How serious a threat is ISIS?

If, on the other hand, ISIS lacks the motivation and capacity for anything close to 9/11, then President Obama’s stated justification for even an air war looks weak. So far, the press hasn’t done a good enough job of determining if this is the case. Many publications have uncritically accepted Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s claim about the number of Americans who have gone to fight with ISIS—a figure that New America Foundation terrorism expert Peter Bergen argues is dramatically exaggerated. Other media commentary simply assumes that if Westerners go to fight with ISIS in Iraq or Syria, they’re destined to attack Europe or the United States. But that’s not true. Bergen notes, for instance, that of the 29 Americans who have gone to fight with the Somali jihadist group al-Shabab, none have tried to commit terrorism against the United States. One reason is that many of them ended up dead.

Press coverage of ISIS often ignores the fact that, in the past, the group has not targeted the American homeland. Jihadist groups, even monstrous ones, don’t inevitably go after the United States. Al-Qaeda began doing so as part of a specific strategy. After fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, it initially turned its attention to overthrowing regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri considered oppressive, corrupt, and un-Islamic. It was only when those direct efforts failed that al-Qaeda hatched a new strategy: attacking those regimes’ patron, the United States. That’s still al-Qaeda’s strategy. And as a result, so far, the U.S. has arguably had more to fear from those Westerners who have joined the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, than from those who have joined ISIS. But, ironically, al-Nusra may be a beneficiary of America’s war, as it takes territory that ISIS now claims.