National Security

Should Americans Be Worried About ISIL Attacks in the United States?

April 26, 2016  • Alison Decker

Key Points

  • Lisa Monaco, assistant to President Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, and Paddy McGuinness, deputy national security advisor for the United Kingdom, discuss how their countries are working to stop ISIL at its root.

Above: watch Lisa Monaco, assistant to President Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, and Paddy McGuinness, deputy national security advisor for the United Kingdom, discuss how they are working to stop ISIL at its root.

With ISIL making headlines for its violent acts across the world, it is hard not to feel unnerved by a potential threat. Should Americans be worried about an attack on their home soil?

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are working both internally and as part of broader coalitions to reinforce efforts against ISIS at home and abroad. According to Lisa Monaco, assistant to the President for homeland security and counterterrorism, ISIL has distinct features which make it particularly dangerous.

The most dangerous element of ISIL’s identity, Monaco said, is its ability to recruit, radicalize and then mobilize individuals to violence – from Syria to San Bernardino. Ironically, she says, they use what have typically been engines of social freedom and free speech, social media platforms, to preach their message. She sees occupying their virtual space, disrupting their messaging itself, as a key priority to stop the spread of ISIL across the world and digital spaces.

“ISIL presents a threat that is different in kind – a particular type of transregional threat, which cannot be fought in isolation,” said Monaco.

Paddy McGuinness, deputy national security advisor for the United Kingdom, agreed, noting that with social media, ISIL can glamorize their horrific acts and use them to target troubled individuals, exploiting feelings of alienation among young people, and people with mental health issues.

“When you look at tragic stories of vulnerable young men and women who are drawn to act … they are not doing it in the classroom, the mosque, or the youth center. They’re doing it in the online space, and often without the knowledge of their families. This takes [our security efforts] in a different direction,” he said.

The State Department has been working with companies like Twitter and other social entrepreneurs, tech executives, and philanthropists to harness the innovation from their platforms and adopt strategies previously used in combating issues like pornography and fraud to fight against the problems that ISIL poses. The United Kingdom is working in a similar capacity, and McGuinness said that engaging tech companies in the fight against ISIL has been successful so far.

“We have, in these companies, fantastic engines of innovation. What’s not to like in giving the innovators the problem to solve?” said McGuinness.

Monaco agreed, saying that while there is more to do on both sides, companies are beginning to take affirmative steps to address content that violates their own terms of service.

“None of these companies want their platforms to be used for the most horrific images, messages, and directions to commit violence,” Monaco said.

“They have a moral compass,” added McGuinness. “The companies understand the issues that we are dealing with, and understand they are not a mere conduit – they have a moral obligation to engage.”

There could be glimmers of hope. Monaco said that the number of ISIL fighters is down to its lowest in several years. She estimated a population numbering about 25,000 fighters — down by about 5,000 since the conflict began.

However, said Monaco, the threat is not going away. She wants to put in place frameworks for best practices and work at the community level to make sure that individuals who feel alienated have an “off-ramp,” meaning that before they are drawn down a more radicalized path, they have interventions to help them avoid violence. Ultimately, she says, it will take a multifaceted approach to destroy ISIL, and any approach will also need to include political solutions to address the grievances that have sparked radicalization to ensure long-term stability.

“Cases like Brussels, Paris, and Istanbul reinforce that [attacks] can happen everywhere. … We have to reflect and recognize that we are not going to kill our way out of this militarily. We are not going to delete our way out of this. It has to be a multifaceted approach,” Monaco said.