“Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
Skeptics have said the threat is overstated. Daniel Benjamin, the top State Department official in Obama’s first term, exploded with sarcasm in a comment to The New York Times on the day Obama delivered his speech.
Benjamin, now the director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, accused top U.S. officials of “describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”
“It’s hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems – all on the basis of no corroborated information,” he told the newspaper.
Cohen agreed there was no immediate intelligence presaging an attack, but suggested it was beside the point.
“We know we have an organization that has exhibited a certain level of brutality, a certain level of sophistication in regard to activities and an interest in recruiting Americans,” he said.
“We know they have acquired significant amounts of funding, that they have directly stated that the U.S. is one of the enemies they seek to combat and that they have employed rather sophisticated techniques to recruit Westerners.”
Westerners, Cohen said, are useful to ISIS most of all as potential sleepers.
“They don’t need Westerners to establish a caliphate,” he said.