ISIS: JUST THE FACTS, AND MANY MORE QUESTIONS
The Congressional Research Service recently published a report for Congress titled "The “Islamic State” Crisis and U.S. Policy" which was released October 22, 2014. This 24 page unclassified report, outlines the current threats and challenges that the Islamic Nation poses to the United States, as well as United States' interests. Below are some excerpt from the full report (which can be found at this link: ISLAMIC STATE POLICY)
THE ISLAMIC STATE
Although the Islamic State is considered a direct threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, it is
unclear if it currently poses a significant direct threat to U.S. homeland security. In September
2014, then-National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen stated that the group poses
“a direct and significant threat to us—and to Iraqi and Syrian civilians—in the region and
potentially to us here at home.”
Olsen said that the group’s " strategic goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate through armed conflict with governments it considers apostate—including Iraq, Syria, and the United States." Olsen further said that "we have no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the U.S.," and highlighted potential threats posed by foreign fighters with Western passports. According to Olsen, U.S. counterterrorism officials "remain mindful of the possibility that an ISIL-sympathizer—perhaps motivated by online propaganda—could conduct a limited, self-directed attack here at home with no warning."
However, Olsen noted that, "In our view, any threat to the U.S. homeland from these types of extremists is likely to be limited in scope and scale." A CIA spokesperson provided an updated estimate of the IS organization's size in September 2014, saying the group could muster 20,000 to 31,500 individuals. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 16 that two-thirds of the Islamic State organization's personnel remain in Syria. U.S. officials report that as many as 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries have travelled to Syria, including more than 1,000 Europeans, and more than 100 U.S. citizens, with approximately 12 Americans believed to be currently fighting there.
Statements and media materials released by the Islamic State reflect an uncompromising,
exclusionary worldview and a relentless ambition. Statements by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and
Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al Adnani feature sectarian calls for violence and
identify Shiites, non-Muslims, and unsupportive Sunnis as enemies in the group’s struggle to
establish “the Islamic State” and to revive their vision of “the caliphate.” The group describes
Iraqi Shiites derogatorily as “rejectionists” and “polytheists” and paints the Iraqi government as a
puppet of Iran. Similar ire is aimed at Syrian Alawites and the Asad government, although some
sources allege that operatives for the Islamic State and its antecedents have benefitted from
evolving financial and security arrangements with Damascus that started during the 2003-2011
U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Responses to Threats to U.S. Personnel, Facilities, and Citizens
The crisis has prompted the Administration to undertake a number of measures to ensure the
safety of its personnel in Iraq, including direct military action, relocation of personnel, and
deployment of additional protective assets. The Department of State has also repeatedly warned
U.S. citizens unaffiliated with the U.S. government of the threats to their security.
President Obama affirmed on August 9 that the protection of American diplomats and military
personnel in the city of Irbil was among the principal justifications for conducting targeted
airstrikes against ISIL in the area. He also asserted that the United States would “take action” in
response to any further threat to U.S. facilities or personnel.
A number of diplomatic personnel had previously been moved to the Consulate General in Irbil
from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. On June 15, the Department of State announced that while
the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad would remain open, a number of personnel would be “temporarily
relocated” to Consulate Generals in Basrah and Irbil as well as to Department of State facilities in
Amman, Jordan. The relocations were reportedly carried out by non-military means. The
announcement stated that a “substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq” would
remain in place and that, with an expected addition of security personnel, the Embassy would be
“fully equipped” to carry out “its national security mission.” On August 10, the Iraq Travel
Warning was updated to announce that “a limited number” of additional staff had been relocated
from the Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate General in Erbil to the Consulate General in
Basrah as well as to Department of State facilities in Amman, Jordan. Despite these measures, President Obama on August 9 affirmed that “we’re not moving our embassy anytime soon. We’re
not moving our consulate anytime soon.”
Military assets and personnel have played a key role in securing U.S. diplomatic facilities and
personnel in Iraq. News reports suggested that roughly 200 Marine Corps guards and contractors
were in place at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad prior to the crisis to protect the Embassy. Since
the crisis began, the White House has announced three deployments to reinforce that number. On
June 16, the White House informed Congress that up to approximately 275 U.S. military
personnel were being dispatched to Iraq to assist with the temporary relocation of diplomatic
personnel, a deployment undertaken with the consent of the Government of Iraq. On June 30,
the White House announced the deployment of up to an additional 200 U.S. Armed Forces
personnel to provide increased security to the U.S. Embassy and its support facilities, as well as
to reinforce the Baghdad International Airport.
According to the White House notification to Congress, provided “consistent with” the War Powers Act, the deployed forces would be accompanied by helicopters and unmanned drones.The force “is deploying for the purpose of protecting U.S. citizens and property, if necessary, and is equipped for combat,” according to the statement, and may/will “remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed.” The Department of Defense had also previously confirmed that it “has airlift assets at the ready should State Department request them, as per normal interagency support arrangements.” On September 2, 2014, the Administration announced that an additional 350 U.S. military personnel would deploy to Iraq for similar purposes.
The State Department has also communicated with U.S. citizens in Iraq about threats to their
safety. It posted on June 16 an “Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens: Announcement of
Relocation of U.S. Embassy Staff,” which urged “U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Iraq because of
current safety and security concerns” and advised those concerned about their safety to “make
plans to depart by commercial means.” The statement emphasized that the Embassy should not be
contacted with requests for assistance with travel arrangements, and that the Embassy “does not
offer ‘protection’ services to individuals who feel unsafe.” While the Embassy remained open, the
statement said, Embassy services for U.S. citizens throughout Iraq would be limited due to the
A number of U.S. citizens working in various other capacities in Iraq have also been evacuated in
response to the crisis. For example, on June 12, the Department of State confirmed that a number
of U.S. citizen contract employees to the Iraqi Government, who were performing services in connection with the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program in Iraq, were “temporarily relocated” by
their companies due to security concerns.
Possible Questions for Congressional Consideration
What are overall U.S. priorities in the strategy against the Islamic State organization, and how are
these priorities shaping the U.S. response?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the strategy against the Islamic State that have been
articulated by President Obama? What factors could hinder the implementation or effectiveness
of the strategy?
With respect to Iraq, is it realistic and worthwhile for U.S. officials and lawmakers to act in
expectation that Iraq’s government can resolve or manage the country’s sectarian, ethnic, and
Please assess the range of Iraqi Sunni views of the Islamic State. With respect to Iraq, what effect,
if any, has the replacement of Maliki by Haydar al-Abbadi had on Sunni Arab support for the
Islamic State? How have jihadist and tribal figures responded to the Islamic State’s declaration of
a caliphate in areas under its control?
With respect to Syria, to what extent, if any, is the long term success of U.S. strategy dependent
on any changes in the composition of the Syrian government? How have various Syrian forces
reacted to U.S. and coalition airstrikes since September 2014? How has the Syrian government
responded? If U.S. and coalition airstrikes shift from targeting Islamic State targets that facilitate
IS operations in Iraq to a broader campaign against the group and other extremists, how might
these reactions change?
How, if at all, should the effort against the Islamic State shape congressional consideration of
pending authorization and appropriations legislation for defense and foreign assistance?
To what extent do the Islamic State’s gains reflect its organizational capabilities? To what extent
to these gains reflect the weaknesses, divisions, or limitations of its adversaries?
What options are available for assisting locally organized forces in areas under Islamic State
control, or in areas threatened by the Islamic State, who may effectively resist or disrupt the
group’s operations? How might such options affect the willingness of the regional governments to
continue to cooperate with the United States?
To what extent do the interests of Iran and the United States conflict or coincide, with respect to
the Islamic State issue? To what extent, if any, do efforts by Iran to support Iraq’s government and Shiite militia forces contradict or support those of the United States? Please answer with respect
to Iran’s policy of supporting the Asad regime in Syria?
What are the connections, if any, between this crisis and other key regional issues, such as
international diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear program?
To what extent will the governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support anti-Islamic
State entities in areas adjacent to their territory?
What might be the broader strategic implications of increased U.S. assistance to the current Iraqi
government? What has been the reaction of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to
increased U.S. support for the Iraqi government, which the Gulf leaders assert is closely aligned
with Iran? How might Iran respond?
How are Kurdish efforts to control Kirkuk and its energy resources likely to affect the security
situation in that area generally and in Iraq specifically? What is the likelihood that the Kurds will
implement a formal secession from Iraq in the near future? How should these considerations
affect U.S. policy toward the KRG?
Are changes to U.S. global counterterrorism policies and practices necessary in light of
developments related to the Islamic State?
What are the humanitarian implications of the crisis? Please discuss the situation for Internally
Displaced Persons (IDPs), particularly those displaced in the last several months. What are the
most pressing assistance needs and priorities?
What are the challenges for an effective humanitarian response by the international community?
How would you assess the international humanitarian operation so far? What action is the U.S.
government taking in support of international humanitarian efforts?
Author Contact Information
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Specialist in International Humanitarian Policy
Christopher M. Blanchard
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Analyst in Foreign Affairs
Carla E. Humud
Analyst in Middle Eastern and African Affairs