ISIS in America: Jihadists in 15 States?

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According to an online warning sent out by a man calling himself Abu Ibrahim Al Amerika, the shooting in Garland, TX last weekend was the first of many planned by the Islamic State. Al Amerika posted a message saying that ISIS had 71 “trained soldiers” in 15 American states. He warned that 23 of those soldiers “have signed up for missions like Sunday.”

“Of the 15 states,” Al Amerika said, “5 we will name…Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, California, and Michigan. The disbelievers who shot our brothers think that you killed someone untrained, nay, they gave you their bodies in plain view because we were watching.”

U.S. officials have not commented on the warning, leaving the question of its authenticity up in the air for now. But whether Al Amerika is really an agent of ISIS, whether the Texas terrorists had any connection to the overseas “caliphate,” and whether there really are missions in progress, it’s clear that this is more than just idle chatter. Followers of the Islamic State know they can make their name by carrying out these attacks. The thought of international glory may be enough to attract unstable Muslims like Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi.

The question, of course, becomes what do we do about it? Simpson was already a known entity to the FBI; they arrested him in 2010 after investigating his actions for four years. He escaped serious prosecution in that instance, walking away with probation for lying to a federal agent about his travel to Somalia. But if national security officials can’t stop someone already on a watch list, what chance do they have of stopping those they don’t know about?

We must resist the easy solutions at times like these. It’s tempting to trade freedom for security. It’s tempting to give the government unlimited powers of surveillance in the name of stopping attacks before they begin. But we’ve already seen how this surveillance can be – and is – used for investigations that have nothing to do with terror plots. A blank check is a dangerous thing, especially when you’re giving it to the federal government.

On the other hand, it’s equally foolish to run in the other direction. The one that defends Islam, excoriates anyone who would mock it, and warns against racial and religious profiling. Indeed, these are the best tools at our collective disposal. We must stand up for free speech, we must criticize a religion responsible for so much death and suffering in the world, and we must be cognizant of the form in which the threat comes. Is every Muslim a terrorist or a would-be terrorist? Of course not. But if we’re going to have a serious conversation about “warning signs,” then we’re going to have to admit that you don’t get to radical Islam without going through the moderate kind.

The enemy is known. Victory will not come easily. But if we fail to even admit who or what this enemy is, we cannot prevail.