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Kathryn Schiller Wurster

On the 13th anniversary of Sept 11, 2001, we pause to remember those lost. We have experienced 13 years without another major attack, thanks to the hard work of the military, intelligence community, and homeland security personnel charged with dismantling Al-Qaeda and preventing another terrorist strike.

This week, intelligence community officials have stated that there are no credible threats to the United States homeland from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): according to Homeland Security secretary Jeh C. Johnson, "We know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present.” But at the same time, other government officials, including President Obama and Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have said ISIL is a significant threat and must be dismantled and defeated.

ISIL has built a large cadre of fighters, seized huge weapons caches in Iraq, and has accrued far more cash than Al-Qaeda ever dreamed of. They have brutally murdered two American journalists and executed thousands, including hundreds of children and religious minorities. ISIL is highly organized and issues annual reports touting statistics of their activities—suicide bombings, murders, sniper attacks, and car bombs, among others. They have explicitly declared war on the West, making threats against the US homeland, stating American streets will run with blood. ISIL has people in their organization who are citizens of the western countries they wish to target and can easily travel and operate in them. The FBI has tracked some of these individuals, but many are unknown or unaccounted for. Attacks have already been carried out by ISIL associates in Belgium and foiled in France.

If we compare this to the period leading up to September 11, 2001, the parallels are chilling. Osama bin Laden declared war on the US, threatened us, and launched attacks on embassies, the USS Cole, and even the World Trade Center. We saw evidence before Sept 11 that some kind of plot was in the works, but did not connect the dots on the specifics. We continued to believe that a larger attack would never happen.

This time, we are paying attention and know from experience that groups like this are willing and able to threaten the US. Our ability to collect intelligence has been damaged by the exposure of methods by Edward Snowden—targets have changed their communications practices. Human intelligence in these groups is difficult. But we seem to have a mindset that just because we don’t have direct evidence of a plot to attack US soil, there isn’t one. Like 9/11, this is another failure of imagination. We should listen to what ISIL is telling us about their intentions, and take action to ensure they cannot bring their vicious fight to us.

Of course, this is easier said than done. The President’s strategy as announced last night is to use airstrikes and support a coalition of fighters in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIL. Arming and equipping rebels in Syria is a complicated proposition; how do we arm Syrian rebels and ensure that those arms don’t end up in the hands of ISIL? How can we expect the rebels fighting Assad to also take on ISIL? Syria has no good options, and if we rely on a coalition approach we will be forced to deal with the lesser of many evils. The President has pledged not to put boots on the ground. But if we continue to let ISIL simmer and build strength, they will have to be dealt with militarily before long.