Peshmerga fighters inspect the remains of a car on Aug. 18 that with an image of the trademark jihadist flag of Islamic State (IS) militants after it was targeted by an American airstrike in the village of Baqufa, Iraq. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hold a press briefing Aug. 21 at the Pentagon. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
WASHINGTON — The Islamic State presents the greatest terrorist threat to Americans since 9/11, and fighting it will take more than air strikes in Iraq, according to a top member of Congress and a retired four-star general.
The Islamic State, also referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has vaulted in notoriety after the beheading of American journalist James Foley last week. On ABC’s “This Week,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, called Foley’s murder a turning point.
“I do think they present the greatest threat we’ve seen since 9/11,” McCaul said. “This has been festering for the last year and now it’s culminating with the killing and the beheading of an American journalist, which I think is a turning point. The American people — it has sort of opened their eyes to what ISIS really is, the true character of ISIS, how savage they really are and and their intent to harm Americans.”
Meanwhile, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who served in Iraq and commanded all allied forces in Afghanistan, said attacking IS support areas in Syria will be necessary to defeating them. The limited U.S. airstrikes that have helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces retake a strategic dam near Mosul in Northern Iraq are not enough, he said.
A regional approach with a coalition of regional allies, bolstered by U.S. special operations forces, will be required to hit IS hard enough, Allen said.
“We’ve been very clear that we don’t want to put American maneuver forces necessarily, conventional maneuver forces back on the ground, but we have really significant capabilities to provide special operators into these formations, both at the tribal level, some of the more recently emerging Sunni conventional forces that are appearing in northwest Iraq, the Free Syrian Army, and Sunni tribes in Syria.”
On Friday, White House officials said President Obama is examining a variety of options to use against IS, including talks with Congress about extending the U.S. military commitment in the region.
In a recent interview with USA Today, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said options are being considered beyond the current round of airstrikes, although he declined to be specific. Those attacks are designed to protect U.S. personnel and the dam near Mosul and to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered.
“Other options beyond what we’ve presented and tasked, sure,” Dempsey said. “We continue to develop those. There are additional options. We continue to refine them.”
One key limiting factor to expanding airstrikes is limited intelligence on targets, according to a Defense Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly about it. For instance, the drones and manned aircraft that were used to spy on and then destroy the networks that planted roadside bombs were moved out of Iraq in 2011.
Since the threat from IS has grown, some of those spy planes have returned to Iraq. There are 60 reconnaissance missions per day now, Dempsey told reporters recently.
In the interview, Dempsey said that effort has been paying off.
“We’ve soaked the space in and around western Iraq and northern Iraq with intelligence assets,” Dempsey said. “We continue to refine our understanding of the options.”
Since Aug. 8 and Saturday, U.S. Central Command has conducted a total of 94 airstrikes across Iraq. Of those, 61 have been in support of Iraqi forces near the Mosul Dam.