WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Thursday that the Islamic State is now more dangerous than al-Qaida ever was, and raised the possibility airstrikes might be launched against the group in Syria.
The Islamic State, which has taken over much of Iraq since June, “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology [with] a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday.
RELATED STORY, PHOTO GALLERY: Displaced in Iraq: Destitute, fearful, hopeful the US will continue airstrikes
The Pentagon chief described the group as an “imminent threat” and warned Americans not to be complacent just because the militants are fighting far from the United States.
“I doubt if there were many people that would have thought there was much of a threat [to the homeland] the day before 9/11,” he said.
Officials have warned that Westerners who traveled to the Middle East to fight on the Islamic State’s behalf could return to their home countries and carry out attacks.
“It’s an immediate threat; that is to say, the fighters who may leave the current fight and migrate home,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who appeared at the same press conference.
Since Aug. 8, the American military has launched 90 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, the majority of which were conducted in recent days near the Mosul Dam in support of Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga ground operations against the militants.
Hagel was asked if the Obama administration would consider launching strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, where they are fighting the government of President Bashar Assad.
“We’re looking at all options,” he replied.
Dempsey said the Islamic State cannot be beaten as long as they enjoy a relative safe haven in Syria.
“Can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no,” he said. “That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.”
But America’s top military officer said that defeating the Islamic State will require “a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is airstrikes.” He suggested that bombing militant targets in Syria might be done by partners in the region, rather than the U.S.
“I’m not predicting those [airstrikes] will occur in Syria, at least not by the United States of America,” he said.
Hagel said American airstrikes in Iraq over the past two weeks have “stalled” the Islamic State momentum and enabled Iraqi and Kurdish forces to “regain their footing and take the initiative.”
But he expects the militants to strike back.
“We should expect [the Islamic State] to regroup and stage new offensives. And the U.S. military’s involvement is not over,” he said.
The secretary also acknowledged that the Pentagon might have to ask for more money to take on the group.
Hagel’s remarks came the day after the U.S. confirmed that special operations forces tried earlier this summer to rescue American hostages held by Islamic State fighters in Syria, including journalist James Foley. But the hostages were no longer at the target location. On Tuesday, the militants released a video showing Foley’s beheading.
“Jim Foley’s murder was another tragic demonstration of the ruthless, barbaric ideology” of the Islamic State, Hagel said.
“We all regret that mission did not succeed. But I’m very proud, very proud of the U.S. forces that participated in it. And the United States will not relent our efforts to bring our citizens home and their captors to justice,” he said.