How the Media and Gov't Terrorize Americans About ISIS -- and Why We Shouldn't Be Scared

The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March.

On April 2, U.S. prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation made a startling announcement: two women, inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), wanted to blow up Americans.

The headlines about the plot would make anybody scared. What many media outlets don’t emphasize, though, is that this plot was encouraged by an undercover FBI informant--and that Americans were never in danger. The informant was put on the alleged plotters’ path after one of them sent a letter to a prisoner himself convicted for a plot that involved an FBI informant. The letter proclaimed her support for the Oregon man--not exactly a move a hardened terrorist would make. The undercover FBI informant bought the women, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, prepaid phones they could use without attracting law enforcement attention, and downloaded “The Anarchist Cookbook” for them.

There’s no doubt these women had bizarre, perhaps dangerous, ideas. But they were no imminent terror threat to the U.S. Their arrests, though, are sure to increase American fear of ISIS. Americans remain scared of an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack today. But that fear is not grounded in reality. The self-proclaimed Islamic State does not pose a major threat to the U.S.

Last summer was when ISIS burst into global consciousness when they overran Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, and took control of it. ISIS went on to seize Tikrit, the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown; the oil town of Baiji; Sinjar, where ISIS killed hundreds of civilians from the Yazidi religious sect; and other towns.

ISIS also began to advance towards Baghdad, the capital and seat of power for the embattled Iraqi government, though they have not come close to taking Baghdad. Today, ISIS controls a swath of territory stretching from Syria, where a raging civil war gave ISIS a chance to exert power, to Iraq. In late June, ISIS declared statehood and said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the group, was the head of a global Islamic caliphate, or a state that all Muslims are governed by. The group, whose roots trace back to the chaos after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, boasts some 30,000 fighters, with their ranks continually replenished by a stream of foreign fighters.

In response to the rise of ISIS, U.S. officials and corporate media began to pay intense attention to Iraq and Syria. In subsequent months, media coverage and U.S. statements stoked American fear of the group. A September 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that forty-seven percent of Americans though the country was not safe, a significant increase from previous years. Fueling this fear were the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

In the aftermath of the beheadings, President Barack Obama announced he would ramp up military operations in Iraq and Syria targeting the group. His speech included lines like “if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

ISIS spokespeople are bombastic and their propaganda is slick. They know how to make people afraid. But the reality is that it is very rare for Americans to die in a terrorist attack. And ISIS does not have the capabilities to strike the U.S. They pose much more of a threat to nations in North Africa and the Middle East. ISIS has killed thousands of Arabs and Muslims and committed war crimes.

But if you are an American who is not familiar with the complex politics of the Middle East, you would be scared. Listening to American officials and corporate media outlets, and reading about American journalists and aid workers being beheaded, is enough to make anybody fearful. ISIS is a fanatical group exploiting Islam to justify their atrocities. Yet it is not about to kill masses of American citizens. And many of the cases involving Americans claiming to want to blow up other Americans in the name of ISIS involved Federal Bureau of Investigation informants who egged along the nascent plots.

As the U.S. military was drawn into fighting a war in the Middle East once again, U.S. officials took to Washington, D.C. and the airwaves to spell out why ISIS was such a big threat. Obama called them a “cancer.” Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Congress last year that he had “never seen a threat like ISIL before. The comprehensive threat that ISIL represents — the sophistication, the armaments, the strategic knowledge, the funding, the capacity, the ideology — it’s new.”

In testimony before Congress in February 2015, Federal Bureau of Investigation official Michael Steinbach said “we must also consider the influence groups like ISIL have on individuals located in the United States who can be inspired to commit acts of violence. It is this blending of homegrown violent extremism with the foreign fighter ideology that is today’s latest adaptation of the threat.” And in September of this year, Republican Representative Michael McCaul said ISIS “is the biggest threat to the homeland.”

Helping this narrative grow is a compliant media.

The usual suspects in the right-wing press are leading purveyors of this fear. Fox News pundit Jeanine Pirro, a former judge, is among the most hyperbolic. In a September 2014 broadcast, Pirro claimed that ISIS is the “single biggest threat in [America’s] 200-year history”--bigger, apparently, than the threat of the Confederacy, Nazi Germany and other foes that were far more formidable than ISIS. Pirro went on to say: “If our government were listening, our borders would be closed. If our government were listening, we’d be bombing ISIS nonstop.”

Fox News has also provided a platform for right-wing politicians to merge their xenophobia, which targets immigrants, and fear-mongering over ISIS. In October, Representative Duncan Hunter told Fox’s Greta Van Susteren that “at least 10 ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the Mexican border in Texas.” It was totally false. Fox also reported that ISIS was looking into using Ebola as a biological weapon--another false story.

But it’s not just Fox News that has amped up America’s fear meter. Mainstream news outlets whose content is consumed by middle-of-the-road Americans and liberals have also spread hype about ISIS. As Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s Adam Johnson noted, media outlets like The Atlantic and Reuters reported that ISIS had ordered women in Mosul, Iraq to undergo genital mutilation. ISIS’ policies against women are indeed abhorrent. But as journalists and Middle East analysts pointed out, that story was also wrong.

What is perhaps the scariest story for Americans to hear relates to U.S. residents allegedly plotting with ISIS. Another so-called plot emerged in February of this year. Law enforcement authorities announced that two Brooklyn men wanted to travel to fight with ISIS, and another man was said to have funded and organized the trip. Two of the young Muslim men allegedly were interested in bombing Coney Island and killing President Obama. The headlines across mainstream media outlets blared out the details of the alleged plot: “3 Brooklyn Men Accused of Plot to Aid ISIS’ Fight,” wrote the New York Times.

Like many other alleged terror plots, this case involved a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant who pushed for the plot and provided resources for the men to pursue it. The informant gave one of the men, named Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, the money to buy plane tickets to fly to the Middle East. Another man, Akhror Saidakhmetov, could not travel because his mother had taken his passport away. As The Intercept’s Murtaza Husain noted, Saidakhmetov asked the FBI informant to forge travel documents for him. The informant agreed to do so. The overall picture is one of hapless young men being egged on to pursue a plot.

The headlines of U.S. residents seeking to fight for ISIS are fear inducing. ISIS, though, does not have the capability to strike the U.S--as some sober military officials point out. “We don't believe they have the capacity right now, the capability to conduct a major attack on the homeland,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby last August.

It is extremely rarer for Americans to die from terrorism overseas or at home. In 2013, 16 citizens were killed in terror attacks overseas. Three Americans were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. In fact, right-wing domestic terrorism is more deadlier than Islamist-inspired terrorism.

Americans who have successfully joined ISIS also capture a lot of attention. But U.S. officials say there is only 12 U.S. citizens in ISIS. And it’s unlikely they pose much of a threat to the U.S. Chams Eddine Zaougui and Pieter Van Ostaeyen, two scholars studying foreign jihadists in Syria, wrote in the New York Times last year that many foreign fighters want to harm those harming Muslims in Syria. Their focus in on Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator who has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

“Contrary to what many counterterrorism experts believe, however, ISIS has so far shown no interest in Western targets. The group’s overarching objective is to consolidate its dominion in the Levant, a place of great religious significance,” the scholars wrote.

The evidence is overwhelming: ISIS is not a major threat to the U.S. But the stoking of Americans’ fear of the group is not about to stop. It’s too useful a tool for the U.S. officials committed to bombing Iraq and Syria and extending the never-ending “war on terror.”


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