Two sharply different visions of the Islamic State emerged Wednesday from official Washington.
In the first, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter portrayed the terror group as on the run in Iraq and Syria, struggling to hang onto their key strongholds.
Opening a meeting of defense ministers from the 28 nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that a U.S.-led coalition is on course to hasten the Islamic State’s “lasting defeat.”
“Play by play, town after town, from every direction and in every domain, our campaign has accelerated further, squeezing (the Islamic State) and rolling it back towards Raqqa and Mosul,” he said, referring to the group’s main strongholds in Syria and Iraq. “We’re isolating those two cities and effectively setting the stage to collapse (the Islamic State’s) control over them.”
In sharp contrast, a report by Republicans on a key House committee painted the terror group as deadlier and more destructive than ever and determined to strike within U.S. borders.
Entitled “Terror Gone Viral,” the 15-page report by the majority on the House Homeland Security Committee warned of an “unprecedented wave of terror” and said casualties from Islamic State attacks this year are more than double those of last year.
Experts said neither vision is wrong. Indeed, the first vision of an Islamic State nearing defeat might be driving the second vision of an organization bent on destruction abroad, one said.
“Because it is losing ground, it is incentivized to carry out attacks abroad to stay in the media’s eye,” said William McCants, an expert on the Islamic world and violent extremism at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington.
The two visions also underscore the sharply partisan context that surrounds the conflict with the Islamic State, which on Monday drove the theme for the first night of the Republican National Convention, “Make America Safe Again.”
“They’re going to come here and kill us,” said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in a speech to the Republican delegates in Cleveland. He slammed President Barack Obama for declining to refer to “Islamic extremist terrorism.”
Carter told the defense ministers that coalition forces had seized a key junction on the road between Mosul and Raqqa, partially cutting off the route, and had surrounded the city of Manbij in Syria, a crucial transit point near the Turkish border for Islamic State extremists seeking to depart Raqqa and travel abroad to carry out attacks.
He also warned that excising the Islamic State “tumor” from Iraq and Syria is not enough, and that the group had powerful branches in Afghanistan and Libya.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking at the same NATO conference, cited the Islamic State’s deep penetration into sub-Saharan Africa.
“We must also help the poorest countries which are on the front line (near) Lake Chad,” Le Drian said, referring to Nigeria, Niger and Chad, all of which are battling an Islamic State-linked splinter group known as Boko Haram, which McCants one of the Islamic State’s most powerful affiliates, with more than 10,000 fighters. “That’s a formidable force,” McCants said.
The legislative report from the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee tallied 101 Islamic State plots worldwide since the beginning of 2014, and said 40 percent of them “were aimed at the United States, its citizens, or its official presence overseas.”
“Although law enforcement agencies have thwarted more plots overall than have been executed, this year has seen ISIS’s highest success rate to date,” the report said, referring to the Islamic State by a common acronym. “In 2016, ISIS operatives managed to pull off 44 percent of their attempted plots, compared to 31 percent in 2015.”
“Thwarted efforts,” the report said, “have included a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, planned shootings at churches and synagogues from the East Coast to the Midwest, a plot to detonate explosives at New York City landmarks, and a plot to detonate pipe bombs on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.”
Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4