SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
An act of murder and revelations of an unpaid ransom and a failed rescue attempt made Americans pay even more attention to Iraq, Syria and the group called the Islamic State this week. James Foley, an American journalist who was kidnapped on the Syrian border in 2012, was beheaded by a member of the Islamic State. They posted a video of their killing online and they taunted President Obama. When we reached Charles Sennott, the cofounder of globalpost.com, for whom Jim Foley was working when he was abducted, he spoke with affection and admiration for him.
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CHARLES SENNOTT: There's no question that Jim pushed the envelope. And I think the difference between Jim Foley and other people I know who push the envelope is that many people I know do it out of a recklessness that I don't think has much regard for the people around them. Jim Foley did this out of an absolute passion to tell the story of the people of Syria.
SIMON: This week, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, said the Islamic State poses what he called a 9/11-level threat to the United States. Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst. He studies the Islamic State and their recruitment techniques, which have already drawn people from the U.S. and Europe to join their cause. Mr. Bergen, thanks so much for being with us.
PETER BERGEN: Thank you for having me on.
SIMON: Is it the Islamic State - the administration - is it the imminent danger the administration suggests it is?
BERGEN: Well, I think there are different assessments within the administration. I think that Chuck Hagel's comments, I think, are overblown. I mean, you know, we're a much harder target. The United States is a much harder target than it was on 9/11 for all sorts of things - reasons.
First of all, you know, there were 16 people on the no-fly list on 9/11. There are, you know, 20,000 now and 700,000 in the larger database of people who are suspected of some kind of link to terrorism. The CIA and the FBI barely talked to each other before 9/11, now they're, you know, very, you know, they work together very well. The FBI had very little intelligence capabilities before 9/11, now it has 2,000 intelligence analysts. There was no TSA. There was no DHS. There was no National Counterterrorism Center. The list goes on and on and on. So, yes, Islamic State is, you know, a formidable force in Iraq. But I think, you know, a note of skepticism is warranted.
Al Qaeda and Iraq, which was the predecessor to the Islamic State, essentially the mothership from which this organization was spawned, never attacked the United States, never even attempted to do that - did attack American targets in Jordan in 2005 on two occasions, but that's it. So, you know, merely because it's a big threat in Iraq doesn't mean that it's a big threat to United States homeland.
SIMON: On the other hand, a lot of people have been alarmed by the reports that European and U.S. recruits have joined in large numbers and have the wherewithal on their passports to slip in and out of the United States and Western Europe.
BERGEN: Well, certainly it's a bigger threat in Europe. I mean, the numbers of Americans who have believed to have tried to go to Syria to fight or have actually gone is a hundred. Not all of them have joined the Islamic State or - and in fact, the government's not really clear which groups they may have joined because it's also, you know, obscure in Syria right now. But, you know, we've certainly seen, you know, 450 British citizens go to Syria. Of course, James Foley's murderer is British. And this is a, you know, obviously some pretty radical people. They do have passports that allowed them to come to United States without getting a visa or, you know, sit down interview with an American consular official. And that is - that's an issue.
But so far, we've only seen one attack in the west, attributable to a veteran of the Syrian jihad, which was the attack in late May at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, which killed four people. So, you know, it's a problem, but is it existential? No. Does it threaten Europe a lot more than United States? Yes. And I don't think there's much to be gained by sort of, you know, saying this is - the sky is falling when the sky isn't falling.
SIMON: Let me ask you. This administration has gone to court against reporters for leaking information. In your judgment, should they be speaking even guardedly about the details of what apparently was a failed rescue mission?
BERGEN: You know, I'm somewhat familiar about how that story came about. And, you know, The Washington Post certainly was on to it. And I had heard about the rescue mission before it was publically reported from various people who were in a position to know. And it was one of those things where the story was going to come out. The question was, was the Obama administration able to control it to some degree? And I think that maybe, you know, the decision was - the story is coming out. We need to take possession of it. And I don't think there's any reason to Monday morning quarterback that decision.
SIMON: And let me ask you this - obviously, airstrikes are going to continue against the Islamic State in Iraq. The reports today say that they might be expanded to Syria. When the administration indicates that no commitment of ground troops will ever be necessary, if on the one hand they've identified the Islamic State as a pernicious danger, should they rule out anything?
BERGEN: Well, you know, it's a political decision. And, I mean, the fact is that there are American soldiers in Iraq already and the embassy's asked for 300 more. So, you know, whether you call those advisers or however you call them, at the end of the day they are U.S. soldiers. So, you know, I don't think, you know, the administration is ruling out, you know - I think, large forces on the ground, but it is not ruling out - I mean, we've had special operations go into whether Yazidis were on the mountain to check out what the situation is. I mean, there are American ground forces in Iraq, however you want to call them. If you want to call them advisers as a sort of euphemism, that's fine. But the fact is, there are already boots on the ground.
SIMON: Peter Bergen, national security analyst for CNN. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.
BERGEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.