While the world focuses on the military advances ISIS has made in western Iraq, U.S. officials and terrorism experts point across the border to Syria, where the radical Islamist militia has consolidated recent gains and maybe forming a “safe haven” from which terror attacks against Western targets could be launched.
"In recent weeks, ISIS has consolidated its control over a large area in eastern Syria, where it has established a safe haven, from which external operations can be planned," said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official.
Mosul, Iraq may be the city where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly proclaimed the existence of a new Islamic state, or “caliphate,” but the capital of his domain is Raqqa, in eastern Syria. The city of 220,000 is where ISIS is at its strongest, and also the place that officials and experts fear could serve as a base of operations for terrorists.
"The Sunni region of Iraq remains an active and chaotic battlefield for the most part, while there are areas of eastern Syria which have become secure redoubts for both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusrah (the al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria) and serve as home to fixed training camps, bases, and headquarters for these jihadi groups," said Evan Kohlmann of Flashpoint Intelligence, an NBC News analyst. "It is these locations, such as the city of Raqqa, that present the most serious potential terrorist threat to Western countries including the United States."
Until recently, ISIS and al-Nusrah, the two most powerful Islamist groups in the Syrian resistance, had been battling for dominance in the region. About nine months ago, they had a falling out over tactics. Al Qaeda central objected to the wanton killing of Shia Muslim civilians by ISIS, and reminded the Islamic world that it supported al-Nusrah, its local affiliate.
In the past few weeks, however, ISIS has consolidated its control over Eastern Syria, even if that ascendance.
"There is always a lot of back and forth on gains between ISIS and Nusrah," said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and an NBC News analyst. "Certainly ISIS feels even more secure in eastern Syria than it does in Iraq and in that regard it shows that the fight against ISIS must clearly be a transborder one."
The question for U.S. intelligence in this mix is the intentions of ISIS -- particularly its leader, al-Baghdadi, who has called for attacks on the west and U.S. As of yet, he hasn't carried them out, perhaps because he is too busy with the fight in Iraq and the establishment of the caliphate, said one U.S. counter-terrorism official.
Still, says the official, there is growing concern about the ambitions of al-Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awad al-Badry. As one U.S. official said, he is certainly ambitious enough to name himself caliph, official political successor to the Prophet Muhammad. And the violence he has reaped across the two countries, killing thousands in the last year alone speaks to his ruthlessness. Moreover, U.S. officials note that al Baghdadi was captured and held by the U.S. military for ten months in 2004. From February through December, he was a prisoner at Camp Bucca near Basra in southern Iraq. Officials are reviewing records to determine if there's anything to be gleaned about his intentions.
Officials say there is already intelligence that some radical groups in eastern Syria, not necessarily either ISIS or al-Nusrah, have reached out to bombmakers in Yemen, asking for help in sophisticated bomb-making, but perhaps signaling a more expansive role beyond the current battlefield.
The U.S. is limited in what it can do as long as it retains its policy of not conducting military operations in Syria or Iraq, but Kohlmann suggests that if there is intelligence of planning, the U.S. may be forced to act.
"Any serious effort to strike at the ability of ISIS to launch attacks on the United States would almost certainly have to focus on these areas as much (if not more so) than Iraqi territory."