9/11-style terror unlikely, but small attacks can cause a lot of damage - Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama © Yuri Gripas
President Barack Obama addressed the nation about American efforts against Islamic State after meeting with the National Security Council at the Pentagon. He touted the success of fighting IS on the ground, but showed concern for attacks in Europe and the US.

Obama’s meeting with the NSC was to help him assess what is working and what isn’t working in the campaign against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), which began with airstrikes in Syria and Iraq in September 2014. Iraq’s government, with significant “advise and consent” help from the US, is currently preparing a major offensive in Mosul, a northern city IS has controlled since June 2014.

Although the US-led coalition and its on-the-ground partners in Iraq and Syria have made gains in both countries, “the situation is complex and this cannot be solved by military force alone,” Obama said, noting that the coalition approved $2 billion in funding in July “to help Iraqis stabilize and rebuild their communities,” which includes military aid that is matched by “humanitarian and political efforts to protect civilians and promote inclusive governance and development so ISIL cannot return by exploiting divisions or new grievances.”

“It should be clear by now, and no one knows this better than our military leaders, that even as we need to crush ISIL on the battlefield, their military defeat will not be enough,” the president said. “So long as their twisted ideology persists and drives people to violence, then groups like ISIL will keep emerging, and the international community will continue to be at risk in getting sucked into the kind of global whack-a-mole where we’re always reacting to the latest threat or lone actor.”

With IS is losing ground in their so-called caliphate, unable to regain any ground taken by Iraqi and Syrian forces over the last year, they are turning instead to the internet, Obama noted. There the terrorist group hopes to inspire lone-wolf attacks, similar to what happened in San Bernardino, California in December or Orlando, Florida in June.

IS and similar terrorist groups are “less concerned about big, spectacular 9/11-style attacks because they’ve seen the degree of attention they can get with smaller-scale attacks using small arms or assault rifles or ‒ in the case of Nice, France ‒ a truck,” Obama said, so “the possibility of either a lone actor or a small cell carrying out an attack that kills people is real.”

The intelligence community is working around the clock, the president said, to gather information about potential attacks or people who might be “vulnerable to brainwashing by ISIL.” However, he added, “we are constrained here in the United States to carry out this war in a way that’s consistent with our laws and presumptions of innocence. And the fact that we prevent a lot of these attacks as effectively as we do, without a lot of fanfare and abiding by our law, is a testament to the incredible work that these folks are doing.”

Obama also cited a New York Times article about a person in Germany who confessed to being a member of IS and gave insight into how its networks work. According to this person, he said, “ISIL recognizes it’s harder to get its operatives into the United States,” but that our lax gun laws make “a homegrown extremist strategy more attractive to them.”

The president then compared the active IS networks in Europe to what’s happening in the US, noting that part of the reason that Americans are seeing far fewer attacks is because Muslims have been far more welcomed here, and that the “Muslim-American community... is extraordinarily patriotic and largely successful,” and they are raising their children with “love of country and rejection of violence. And that has to be affirmed consistently.”

“If we screw that up, then we’re going to have bigger problems,” he added, a subtle dig at Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump who has seemingly gone out of his way to offend the Muslim community. Trump’s ideas, the president hinted, will cause us to lose the battle against IS.

“We can defeat ourselves... if we make bad decisions,” Obama said. Those bad decisions include “indiscriminately killing civilians” or “instituting offensive religious tests on who can enter the country ‒ those kind of strategies can end up backfiring because, in order for us to ultimately win this fight, we cannot frame this as a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. That plays into the hands of ISIL and the perverse interpretations of Islam that they’re putting forward.”

Obama did refer to Trump by name when asked about his comments on Tuesday that “the Republican nominee is unfit to be president.” He also answered questions about other topics that have made headlines this week, including that the US shipped $400 million in foreign currencies to Iran on the same day that four Americans were released by Tehran. The president laughed that the story was treated as “some nefarious deal,” pointing out that the payment was announced in January and was related to financial assets that the US had frozen in 1979. The agreement to pay Iran had nothing to do with the hostages, he said.

“The only bit of news that is relevant on this is the fact that we paid cash,” Obama said. “The reason we had to give them cash is precisely because we are so strict in maintaining sanctions ‒ and we do not have a banking relationship with Iran ‒ that we couldn’t send them a check and we could not wire them money… We had to give them cash.”

Obama also discussed the campaigns against IS in Afghanistan and Libya. On Monday, the president authorized a bombing campaign in Libya, at the behest of the current Libyan government, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA). On Tuesday, that authorization was extended into a 30-day mission of US airstrikes in Libya against IS.