belgium when a former-ISIS fighter shot 4 people. But this threat will constantly be with us independent of ISIS. The question is whether a 14th war in the Middle East will reduce this threat. The lesson of the last decade and a half is unequivocal: it won’t. Instead, it will motivate many more to join the fight.