Members of a militant group operating in Iraq and Syria are recruiting people to attack the U.S., according to the lawmaker who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant “has reportedly been actively recruiting individuals capable of traveling to the U.S. to carry out attacks,” Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican, said at a hearing of his panel yesterday.
The session, held to examine how the resurgence of Islamic extremism in Iraq threatens U.S. interests, came on a day when suicide bombings in Baghdad, the capital, killed as many as 48 people and wounded 119. In 2013, two years after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, suicide attacks and car bombs “initiated by ISIL returned to levels not seen since the height of” al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk told the committee.
Although Obama administration officials rarely discuss the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, McGurk said that oil supplies, regional stability and Iran’s influence in Iraq mean that “vital U.S. interests are at stake in Iraq.” Since December, Iraq’s government and some tribal forces have been clashing with ISIL militants who’ve seized Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and parts of nearby Fallujah. ISIL’s next target, McGurk said, is Baghdad, less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Fallujah.
ISIL, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is among the most militant factions opposing Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, where it also has engaged in fighting with other opposition factions. More than 50 U.S. citizens have joined extremists in Syria, and some have returned to the U.S., where they are under FBI surveillance, the Los Angeles Times reported this week, citing U.S. intelligence officials it didn’t identify.
“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the al-Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said Feb. 4 at a hearing of the House intelligence committee.
Yesterday, McGurk cited a Jan. 21 statement by ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who directs about 2,000 fighters in Iraq, that told Americans: “Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day.” The group’s goal, McGurk said, is to reestablish 7th century-style Islamic rule.
“Consistent with ISIL’s rise last summer, a series of armed camps -- staging areas and training grounds -- were spotted in western Iraq” near the Syrian border, McGurk said.
The U.S. is helping Iraq counter the ISIL threat with military sales and economic, security and political advice. The U.S. will lease and sell Boeing Co. Apache attack helicopters, which will be “effective for denying safe havens” to militants camped along the Iraq-Syria border, McGurk said.
In December, the U.S. delivered 75 Lockheed Martin Corp. Hellfire missiles and has notified Congress of the sale to Iraq of as many as 500 more, McGurk said. The U.S. also will deliver to Iraq 10 of Boeing’s Scan Eagle surveillance drones and 48 hand-launched miniature Raven drones made by AeroVironment Inc.
The Scan Eagles can fly as high as 3,000 feet (914 meters) for 20 hours, relaying images and video to a ground station, while the Raven drones give soldiers the ability to see over hills. Both will help provide surveillance of the Iraq-Syria border. McGurk quoted Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as saying that the greater “flow of Sunni extremists between Syria and Iraq” has a direct bearing on ISIL’s ability to conduct high-profile attacks in Iraq.
In addition, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Hussain al-Shahristani yesterday said the U.S. will help Iraq protect its energy infrastructure from terrorist attacks and natural disasters.
The U.S. also has encouraged Iraq to incorporate tribal fighters in its security response and have them work with local police and the army when needed. It also has urged the Iraqi government to provide economic aid to Fallujah and Ramadi for rebuilding, humanitarian aid, and payments to tribal fighters, McGurk said.