ASPEN, Colo.—The U.S. military is preparing a strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) in Iraq to prevent the al Qaeda offshoot from becoming a larger global threat, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday.
"The United States military does consider ISIL a threat to, initially to the region and our close allies, longer term to the United States of America," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said during a security conference.
"And therefore we are preparing a strategy that has a series of options to present to our elected leaders on how we can initially contain, eventually disrupt, and finally defeat ISIL over time," he said.
ISIL remains a dangerous group whose religion calls for setting up a caliphate. The group has gained credibility among other elements who view its recent successes in seizing major parts of Iraq as a key to its future.
"This is a group that has aspirations and seeks a sense of religious legitimacy," he said, noting its claim to being the political heir to the Muslim caliphate.
The group’s use of extraordinary brutality—such as mass executions and public beheadings—has allowed it to gain followers, even though its formal membership numbers around 7,000 fighters.
ISIL has used misinformation and information warfare to recruit fighters and achieve some objectives while exploiting youth and disenfranchised elements, he said.
"They’re very dangerous," Dempsey said, noting that the group is "governing in northern and western Iraq."
Dempsey did not rule out the future use of close air support against ISIL if the group becomes a more direct U.S. threat.
Ultimately, the defeat ISIL will require "pressure from multiple directions and with multiple partners," the four-star general said.
Defeating the group also will require a reliable government in Baghdad and moderate Sunnis in the region to reject ISIL, including Turks and Kurds.
"This isn’t about us deciding that ISIL is the latest in a series of threats and taking it on unilaterally," he said.
Dempsey also rejected any suggestion that the United States should cooperate with Iran against ISIL, noting that Tehran is responsible for killing many Americans during the Iraq war.
The failure of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army during the recent ISIL incursion reflects a lack of unity among the Iraqi security forces, he said.
Military leaders "did come to the conclusion that there was no reason to defend the Maliki government," he said, referring to the regime of Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki.
On Ukraine, Russian military annexation of Crimea fundamentally altered Moscow’s relations with the United States and Europe.
The Obama administration is studying whether to supply weaponry and other military support to Kiev and is bolstering security among the NATO allies who are concerned with growing Russian aggression, Dempsey said.
"I can’t define what that change means but there is a change in that relationship," he said.
Dempsey also expressed concerns about Russia’s military buildup that has included both conventional and strategic forces modernization as well as an increasing military readiness.
"They are clearly on a path to assert themselves differently not just in Europe but toward the United States," Dempsey said, noting increased strategic bomber flights by the Russian air force.
Dempsey said he fears that Russian aggression will set off a wave of pro-Russian nationalism in ethnic enclaves near Russia that could threaten the stability of the entire region.
"My fear, if I have a fear about this, is that Putin may actually light a fire that he loses control of," he said. "There’s a rising tide of nationalism, and nationalism can be a very dangerous end state and impulse."
Instead of lowering tensions, "Putin has actually taken a decision to escalate," he said.
Dempsey dismissed suggestions that a lack of U.S. leadership around the world is encouraging instability and aggression, such as China’s maritime claims in Asia.
"As to whether our deterrent value is as great as it should be, I think it is," he said.
China is pushing toward its regional objectives while the U.S. is trying to block Beijing from trying to "pick off our allies one by one," Dempsey said.
Dempsey’s comments were made during a keynote speech to the Aspen Security Forum, an annual gathering of current and former military, intelligence, and national security officials.
Earlier, Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said the greatest threats to U.S. security today emanate from Syria, where Islamist rebels have gained strength and the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has expanded insurgent operations from Syria into Iraq.
"The most dangerous threats to the American homeland emanate from Syria," Vickers said, noting that ISIL has aspirations to conduct global attacks and is in competition with other terrorists for global leadership.
John Pistole, director of the Transportation Security Administration, said the major threat to aviation today remain the non-metallic improvised explosive device carried on board by a suicide bomber or stored secretly in cargo.
The hard-to-detect bomb made with non-metal components is a "clear and present danger," Pistole said. "The non-metallic IED is our top threat," he added.
On the recent shoot-down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, Pistole said he initially suspected a suicide bomber on board had taken down the plane but eventually learned of the surface-to-air missile attack.
For U.S. airports, shoulder-fired missiles are a remote worry and the TSA has no indication that terrorists have obtained shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rockets, he said.
Nonetheless, major U.S. airports have been surveyed to gauge where a terrorist would conduct a missile attack on a commercial jet or cargo aircraft taking off or landing, he said.
TSA security is on the look out for liquid explosives that could be combined with bomb initiators that could pass through airport metal detectors, Pistole said.
Non-metal bombs can be concealed in clothing—like the so-called underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried unsuccessfully to blow up a U.S. jetliner in 2009.
Pistole said Abdulmutallab’s bomb failed because he carried it, presumably while wearing it, for two weeks and as a result the components became degraded.
Other concealed bombs can be made in cameras and laptop computers, he said.
During a session on security and liberty, Raj De, general counsel of the National Security Agency, said disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have cause damage to U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities.
"We are seeing targets communicate specifically about leaked information and indicating their intent on how they plan their communications," De said.
Also, the full extent of the damage caused by Snowden may not be known for years, he said.
De said government officials have been urged not to discuss the damage because of the ongoing criminal case against Snowden and because of concerns that public discussion will inflict further national security damage.