Islamic State threat 'beyond anything we've seen': Pentagon

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Islamic State threat 'beyond anything we've seen': Pentagon
FILE - This Dec. 7, 2011 file photo shows former U.S. Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy, preparing for a bilateral meeting in Beijing, China. Flournoy, formerly the Pentagon's policy chief and among President Obama's more hawkish advisers, could be in line to become the first woman to lead the U.S. military after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's resignation. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 15: Gen. David Petraeus (R), commander of the International Security Assistance Force and commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy (L) testify during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 15, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Petraeus is in Washington to give his assessment of military progress that would allow the U.S. to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 24: Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michele Flournoy testifies during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill September 24, 2009 in Washington, DC. The hearing was to focus on President Barack Obama's decision on missile defense in Europe. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 22: U.S. Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michele Flournoy speaks during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee February 22, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Flournoy briefed members of the committee on the Operation Moshtarak in Helmand Province of Afghanistan. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
FILE - In this March 16, 2011 file photo, Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Flournoy, the most senior female Pentagon official in history, told The Associated Press on Monday she is stepping down as the chief policy adviser to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks to members of 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. on Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. Wary of a more muscular Russia and China, Hagel said Saturday the Pentagon will make a new push for fresh thinking about how the U.S. can keep and extend its military superiority despite tighter budgets and the wear and tear of 13 years of war. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, not shown, views members of 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, maneuvering in the mock village of Razish at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. on Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014. Wary of a more muscular Russia and China, Hagel said Saturday the Pentagon will make a new push for fresh thinking about how the U.S. can keep and extend its military superiority despite tighter budgets and the wear and tear of 13 years of war. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks at the Airman's Event during his visit to Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. The Pentagon will spend an additional $10 billion to correct deep problems of neglect and mismanagement within the nation's nuclear forces, Hagel declared Friday, pledging firm action to support the men and women who handle the world's most powerful and deadly weapons. (AP Photo/Kevin Cederstrom)
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ends his speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum 'Building Peace Through Strength for American Security' event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California, on November 15, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Reagan National Defense Forum 'Building Peace Through Strength for American Security' event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California, on November 15, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Reagan National Defense Forum 'Building Peace Through Strength for American Security' event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California, on November 15, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey hold a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, August 21, 2014. Hagel warned that the Islamic State is more than a traditional 'terrorist group' and better armed, trained and funded than any recent threat. 'They marry ideology and a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded. This is beyond anything we have seen,' Hagel told reporters. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel holds a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, August 21, 2014. Hagel warned that the Islamic State is more than a traditional 'terrorist group' and better armed, trained and funded than any recent threat. 'They marry ideology and a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded. This is beyond anything we have seen,' Hagel told reporters. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SIRNAK, TURKEY - AUGUST 20: Iraqi Yazidis, fled from the attacks of army groups led by Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIL, take shelter to schools in Sirnak, Turkey on 20 August, 2014. (Photo by Huseyin Bagis/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama speaks in Edgartown, Mass., Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, about the killing of American journalist James Foley by militants with the Islamic State extremist group. The president said the US will continue to confront Islamic State extremists despite the brutal murder of journalist James Foley. Obama said the entire world is "appalled" by Foley's killing. The president says he spoke Wednesday with Foley's family and offered condolences. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama speaks in Edgartown, Mass., Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, about the killing of American journalist James Foley by militants with the Islamic State extremist group. The president said the US will continue to confront Islamic State extremists despite the brutal murder of journalist James Foley. Obama said the entire world is "appalled" by Foley's killing. The president says he spoke Wednesday with Foley's family and offered condolences. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in Edgartown, Mass., Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, about the killing of American journalist James Foley by militants with the Islamic State extremist group. The president said the US will continue to confront Islamic State extremists despite the brutal murder of journalist James Foley. Obama said the entire world is "appalled" by Foley's killing. The president says he spoke Wednesday with Foley's family and offered condolences. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Diane and John Foley talk to reporters after speaking with U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 outside their home in Rochester, N.H. Their son, James Foley was abducted in November 2012 while covering the Syrian conflict. Islamic militants posted a video showing his murder on Tuesday and said they killed him because the U.S. had launched airstrikes in northern Iraq. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
John and Diane Foley talk to reporters after speaking with U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 outside their home in Rochester, N.H. Their son, James Foley was abducted in November 2012 while covering the Syrian conflict. Islamic militants posted a video showing his murder on Tuesday and said they killed him because the U.S. had launched airstrikes in northern Iraq. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Diane and John Foley talk to reporters after speaking with U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014 outside their home in Rochester, N.H. Their son, James Foley was abducted in November 2012 while covering the Syrian conflict. Islamic militants posted a video showing his murder on Tuesday and said they killed him because the U.S. had launched airstrikes in northern Iraq. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
US President Barack Obama makes a statement at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, on August 20, 2014. The United States has carried out more air strikes in Iraq, a senior US defense official said, as Islamic militants threaten to execute a second US journalist. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Friday, May 27, 2011, file photo, journalist James Foley responds to questions during an interview with The Associated Press, in Boston. A video by Islamic State militants that purports to show the killing of Foley by the militant group was released Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014. Foley, from Rochester, N.H., went missing in 2012 in northern Syria while on assignment for Agence France-Press and the Boston-based media company GlobalPost. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
FILE - In this May 27, 2011 file photo, American journalist James Foley, of Rochester, N.H., who was last seen on Nov. 22 2012 in northwest Syria, poses for a photo in Boston. Foley's family plans to mark his 40th birthday with a plea for his safe return. His parents, John and Diane Foley, will lead a prayer vigil Friday evening, Oct. 17, 2013 at a church in Rochester. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Parents of kidnapped journalist James Foley, Diane Foley and John Foley appear on NBC News' 'Today' show -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
DIYALA, IRAQ - AUGUST 22: Iranian soldiers hit army groups led by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to give support to peshmergas who fights with ISIL in Diyala, Iraq on 22 August, 2014. Peshmergas struggle to recapture Diyala from army groups led by ISIL. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - NOVEMBER 14: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announces a series of reforms to the troubled nuclear force during a press briefing at the Pentagon November 14, 2014 in Arlington, Virginia. The measures are designed to shore up the US military's troubled nuclear force after a spate of incidents exposed management and morale problems. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) testifies beside Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey (R), during the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Obama administration's strategy and military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), at Capitol Hill in Washington DC, United States on November 13, 2014. (Photo by Erkan Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testifies before the House Armed Services Committee about the ongoing fight against the group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIL) in the Rayburn House Office Building November 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. The United States military continues to bomb ISIL targets in both Iraq and Syria and plans to double the number of American troops in Iraq to 3,000. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is greeted as he arrives for a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill November 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. The committee will hold the hearing about the United State's response to the Islamic State(IS) group's activities in Iraq and Syria. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - NOVEMBER 11: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attends the Veterans Day Ceremony at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. on November 11, 2014. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (R) listens as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to members of the news media before a meeting with Hagel and other members of the president's cabinet at the White House November 7, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama talked about the positive economic news and what priorities his administration will be focused on after last Tuesday's election, where the Republicans won a decisive victory in local, state and national races. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel arrives for a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, November 11, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attends a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, November 11, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 11: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel waves to veterans and guests after speaking at a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial November 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Originally established as Armistice Day in 1919, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 by President Dwight Eisenhower, and honors those who have served in the U.S. military. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - NOVEMBER 11: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (C) speaks at the Veterans Day Ceremony at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. on November 11, 2014. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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BY MISSY RYAN

(Reuters) - The sophistication, wealth and military might of Islamic State militants represent a major threat to the United States that may surpass that once posed by al Qaeda, U.S. military leaders said on Thursday.

"They are an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.

Hagel's assessment of Islamic State, which gained strength during Syria's civil war and swept into northern Iraq earlier this summer, sounded a note of alarm several days after the group posted a video on social media showing one of its fighters beheading an American hostage kidnapped in Syria.

Asked if the hardline Sunni Muslim organization posed a threat to the United States comparable to that of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hagel said it was "as sophisticated and well-funded as any group we have seen."

"They are beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of ... military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything we've seen."

Hagel spoke as the United States continued attacking Islamic State targets in Iraq. In the past two weeks, U.S. drones and fighter jets have conducted 89 airstrikes against militant targets in northern Iraq.

So far, President Barack Obama has sought to limit his renewed military campaign in Iraq to protecting American diplomats and civilians under direct threat. Obama ended the war in Iraq that killed thousands of American soldiers and consumed U.S. foreign policy for nearly a decade.

Even after the gruesome killing of U.S. journalist James Foley, Obama is seen as unlikely to deepen his near-term military involvement in either Iraq or Syria as he seeks to avoid becoming embroiled in another messy Middle Eastern conflict.

But U.S. officials say they have not ruled out escalating military action against Islamic State, which has increased its overt threats against the United States since the air campaign in Iraq began.

'APOCALYPTIC, END-OF-DAYS VISION'

"We haven't made a decision to take additional actions at this time, but we truly don't rule out additional action against ISIL if it becomes warranted," Ben Rhodes, a senior Obama aide, told National Public Radio earlier on Thursday, using another name for Islamic State.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said officials were worried about the possibility that European or U.S. nationals, radicalized after fighting in Iraq or Syria, would return to their home countries.

Dempsey suggested Islamic State would remain a danger until it could no longer count on safe havens in areas of Syria under militant control.

"This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of- days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated," Dempsey said.

"To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a non-existent border."

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and David Alexander; Editing by Peter Cooney)


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