Is IS Really a School for “Homeland” Terrorism?

Every now and then it’s probably healthy for us non-experts to ask some questions about the memes surrounding military actions. I did this earlier this month in wondering if perhaps IS was a lot more deterrable than Al Qaeda from terrorist acts in the West since it had a territorial capital and defined itself in terms of territorial possessions–all of which could be damaged pretty severely by air strikes and actually obliterated if something really outrageous was attempted (e.g., a “dirty bomb”).

Today at the Prospect Paul Waldman does something similar by questioning the “well-trained IS terrorists with Western passports” meme:

One of the common refrains we hear in the reporting on ISIL is that officials are worried that Americans will go to Syria or Iraq, fight with ISIL, and then return here to launch terrorist attacks on the United States. As a discrete category of terrorist threat, this is something very odd to be afraid of.

It isn’t that such people might not have the motivation to carry out a terrorist attack. But if they went to fight with ISIL, they probably already had the motivation. Ah, but what about the things they learned there? This morning, I heard a reporter on NPR refer to such returnees employing their “newfound terrorist skills” against the United States. But what skills are we talking about? If you want to learn how to make a bomb, you don’t have to go to Syria to acquire the knowledge. There’s this thing called “the internet” where it can be found much easier.

Yeah, I’d say experience in infantry operations, anti-aircraft and anti-missile warfare, and administering a harsh form of Shariah Law, would be of somewhat limited utility in the United States. But what about those passports?

This is an entirely separate question from whether ISIL as an organization wants to carry out an attack within the United States, because if they do, they don’t need someone with an American passport to execute it. Anyone here on a tourist visa could do it (in 2013, just under 70 million international visitors came to the U.S.).

To be sure, the image of a hardened terrorist getting on a plane and using a U.S. passport to fly to the U.S. bent on jihad has a certain Hollywoodish plausibility. And I am quite certain terrorist threats exist and are thwarted nearly every day. But it’s not 100% clear IS has made the “homeland” significantly more dangerous.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.