Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

ISIS: Is it really a threat to the U.S.?

By Peter Bergen and David Sterman
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported car-bomb attack by ISIS militants on Monday, October 20. Civil war has destabilized Syria and created an opening for the militant group, which is also advancing in Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported car-bomb attack by ISIS militants on Monday, October 20. Civil war has destabilized Syria and created an opening for the militant group, which is also advancing in Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
Iraq under siege
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
  • U.S. officials now see ISIS as a credible threat, on a par with al Qaeda
  • Peter Bergen: Some lawmakers have exaggerated the current threat to U.S. from ISIS
  • He says the problem is a potential issue, but few have been charged so far
  • Bergen: Clearly ISIS is a potent force that must be countered in Middle East

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." David Sterman is a research associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- U.S. officials are claiming that the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is "now a credible alternative to al Qaeda."

But what does that really mean in terms of ISIS' potential threat to the United States? After all, al Qaeda hasn't pulled off a successful attack in the States since 9/11, or indeed anywhere in the West since the London transportation bombings in 2005.

This month, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, criticized the airstrikes in Iraq ordered by President Barack Obama directed at ISIS as too limited, telling CNN's Candy Crowley, "That is simply a very narrow and focused approach to a problem which is metastasizing as we speak. Candy, there was a guy a month ago that was in Syria, went back to the United States, came back and blew himself up. We're tracking 100 Americans who are over there now fighting for ISIS. ISIS is attracting extreme elements from all over the world, much less the Arab world. And what have we done?"

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen
David Sterman
David Sterman

The case McCain alluded to was that of Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, who grew up in Vero Beach, Florida, and who conducted a suicide bombing in Syria in May on behalf of the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate. According to The New York Times, Abu-Salha had returned to the United States after being trained by Nusra and then went back to Syria to conduct the suicide operation in which he died.

McCain asserted on CNN that 100 Americans were fighting with ISIS. In fact, according to U.S. officials, 100 is the total number of Americans believed to have fought or attempted to have fought with any of the many Syrian insurgent groups, some of which are more militant than others, and some of which are even aligned with the United States.

According to a count by the New America Foundation, eight people from the United States have been indicted with crimes related to trying to join ISIS or the Nusra Front. (By contrast, some 240 U.S. citizens and residents have been indicted or charged with some kind of jihadist terrorist crime since 9/11.)

ISIS massacre survivors speak out
'The world's most ruthless terrorists'
Will ISIS attacks spread to U.S.?
Family of ISIS victim haunted by video
U.S. strikes hit ISIS near Mosul dam
ISIS storms town, captures 100 women

Some of the Nusra Front cases are far from threatening. On April 19, 2013, Abdella Tounisi, an 18-year-old American citizen from Aurora, Illinois, was arrested and charged with attempting to provide material support to Nusra. However, he was caught in a sting operation and described his fighting skills thusly: "Concerning my fighting skills, to be honest, I do not have any." Tounisi pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.

Other cases appear more serious. In December, Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen, a U.S. citizen from Southern California, pleaded guilty to a charge of attempting to provide material support to al Qaeda. Between December 2012 and April 2013, Nguyen had traveled to Syria, where, he stated, he fought alongside the Nusra Front. On his return, Nguyen discussed with an informant his intent to participate further in jihad.

In August 2013, Gufran Mohammed, a naturalized American citizen living in Saudi Arabia, was charged with attempting to provide material support to the Nusra Front in Syria, by facilitating the recruitment of experienced fighters from al Qaeda's Somali affiliate to Syria.

He pleaded guilty last month.

Opinion: How Iraq's black market in oil funds ISIS

Yet so far no U.S. citizen involved in fighting or supporting the Nusra Front or ISIS has been charged with plotting to conduct an attack inside the United States despite the fact the war in Syria is now in its fourth year and the war in Iraq is in its 11th year. Indeed, some Americans who have traveled to Syria have ended up dead apparently because they have no combat experience to speak of; for instance, Nicole Mansfield from Flint, Michigan, was killed in Syria last year by forces loyal to the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Further, ISIS' predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, never tried to conduct an attack on the American homeland, although it did bomb three American hotels in Jordan in 2005.

And it's also worth noting that in none of the successful terrorist attacks in the States since 9/11, such as the Boston Marathon bombings last year or Maj. Nidal Hasan's massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, did any of the convicted or alleged perpetrators receive training overseas.

Returning foreign fighters from the Syrian conflict pose a far greater threat to Europe, which has contributed a much larger number of foreign fighters to the conflict than the United States, including an estimated 700 from France, 450 from the United Kingdom and 270 from Germany.

Unlike in the United States, European countries have reported specific terrorist plots tied to returning Syrian fighters. Mehdi Nemmouche, a suspect in the May 24 shootings at a Jewish museum in Brussels, Belgium, that killed four people, spent about a year with jihadist fighters in Syria, according to the Paris prosecutor in the case. But Nemmouche's case is the only instance of lethal violence by a returning Syrian fighter in the West.

Still, the United States must consider European foreign fighters returning from Syria as more than a European problem because many of those returning are from countries that participate in the U.S. visa waiver program and can enter the States without a visa.

Moreover, experienced al Qaeda operators are present in Syria. As one senior U.S. intelligence official put it to us, these are veteran members "with strong resumes and full Rolodexes." The wars in Syria and Iraq allow such longtime fighters to interact with members of other al Qaeda affiliates. For example, in July, the United States adopted enhanced security measures at airports based on intelligence that bomb-makers from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were sharing their expertise in making bombs capable of evading airport security with members of the Syrian Nusra Front.

Despite these dangers, however, the threat to the United States from foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq remains only a potential threat.

The administration's airstrikes in Iraq are properly focused upon the more imminent threats to U.S. government employees and American citizens in the Kurdish city of Irbil who are threatened by ISIS advances and the humanitarian catastrophe befalling the Yazidi population in areas controlled by the militant forces.

The last time there was a similar exodus of American citizens and residents to an overseas holy war was to Somalia following the U.S.-backed invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian forces in 2006. More than 40 Americans subsequently went to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-affiliated group.

Opinion: ISIS beheading -- what should U.S. do?

Just as is the case today in Syria, for a good number of the Americans who went to fight in Somalia it was a one-way ticket because 15 of the 40 or so American volunteers died there either as suicide attackers or on the battlefield.

In 2011, Rep. Peter King, R-New York, then-chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, warned of Americans fighting in Somalia. "With a large group of Muslim-Americans willing to die as 'martyrs' and a strong operational partnership with al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and in Yemen, al-Shabaab now has more capability than ever to strike the U.S. homeland."

As it turned out, those Americans who returned from the Somali jihad did not attempt or carry out any kind of terrorist attack in the States.

Now King is back at it again, telling NBC last week, "ISIS is a direct threat to the United States of America. ... They are more powerful now than al Qaeda was on 9/11."

ISIS is surely a major problem for Iraq, and its tactics and strategy are abhorrent, as demonstrated by the beheading of American journalist James Foley, its use of crucifixions and its genocidal attacks on the small Yazidi minority. But that doesn't mean it is a serious threat to the American homeland.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?