President Obama and his advisers don't think the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is ready to pose a direct terrorist threat to the U.S., but they're worried about the group's ability to attract Americans.
"We are aware of over 100 U.S. citizens who have U.S. passports who are fighting in the Middle East with [ISIS] forces. There may be more, we don't know," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told CNN on Wednesday.
Americans and other Westerners fighting for ISIS and other militant groups in Syria have been implicated in several terrorist attacks — including the recent beheadings of two U.S. journalists — and at least two have been killed there.
The concern is that at least some of those who have left will return to the U.S. as battle-hardened fighters eager to commit terrorist attacks. It's a large enough concern that Obama plans to lead a Sept. 25 U.N. Security Council summit on the issue of foreigners fighting with terrorist groups.
"Events of the last couple of months, particularly with regards to the expansion of [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria, have driven this point home, including sadly yesterday, as you all saw," the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, said Wednesday.
The latest U.S. citizen to die fighting for ISIS in Syria, Somali-American Abdirahmaan Muhumed of Minneapolis, 29, formerly worked cleaning airplanes at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where he held a security clearance that gave him widespread access, KMSP reported Tuesday. The Minneapolis television station said two employees confirmed that Muhumed worked at Delta Global Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Airlines.
"The progression from foreign fighter to terrorist is not a linear one, nor is it inevitable, and the majority of people who return from the fighting in Syria may pose no terrorist threat. But the difficulty remains how to distinguish those who will from those who won’t," Richard Barrett, a former British diplomat and intelligence officer, wrote in a June report for the Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence firm.
The report suggested that civil war in Syria is "an incubator for a new generation of terrorists," and noted that the 12,000 foreigners who have traveled there to fight with militant organizations are a bigger group than the number that went to Afghanistan to fight for al Qaeda, the Taliban and their precursor groups.
"In our view, any threat to the U.S. homeland from these types of extremists is likely to be limited in scope and scale," Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said Wednesday at a Brookings Institution event.
But some lawmakers disagree.
"There is a definite threat from within the country. It's there. You can't pretend it's not there," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told the Washington Examiner.
In his presentation Wednesday, Olsen cited a suicide bombing in northern Syria in May by a 22-year-old American from Florida who had joined the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusrah Front, and an attack a day earlier on a Jewish museum in Belgium by a 29-year-old Frenchman who had recently returned from Syria.
He also mentioned the beheading of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, both of whom were kidnapped in Syria and ended up in the hands of ISIS. In each case, the men were shown on videos released by the extremists kneeling beside a man speaking in a British accent.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed Wednesday to the BBC that the British-accented man in the Sotloff video is the same person seen speaking in the Foley video. Intelligence officials would not say whether they have identified the man, nicknamed “Jihadi John” after freed hostages spoke of three British captors who had been dubbed “the Beatles," The Telegraph reported Wednesday.
In the case of Douglas McAuthur McCain, a 33-year-old American who converted to Islam in 2004 and recently died fighting in Syria in the same battle as Muhumed, social media posts documented his growing radicalism — which led to his name being placed on a terrorism watch list, officials told the Voice of America.
McCain, who grew up in Minneapolis and later moved to San Diego, also had ties to Minnesota's Somali community — a focus of concerns about radicalization and extremist recruitment for terrorist attacks overseas. He also was a high school classmate of Troy Kastigar, another convert to Islam killed in Somalia in September 2009.
Rep. King was widely criticized for a series of hearings by the House Homeland Security Committee when he was chairman in 2011 and 2012 that explored radicalization among Muslims, including concerns that extremists in the Minneapolis area were recruiting Somali Americans for terrorist attacks. He said recent events have left him feeling vindicated.
"Everything I said at the time has been proven true," he said.
This story, originally posted at 5 a.m., has been updated.