Robert Reich: A few hundred Westerners joining ISIS ‘not a big deal’

Former Labor Sec. Robert Reich has joined President Barack Obama in castigating the media for overhyping the threat of terrorism and the national security challenge posed by ISIS.


Just a few weeks back, the president told Vox’s Matt Yglesias that he “absolutely” agreed with the premise that “climate change and epidemic diseases” were lamentably overlooked subjects in routine mainstream press reports, and that the media’s coverage of terrorist violence “overstates the level of alarm people should have” about the issue. That’s right, the press hasn’t been hyping the threat of climate change enough.

It appears that the alternate universe in that Obama and Yglesias inhabit recently received a new resident. In an appearance on the Comedy Central program The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Reich blamed the media for inflating the threat posed by Western ISIS aspirants (Hat tip to Newsbusters).

“We’ve covered it during the headline of all these westerners joining ISIS. I don’t understand that,” Reich said.

I think that there are not that many trying to join ISIS and you say all these European, all these Americans. Out of 600 million Europeans and Americans you’ve got, what, 400, 800 trying to join ISIS? This is not a big deal. The press is making it a big deal and the more we talk about it, the more people are gonna go.

We’ll get to the former labor secretary’s subjective assessment of the threat posed by Westerners who join ISIS’s ranks in a moment, but let’s first start with his suspect numbers. According to official estimates, the number of ISIS fighters with Western passports reached 3,400 this February.


In testimony Thursday, Gen. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress the intelligence community now estimates that 3,400 citizens from Western nations have traveled to Syria and Iraq. That’s 700 more than November’s estimate of 2,700 — though officials say some portion of the higher headcount represents improved intelligence, not new recruits.

The U.S. intelligence community has also upped its estimate of the number of foreign fighters from all over the world, not just the West. Clapper said that ISIS now has 20,000 foreign fighters, up from 16,000 last fall, out of a total fighting force of as many as 31,000.

“Clapper’s testimony also upped the number of U.S. citizens who’ve traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to fight for any of the groups battling the Assad regime,” NBC News reported. “Six months ago, the number was estimated at 100, then more recently 150. In his Thursday testimony, he put the number at roughly 180. He indicated that U.S. law enforcement is monitoring those who have returned. U.S. officials have said in the past that the number of fighters currently engaged in fighting for ISIS is ‘around a dozen.’”

It isn’t so much the number of Westerners who have traveled to lands occupied by Islamic State fighters that is such a great concern, although Reich’s dismissal of that threat because they only numbered in the hundreds was perfectly absurd. It only took 19 willing militants to execute 9/11, an act that sparked an ongoing global war. Just two committed Islamist fundamentalists wiped out the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo in January; an attack that inspired militants around the world to threaten free speech advocates with violence.


What’s more, the value of individual Western ISIS recruits is of more concern than their overall numbers. For example, on Friday a National Guardsman and his cousin were arrested at a Chicago airport allegedly on the way to join ISIS’s ranks. The Islamic State aspirant and his cousin were reportedly preparing use acquired Army uniforms to infiltrate an Illinois National Guard base and execute a sophisticated attack on American soldiers in the name of the Islamic State.

In fact, it is the Western ISIS recruit who is willing to execute terrorist attacks but cannot travel to the Islamic State that can be the most dangerous threat to domestic security, The Wall Street Journal reported last month.

“A case in point is Amedy Coulibaly, the Frenchman who killed five people in Paris last month—four of them in a kosher grocery,” the report read. “On Wednesday, U.S. authorities arrested three Brooklyn men, legal U.S. residents originally from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, on charges that they planned to carry out attacks on American soil and join Islamic State in Syria.”

But The Journal also identifies an ideological fraternity between ISIS and the tragic Fellow Travelers who, in the waning days of the Cold War, sought to foment communist revolutions in Western Europe. Perhaps this is the source of the former labor secretary’s frustration with the media.

Terrorism analysts point out striking similarities between Islamic State’s Western followers—who often come from affluent backgrounds—and the young women and men who embraced homegrown terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades in Italy or Red Army Faction in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.

Back then, Communist ideology—despite all the horrors of life in actual Communist countries—still seemed to offer the promise of a better, fairer and purer society. The biggest coup of Islamic State’s propaganda is its capacity to touch a similar nerve with its own utopian vision today, attracting the bored idealists, the misfits, and the adventurers from across Europe. Like the Communists, Islamic State promises universal welfare, free medicine and social justice.


The communists, like ISIS, promised much but delivered so little. Much like Reich. It is no wonder that, despite Barack Obama’s drone-led counter-terrorism campaign and the death of Osama bin Laden, the Democrats have lost the trust of the public to manage American national security.

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