ISIS or Al-Qaeda? US divided over which is greater threat

US President Barack Obama speaks alongside Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (far left) following a meeting about the military campaign against the Islamic State on July 6, 2015.
US President Barack Obama speaks alongside Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (far left) following a meeting about the military campaign against the Islamic State on July 6, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • The top intelligence, counter-terrorism and law enforcement officials of the Obama administration are divided over which terrorist group poses the biggest threat to the United States, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

The split reflects a rising concern that the ISIS poses a more immediate danger because of its unprecedented social media campaign, using online messaging to inspire followers to launch attacks across the US. Many intelligence and counter-terrorism officials warn, however, that Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and Syria are capitalising on the turmoil in those countries to plot much larger "mass-casualty" attacks, including taking down airliners carrying hundreds of passengers. This is not an academic argument. It will influence how the government allocates billions of dollars in counter-terrorism funds, and how it assigns thousands of experts and troops to combat a threat that senior officials say is changing rapidly.

The issue already has prompted a White House review of its counter-terrorism policy towards the ISIS. In June, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had so many people under surveillance in terrorism-related investigations - mostly related to ISIS - that supervisors reassigned criminal squads to monitor terrorism suspects.

US officials say this is not a debate between those who worry more about Al-Qaeda as the main threat to the US and those who say it is the ISIS. It is more a shift in emphasis.

The FBI, Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security are concerned more about the rising risk from the ISIS, while the Pentagon, intelligence agencies and the National Counter-terrorism Centre, which focus more on threats abroad, are more anxious about Al-Qaeda operatives overseas. The White House seems to be leaning towards the ISIS, increasingly alarmed by what Ms Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama's homeland security and counter-terrorism adviser, recently called the group's "unique threat" to the US.

The debate is evolving in real time, thus there have been no large shifts in money or personnel yet. But it marks the first time that senior US officials have spoken so openly about the evolution.

Meanwhile, two German-speaking extremists claiming to belong to the ISIS militant group threatened Germany with attacks in an execution video broadcast online yesterday.

The five-minute clip shows the men using assault rifles to kill two bound and kneeling male hostages in the Syrian ancient city of Palmyra, which ISIS fighters took in May. In a rare German-language message, they urge their "brothers and sisters" in Germany and Austria to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq or commit attacks against "unbelievers" at home.

One of the men threatens Chancellor Angela Merkel, vowing to avenge the "blood of Muslims spilt in Afghanistan", where Germany sent troops as part of a Nato force, and its support for the coalition against ISIS.

NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2015, with the headline 'ISIS or Al-Qaeda? US divided over which is greater threat'. Print Edition | Subscribe