Obama Finally Gives Credit To ISIS’ True Threat

He once described the group as a local and regional problem, but the President is now admitting how hard it will be to defeat ISIS

Jul 07, 2015 at 12:11 PM ET

In an interview with the New Yorker published in January 2014, President Obama suggested that an al-Qaeda flag flying in the Iraqi city of Fallujah had less to do with the global reach of a Osama bin Laden-style terror operation, and more to do with “jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

“[H]ow we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into,” Obama said at the time.

Only months later, al-Qaeda in Iraq became the Islamic State, captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, and declared an Islamic caliphate that stretched from the Syrian city of Raqqa to not far from Baghdad’s city limits. Its head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who once spent a little over a year in U.S. military detention in Iraq, named himself caliph, and cast his net worldwide for people to come join, live, and fight in this new territory. And now, just after the group marked the one-year anniversary of that caliphate, Obama was at the Pentagon acknowledging publicly just how sophisticated ISIS operations have become, and how difficult it will be to force the group from the land it occupies.

“This will not be quick. This is a long-term campaign. ISIL is opportunistic, and it is nimble,” Obama told reporters at the Pentagon Monday, using another acronym for the group, which is also called the Islamic State. “In many places in Syria and Iraq, including urban areas, it’s dug in among innocent civilian populations. It will take time to root them out.”

The president’s comments highlighted the U.S.’ gradual recognition of the reality on the ground regarding ISIS, not just in Iraq and Syria but increasingly around the world. Over the past year the group, once considered containable, has attracted international affiliates, inspired lone wolves to attack in its name in Western countries and taken full advantage of a stagnant Iraqi political climate that continues to serve its interest.

Obama acknowledged Monday that the disenfranchisement of Iraq’s Sunnis has played a significant role in allowing ISIS to establish a presence and prosper. “They have filled a void, and we have to make sure that as we push them out, that void is filled,” he said. One solution the administration is relying on is the Iraqi government’s recruitment of Sunnis to its military ranks. But that will not be an easy task. Long disaffected and largely excluded from Iraq’s current security forces, Sunnis dominate ISIS’ leadership, and as Vocativ has previously reported, many Sunni tribal leaders have pledged loyalty to ISIS.

The challenge of filling that void with multisectarian forces and ensuring that a central government actively pursues national reconciliation and unity is only part of the monumental effort required to counter ISIS’ reach. The president recognized Monday the group’s ability to influence spheres beyond Iraqi cities and regional allies, and to bring its violent message into the U.S. itself.

“ISIL has been particularly effective at reaching out to and recruiting vulnerable people around the world, including here in the United States,” he said.  “And they are targeting Muslim communities around the world.  Numerous individuals have been arrested across the country for plotting attacks or attempting to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq.” He referred to the May shooting attack in Garland, Texas, in which two men claiming to have been inspired by ISIS attempted to attack a community center hosting a drawing contest of the Prophet Mohammed.

ISIS’ sophisticated propaganda machine and its ability to draw financing from around the world and to exploit oil and gas resources in the land it conquers have made it a much more significant foe than the administration initially described when the President authorized the U.S. bombing campaign against it in August of last year. Since then, there have been nearly 5,000 air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, more than $2.9 billion spent at an average of $9 million a day, and the return of more than 3,000 U.S. troops to Iraq.

Obama called ISIS propaganda “twisted thinking that draws in vulnerable people into their ranks,” but Vocativ analysis has shown the group’s savvy in appealing to regular citizens, promising free healthcare and food, along with attracting the foreigners who come to fight and often become suicide bomber fodder in ISIS military campaigns.

An international coalition is now working together to “smother nascent ISIL cells that may be trying to develop in other parts of the world,” Obama said. Lone wolf attacks were harder to detect. “We’re going to have to pick up our game to prevent these attacks.”

But while acknowledging ISIS’ gains on the ground and globally, the President said the group had lost a quarter of the territory it had held in Iraq when it was defeated in Tikrit. Yet with the recent capture of the ancient city of Palmyra, the group now is said to control half of Syria. Its fluidity on the ground, despite the punishing air strikes, means that the President was right about at least one thing, that any defeat of ISIS will “be difficult. It will take time.”