When the Sunni insurgent group ISIS seized Fallujah, scene of dozens of Marines' deaths during the Iraq War, in early January 2014 it barely raised eyebrows for most Americans. And while it did create fleeting headlines when ISIS conquered Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, in June 2014, few Americans felt directly threatened by this sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in a distant land that had been forgotten by most Americans since 2011.
What seems to have stirred up what can only be described as hysteria among many Americans was not the conquest of a third of Iraq by a fanatical Sunni force, but the brutal, filmed beheading of three Americans in August, September and November 2014. This calculated ISIS insult to punish America for its aerial bombing campaign frightened Americans in ways that the terrorists' land grab in northern Iraq did not. As what can only be described as "ISISphobia" swept the nation, American politicians fell over themselves to condemn this group as a threat not only to the American mainland, but to civilization.
An analysis of discrepancies between this hyped rhetoric designed to prey on Americans' irrational fears and the actual limited nature of the ISIS threat to millions of Americans, however, shows that our country's leaders have engaged in a level of irresponsible fear mongering not seen since the Iraqi WMD hype of 2002-2003. Take for instance the following over the top, alarmist statement concerning the ISIS threat to Americans made by Republican Senator Lindsay Graham:
They [ISIS] will open the gates of hell to spill out on the world. This is not a Sunni versus Sunni problem. This is ISIL [ISIS] versus mankind. They're intending to come here, so I will not let this president suggest to the American people we can outsource our security and [that] this is not about our safety...This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.
If the fear of ISIS "coming here" to kill us all "back at home" was not enough to stir up the irrational fears of Americans from Maine to Hawaii, then the warning that ISIS fighters were planning to plant their black flag above the White House "just like Hitler" made by Sarah Palin was sure to keep paranoid Americans awake at night. According to Palin:
When Barack Obama, like the rest of us, hears these bad guys, these terrorists, promising that they will raise the flag of Allah over our White House, for the life of me, I don't know why he does not take this serious, the threat, because, yes, it's more than a vision. They're -- just like Hitler did all those years ago when a war could have been avoided because Hitler, too, did not hide his intentions -- well, ISIS -- these guys aren't hiding their intentions, either.
In a similar vein Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner stated "They [ISIS} intend to kill us."
Not to be outdone by the politicians, Fox News recently announced that "We are literally leaving the door wide open for the most dangerous militants on the planet,...The possibility that ISIS will give money to Mexican cartels to help them come over the border is very likely."
But is there any evidence to support the claims that it is "very likely" that the Iraq/Syria-based ISIS fighter-terrorists will work with the Mexican cartels to plant the "black flag of Allah" above the White House and "kills us all?" The commonsensical answer is of course a resounding no.
As it transpires, ISIS is less of a sleeper cell terrorist threat, like say Al Qaeda circa 2001, than a fighting field force trying to conquer territory inhabited by Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. The greatest threat it poses to the US mainland lies not in sending swarms of fighters across the Atlantic Ocean to attack average Americans via Mexico, but in potentially inspiring disgruntled lone wolves to carry out random attacks via its inspirational internet message.
Most importantly, the CIA estimates that there are no more than a dozen American citizens fighting in the ranks of ISIS and recent history would seem to indicate that the odds of these American fighters returning to America to carry out attacks (much less taking the White House and planting their flag on it) are slim. Take for instance the case of the more than two dozen American Muslims of Somali descent who went to wage jihad alongside the Shabab militants in Somalia. None of them ever returned to our shores to carry out mass casualty terror attacks. It is far more likely that the dozen Americans fighting in ISIS's ranks will be "martyred" in Iraq or Syria, like many of American Somali jihadists were, than they will make their way back home undetected and attack the US mainland.
So next time you hear an overwrought politician or newscaster speaking of an ISIS-organized "imminent" threat to the US mainland designed to, in Lindsay Graham's words, "open the gates of hell to spill out on the world" remember to take it with a grain (or bucket) of salt. Its more than likely that what you are hearing is not a legitimate, threat-driven, warning, but shrill alarmist rhetoric of the sort used from the 1960s McCarthy Red Scare to the 2003 hype of Iraq's non-existent nuclear weapons program designed to frighten Americans for some political agenda.
Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History at UMass Dartmouth. For his publications see his website at: brianglynwilliams.com.