WASHINGTON – Three days after President Donald Trump announced ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death, the nation’s top security officials told the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday that ISIS is still a threat despite Trump’s statements that ISIS is “defeated 100%.”
“ISIS, al-Qaida, Lebanese Hezbollah, returning foreign terrorist fighters and those still in prison represent significant, persistent and long-term national security threat to the United States,” said Department of Homeland Security Acting Director Kevin McAleenan.
Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the 14,000 ISIS fighters currently in Syria and Iraq “have many options” to continue carrying attacks in the U.S. or to U.S. troops abroad and will most likely increase their efforts when a new leader takes over.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said that “The post 9/11 era of sleeper cells well-structured, very disciplined, very large attacks – that’s still out there, but we’ve moved into this world where you have terrorists who aren’t really that organized, they are communicating with each other in a more informal way online.”
Roby Barrett, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said in a telephone interview that al-Baghdadi wasn’t the only leader of ISIS. Sleeper cells associated with ISIS are distributed around the world and are constantly taking instructions from the leaders of each cell, which made al-Baghdadi just one of the many leaders, he said.
“I think it’s a positive thing we got al-Baghdadi just so we show that we could. But as far as having some sort of enormous impact on ISIS – it won’t,” Barrett said. “Yes, al-Baghdadi played to be the leader, but he had little control over what was going on in most places.”
Earlier this month, Trump said on Twitter he wanted to focus on the construction of the southern wall on the border with Mexico, and has since said the ISIS Caliphate has been defeated. Trump said the border wall would put an end to undocumented immigrants crossing the border as well as people connected with drugs and other criminal activities.
But witnesses disagreed, saying the percentage of people who commit terrorism in the U.S. who enter the country through the southern border is small. Instead, many of the perpetrators are white supremacists who are Americans.
But Wray said international terrorism is a more pressing problem.
“While domestic terrorism is absolutely something that is very much [a top priority for me,] and we at the FBI recently elevated it to a national threat priority, international terrorism is very much alive, and we need to stay focused on it,” Wray said.
Terrorism, both domestic and international, has increased since last year. According to Wray, the FBI has arrested about 121 individuals connected to international terrorism so far this year, and 107 related to domestic terrorism. This is up from last year’s arrests, around 100 for each type of terrorist activity.
None of the officials commented on what the U.S. should do next regarding foreign policy to reduce the threat of international terrorism.
“There is really no foreign policy, no overall strategy behind it,” said Barrett. “We are really good at playing I call ‘whack-a-mole,’ but there is no strategy … except saying, ‘they are bad, we are good.’”