For Islamic State, Hitting The U.S. May Not Be A Top Priority : Parallels Experts say the well-funded militant group is focused on gaining power in the Middle East, not attacking America. The bigger risk is of an opportunistic attack, locally or in Europe.

For Islamic State, Hitting The U.S. May Not Be A Top Priority

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, is brutal and dangerous and well-funded. It occupies much territory, and the beheading of a journalist proved its willingness to strike Americans. The unanswered question is how much reach this group really has. In particular, does it have the capacity to attack U.S. soil? That may in fact be the biggest of all questions as the United States faces ISIS. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the last of her series on ISIS and America.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently talked about the militants associated with the Islamic State. The group's also known as ISIL or ISIS. He made them sound 10-feet tall.


U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we've seen.

AUDREY KURTH CRONIN: When we talk about ISIS being completely unprecedented in all of these dimensions, I think we're overstating the case a bit.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Audrey Kurth Cronin is a professor at George Mason University and is an expert on terrorism.

CRONIN: It is definitely dangerous, but it's not the first group to hold territory. It's not the only group that has directly threatened, or actually killed, Americans. Terrorist attacks haven't necessarily been correlated with the amount of resources that a group is able to hold. And a lot of the Westerners that they've been attracting, so far at least, have had their hands full fighting in Iraq and Syria.

TEMPLE-RASTON: More than 140 American passport holders are thought to have left the U.S. to join that fight in Syria. The fear is that some of them might return to the U.S. as terrorists. Already, at least three Americans have died on the battlefield there. And that's significant, Cronin says. If the group's intention is to send Westerners back home to attack, they don't seem to be reserving them for that kind of mission. Instead, establishing a Muslim state in Iraq and Syria appears to be a higher priority.

CRONIN: There are some people who argue that the fact that ISIS has a home address and that ISIS wants to develop a caliphate makes them less able and less likely to be able to attack the United States. You know, when we think about the fact that they have a lot of resources, it's very expensive to govern.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: I think it's too simple to say that this is just a local group with very parochial aims.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is the head of the security studies department at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: The question is, as we escalate, what will they do? Will they escalate as well? What will they see as escalation? I mean, somewhere in their calculus has to be a tax against American interests somewhere.

TEMPLE-RASTON: American interests - somewhere. Intelligence officials say that the group doesn't appear to have the infrastructure necessary to launch a large-scale attack in the U.S. More likely is that ISIS will see an opportunity, either in the Middle East or Europe, and take advantage. An attack wouldn't need to be spectacular. Think of the Boston Marathon bombing. A local teenager has been charged in the case, and just a handful of crude bombs brought Boston to a virtual standstill. Hoffman says ISIS is likely to choose a simple attack that's easier to pull off.

HOFFMAN: Well, no terrorist group likes to foul. They hope to marshal as much of the factors as possible in their favor to ensure the success. And in that sense, certainly ISIS, you know, casting it's gaze on the United States and imminently attempting to carry out an attack, I think, definitely would be a stretch - or at least one hopes would be a stretch.

TEMPLE-RASTON: President Obama told reporters at the White House yesterday that he's asked officials to prepare a range of U.S. military options for confronting ISIS. He said that the strategy was still in the planning stages. Cronin worries that the U.S. is making them bigger than they really are.

CRONIN: To some extent, ISIS's next moves depend upon how we react. And if we're talking about what an enormous threat they are and lionizing them, that ultimately, even if unintentionally, helps them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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