I decide to do a little fact checking and statistical analysis to get a better sense of how dangerous actually is to Americans. Is the threat of terrorists activity in the US real? Does ISIS or ISIL pose other threats to the US?
First, a bit of background.
The terrorist group called ISIS by the media now call themselves the Islamic State. Originally they were known as ISIL, which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Later they called themselves ISIS, which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The group is one in the same. The acronyms are based on the Arabic translations and mean roughly the same thing. President Obama calls them ISIL which is the term much of the world uses most frequently.
They claim to be a sovereign nation, thus Islamic State, however no government recognizes them as a nation.
The group is not Iraqi nor is it Syrian. They control some areas in Iraq, although claim much more control than they actually have.
How many members does ISIS have?
The exact membership is unknown. A human rights organization say the numbers might be as high as 50,000 in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq.
The CIA estimates (as of September 2014) between 20,000 members and 31,500 members.
However, the actual number of individuals identified definitively as working with ISIS is approximately 4000 people.
That sounds like a lot of people… But let's put it into perspective.
Using the largest estimate of ISIS members in Iraq, 30,000, and comparing that to the population of 35 million, this means that ISIS is only eight hundredths of a percent of the population. (Yes, that's 0.08%)
ISIS has guns
Why are they so influential? Because they have guns, and lots of them. Even in a war riddled society there are very few guns in Iraq comparatively.
In Pennsylvania there are approximately 1.5 guns per household (according to the NRA). The vast majority are small caliber handguns for self-defense, and hunting rifles. PA also has a well armed police force with approximately 2-3 guns per officer.
In most countries even police officers don't carry a side arm. I'm not sure about Iraq, but their police force is well known to be under-equipped and understaffed.
For this reason, it would take very little effort to "control" a region.
The largest city the Islamic State has captured is Mosul with a little over 600,000 people. For perspective, this is roughly the size of Charlotte, North Carolina.
ISIS has money
They claim to be a religious organization, however an analysis done by RAND Corporation suggests that only 5% of their total wealth has come from donations.
Approximately 20% came from kidnapping, drug and prostitution rings kicking back similar to street gangs or organized crime families.
Once they capture an area, they claim ownership, regardless of who owns the actual land. The majority of their income came from oil profits as they took over leases illegally. Unfortunately, demand for oil doesn't diminish simply because we no longer like the landlord. Additionally, the US doesn't purchase oil from them, but China, Russia and India continue to pay.
Last but not least, the biggest single source of their wealth was one bank robbery. Specifically, in Mosul National Bank held approximately $420 million in US currency and gold bullion. When they overpowered the region, they looted the National Bank.
Just a street gang?
So basically, ISIS or "Islamic State" as they refer to themselves (they claim to be the rightful rulers of all Islam) are little more than a well-funded and well armed street gang.
Their membership of 30,000 in Iraq essentially are small groups of street thugs who rely racketeering, petty crime and kidnapping. Then 20% gets kicked up to the true terrorists.
Most of their wealth came from a one time bank robbery, and looting.
Here's what ISIS says, and what is reality.
They claim control over it virtually all of Iraq and Syria. In reality they have street-level control over many of the smaller towns through Iraq and heavy social influence in their so-called capital of Syria.
They provide some basic services to little towns and Syria such as road repairs and welfare systems. This is similar to the way the Mafia would win favor in ethnic neighborhoods of New York in the early 1900s. In exchange, they claim ownership of areas and bleed the residents slowly.
They've taken advantage of unpopular wars in Iraq and Syria. During those times, there is a void in leadership that can be manipulated.
This void in leadership was frequently exploited by organized crime in the US. The 1890's New York City and the 1920's in Chicago, and the early 1990's in Los Angeles.
Are they dangerous to America?
Yes and no. They do publicity stunts like beheading journalists and humanitarian workers so the media concentrates on them. Certainly Americans in Iraq or Syria are likely targets. First, they would try kidnapping for ransom. While they love the news footage, they can easily be bought off. Unfortunately, American foreign-policy doesn't publicly allow ransom payments. Privately kidnapping is still generally successful, however the US State Department is clamping down because of the massive bank robbery. This minor street gang is now overly funded. This, plus ISIS has become rather egotistical, which is the first sign of downfall. They are demanding extremely large ransom payments comparatively.
Individually, Americans are at risk, particularly when living/working in the middle east, nationally we have nothing to fear.
The decision makers of ISIS are few, perhaps 10% of the 4000 dedicated fighters.
Eradicating ISIS would be relatively easy for the US military. The problem is, to do it rapidly, with catch many people in the crossfire and further damage our standing in the world. Because of this, the best course of action is to support the Iraqi government.
One report from a former CIA agent suggests that reducing the leadership structure of ISIS to the point of destruction would mean eliminating 20% of the 400 or so leaders of ISIS. America could topple ISIS by killing as few as 80 key people. The same former agent implied, but did not say explicitly, that the CIA probably has more operatives in Iraq than ISIS has leaders.
The Syria problem
The biggest problem is Syria. ISIS is based in Syria, and the Syrian regime is not friendly with the US at all. They have been ruthless in their elimination of rebellion. The Syrian government would happily blow ISIS off the map, but the United States can't be seen supporting mass murder of millions of innocents in the crossfire.
Removing them from Iraq is possible, but it's unlikely to happen in Syria in the near future.
Assad, the current regime in Syria, has already used chemical weapons on one of their own towns to eliminate what was presumed as an ISIS rebellion. The US has condemned the actions, even though we likely benefited from it.
Which is more dangerous, Baghdad or Los Angeles?
The highest estimate of Isis across the entire country of Iraq is 30,000 members.
The largest street gang in America MS-13 has roughly 1.4 million members in 167 metropolitan areas.
The Latin Kings are the largest street gang in Los Angeles, and are estimated at 30,000 members whom are active.
Street gangs aren't in hiding. In fact, they clearly mark their territory with cans of spray paint and identify their members with tattoos.
ISIS is hiding, claiming much more power than they actually have.
Yes, the Latin Kings and MS 13 are two impressive organized crime gangs. No one, expects them to take over the United States. They won't even try. They don't claim any particular ideology other than fraternity. They wouldn't dare, because the powers of Los Angeles would rain down upon them.
Instead, they and the other 10 major street gangs divvy up organized crime and neighborhoods, and rarely step on each other's toes because everyone is earning.
By the way, to this day the single largest organization in America affiliated with criminal activity is Hells Angels. Hells Angels hasn't been a serious threat since the 60s. Today, they are criminally funded motorcycle club. It's estimated that the Hell's Angels motorcycle club has more than 1.6 million members and are still active in over 100 cities.
To put ISIS in perspective they are a street gang, a collection of thugs, preying on the disgruntled and disenfranchised young men in two countries riddled by war.
Their time will come. They will slink back into the shadows soon enough. Capone ran Chicago. Boss Tweed and his cronies pushed New York around. The Latin Kings, 18th St. gang, and MS 13 will make their livings and try not to start a war among themselves or with the LAPD. There's the Triad in Tokyo, street gangs of London, the IRA in Dublin and a wide variety of other local thugs that rise to power, then gradually collapse.
ISIS has been around since 2006. In the life of a street gang, they are still just babies, flexing their teenage muscles.
Yes, ISIS has murdered at least 5 people publicly. For comparison sake, the city of Los Angeles had 1,100 murders in a single year, 2006, the same year ISIS was launched. In the past 12 months there has been just over 500 murders in LA so far, a 10 year low. Even though crime is down dramatically, you are still 10,000% more likely to be killed by a gang banger in LA this year than by ISIS ever.
They are vocal and ruthless, but in the big picture ISIS has very little power. The tendency for those with little power is to talk big until they wake up the wrong people, and they get smacked down.
My suspicion is that Halliburton could probably kick their ass in a heartbeat. It isn't ISIS we should fear. Real fear should be reserved for defense contractors, big banks and energy companies who could do much more to damage America than a bunch of thugs in black pajamas.
Conclusions about ISIS
In summary, ISIS is a band of street thugs and organized crime that has managed to get the attention of TV media, newspapers, and even President Obama. All of which, by the way, have benefited from reporting on and protecting you from this "great evil".
Sadly, the people who suffer are the 35,000,000 people in Iraq whom still have very little central leadership. The people who suffer are the 1.7 billion people who are Islamic and have the burden of watching terrorists and thugs smear their faith. The people who suffer are the ones who live in cities and towns that have tremendous value to governments and corporations, but whom value the residents with little or no compassion.
Sources: CIA factbook, Los Angeles Times, RAND Corporation, BBC, various news sources and commentaries. If you have more sources or find anything above to be inaccurate, please make notes and add sources below.