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Islamic State Fight Will Take Time, Diplomacy


This week on the program, we've been hearing a range of views on the threat posed by ISIS and the stated U.S. military strategy to degrade and destroy the group. Today, we're joined by Daniel Benjamin. He was the top counterterrorism official at the State Department from 2009 to 2012. Welcome to the program.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And first, I want to get your reaction to news out of Australia that we were just hearing about - the alleged plot by Islamic State supporters to carry out beheadings. Does this change your view of the threat that this group poses beyond Iraq and Syria?

BENJAMIN: Well, no. I and others have been saying from the get-go really that the greatest threat would be from home-grown extremists - from if you will self-starters. And this was exactly the kind of thing that I think the counterterrorism community has been expecting. There are going to be extremists who are going to be inspired to act up. But it's not the same as saying that the Islamic State is a threat here at home.

BLOCK: Well, let me ask you about that. Because in terms of the language used to describe the threat the Islamic State poses to this country, we've heard Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel call it an imminent threat beyond anything we've seen. We've heard the Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey talk about their apocalyptic end-of-days strategy. In your view, are those descriptions justified? Are they accurate?

BENJAMIN: Well, I think that Secretary Hagel was a little bit off his points when he said that. And I don't think that's true. And I - you know, the administration when it has had either Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson or the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, out there. Their message has been quite different, which is there is no imminent plotting. They've detected nothing about conspiracies against the U.S. at home.

I do think that they have a fairly apocalyptic ideology. But that's not the same as saying that they're going to be coming to the United States anytime soon. And there's been no shortage of congressional and press voices saying they are. But I don't think that that's borne out by the available information.

BLOCK: Well, as you consider the threat posed by the Islamic State in the region in Iraq and Syria - and if you think about the U.S. military strategy that's been laid out to counter that - what is your thinking? Do you feel that that is commensurate with the risk? Does it have a chance of success if the idea is to degrade and destroy the Islamic State?

BENJAMIN: I think that the strategy is a sound one. The implementation is going to be the challenge as is so often the case. We will make some progress from the air. But the amount of progress we make will depend in large measure on how effective we are in building up this coalition - getting the Iraqis back into the fight. So I do think there is a good prospect for success. But it will take some time. And it will take some very deft diplomacy.

BLOCK: We did hear earlier this week on the program from retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey, who said he figured that it might take 8,000 to 10,000 U.S. Special Operations forces. If you want to destroy the enemy, as he put it, that means putting a sizable presence on the ground. What do you think about that?

BENJAMIN: I think it would be a real policy mistake to go in that direction. I think that as we have seen over and over again, there are real dangers that accompany the deployment of U.S. forces. Unfortunately, while they're very effective, that will have a radicalizing effect. And attacks on U.S. forces as we saw in the early days in Iraq will have a powerful effect in terms of recruitment and energizing those supporters.

So I think that would be a big mistake. I also question whether the kind of complete destruction of ISIS that seems to be envisioned by those kinds of remarks is a strategic necessity. You know, we have now gone 13 years since 9/11. There are terrorists - extremists in the field in a lot of different places. It's beyond the capacity of the United States government to eliminate all of them.

And I think it's time that we learned to live with a world that has a certain amount of risk to it. We have spent billions and billions of dollars on intelligence collection and homeland security. If we couple that with an understanding that not all those extremists are capable or interested in coming to the United States, then I think we get a more realistic sense of the picture and of our own ability to cope with it.

BLOCK: Daniel Benjamin, thanks for talking with us.

BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Daniel Benjamin is former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism. He's now director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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