AUG. 4, 2015
ISIS or Al Qaeda? American Officials Split Over Top Terror Threat
By ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's top intelligence, counterterrorism and law enforcement officials are divided over which terrorist group poses the biggest threat to the American homeland, the Islamic State or Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
The split reflects a rising concern that the Islamic State poses a more immediate danger because of its unprecedented social media campaign, using sophisticated online messaging to inspire followers to launch attacks across the United States.
Many intelligence and counterterrorism officials warn, however, that Qaeda operatives in Yemen and Syria are capitalizing on the turmoil in those countries to plot much larger "mass casualty" attacks, including bringing down airliners carrying hundreds of passengers.
This is not an academic argument. It will influence how the government allocates billions of dollars in counterterrorism funds, and how it assigns thousands of federal agents, intelligence analysts and troops to combat a multipronged threat that senior officials say is changing rapidly.
The issue already has prompted a White House review of its counterterrorism policy toward the Islamic State. And the National Counterterrorism Center has diverted analysts working on longer-term extremist threats to focus on the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, intelligence officials said.
In June, the F.B.I. had so many people under surveillance in terrorism-related investigations -- mostly related to the Islamic State -- that supervisors reassigned criminal squads  to monitor terrorism suspects.
For all the concern, there have been no Qaeda attacks in the United States in 14 years, though some were thwarted or fell apart. And most of the Islamic State-inspired plots so far have been unsophisticated but increasingly difficult for the authorities to detect in advance.
American officials say this is not a black-and-white debate between those who worry more about Al Qaeda as the main threat to the homeland and those who say it is the Islamic State. Both are worrisome.
It is more a shift in emphasis. The F.B.I., the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security are concerned more about the rising risk from the Islamic State, while the Pentagon, intelligence agencies and the National Counterterrorism Center, which focus more on threats abroad, are more anxious about Qaeda operatives overseas.
The White House seems to be leaning toward the Islamic State, increasingly alarmed by what Lisa Monaco, President Obama's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, recently called  the group's "unique threat" to the United States.
The debate is evolving in real time, thus there have been no large shifts in money or personnel yet in one direction or the other. But it is the first time senior American officials have spoken so openly about the evolution.
How much the United States spends on counterterrorism is difficult to pinpoint because many of the main actors and agencies -- American troops, C.I.A. analysts and F.B.I. agents, to name a few -- carry out other functions, as well. But senior American officials say that counterterrorism programs employ roughly one in four of the more than 100,000 people who work at the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies, and account for about one-third of the $50 billion annual intelligence budget.
About 3,400 American troops in Iraq are helping the Iraqis fight the Islamic State, while about 9,800 forces in Afghanistan are assisting that country's security personnel in combating the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other extremists there.
The issue is likely to gain prominence in the 2016 presidential campaign, as Republican candidates criticize the Obama administration for failing to anticipate the rise of the Islamic State from the ashes of the Iraq war. "We didn't finish the job," Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said last month.
The debate was brought to the surface two weeks ago when James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado that the Islamic State posed the greatest danger  to the homeland.
Senior leaders of the Islamic State -- unlike those of Al Qaeda -- have not made a priority of organizing strikes on the West. Instead, the Islamic State has encouraged individual Westerners to carry out such attacks on their own. "It's currently the threat that we're worrying about in the homeland most of all," Mr. Comey said.
Mr. Comey said the group was focusing on how to "crowdsource" terrorism, by having thousands of its promoters reach out and screen potential adherents on Twitter and other open social media, then switch to communicating on encrypted apps or email programs that American intelligence officials say they have difficulty cracking.
"They're just pushy," Mr. Comey said. "They're like a devil on somebody's shoulders saying, 'Kill, kill kill,' all day long."
A few days later, the attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch, weighed in on ABC News, saying of the Islamic State, "It's as serious -- if not more serious a threat -- than Al Qaeda."
American analysts say the Islamic State is replacing its combatants in Iraq and Syria as fast as the United States and its allies are killing them there, and the group still maintains as many as 31,000 fighters.
Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS controls territory, provides civil services and has infrastructure. It remains well funded -- earning close to $1 billion a year in oil revenues and taxes, according to Treasury Department estimates -- and has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Afghanistan and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.
Current and former counterterrorism and intelligence officials, as well as some lawmakers, who closely monitor risks overseas say that although the risks of the Islamic State are real, the overall threat is more complex and requires a nuanced strategy.
"ISIS is all about the quantity of attacks. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is focused on the quality of the attack," said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "For that reason, Al Qaeda still, in that respect, very much concerns me even more than the quantity of ISIS attacks."
Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of the Pentagon's Special Operations Command, said at the Aspen forum  that the Islamic State is "much more prominent right now," but added that Al Qaeda "remains a very, very, significant concern for us."
Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in an interview, "There's a greater likelihood of ISIL being linked to attacks in the homeland right now. That said, we still look at A.Q.A.P. as more capable of carrying out larger-scale attacks against the homeland, including against aircraft coming here." A.Q.A.P. is the Qaeda affiliate based in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen.
In July 2014, the Transportation Security Administration banned  uncharged cellphones and laptops from flights to the United States that originated in Europe and the Middle East after picking up intelligence about the collaboration between the Qaeda operatives in Syria and Yemen.
"I wouldn't put it on a matter of scale as significant as what we faced 10 years ago from Al Qaeda, or even now from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Khorasan Group, to carry out more significant, perhaps catastrophic, attacks," Matthew G. Olsen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said of the Islamic State threat in a telephone interview, citing Qaeda groups in Yemen and Syria.
James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told the Aspen forum,  "To say one is of greater magnitude than the other, at least for me, is hard."
Yet there is no doubt that the threat from the Islamic State has seized the immediate attention of policy makers and intelligence officials here, in Europe and in the Middle East.
John P. Carlin, the assistant attorney general for national security, told the Aspen forum that the authorities have made more than 50 terrorism-related arrests in the past 18 months, mostly involving the Islamic State, in the jurisdictions of 20 United States attorneys nationwide. Eighty percent of those arrested are younger than 30, and 40 percent are under 21, he said.
In early July, Mr. Comey said the authorities had thwarted multiple attacks being plotted for July 4 by the Islamic State and its sympathizers in the United States, though he did not say what the plots entailed or how many people had been arrested. The F.B.I. has hundreds of investigations pending into such cases across the country, he said.
Twitter accounts affiliated with the Islamic State have more than 21,000 English-language followers worldwide, Mr. Comey said, and thousands of them may be United States residents.
"We are facing smaller-scale attacks that are harder to detect, day to day to day," the homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, said  at the Aspen forum.
What sets the Islamic State apart from other terrorist groups is its fluid structure and adept appeals on social media, American officials say.
"Al Qaeda tried to be a movement and capture a more global imagination, and it largely failed; regional groups joined the A.Q. banner, but it never truly became a wholly decentralized movement," said Michael E. Leiter, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "ISIS has been more successful on this front, and this is why it is more dangerous, more difficult to identify adherents, and more challenging to combat."
Kitty Bennett contributed research.