Politics & Policy

Obama’s Costly Refusal to Understand the ISIS Threat

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Two years after he dismissed them as they ‘JV’ team, they’re inspiring attacks al-Qaeda never could.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” — President Obama on ISIS, January 2014

By now, it seems clear that President Obama’s infamous description of ISIS to The New Yorker’s David Remnick is the most spectacularly wrong statement he’s uttered in the last eight years.

ISIS-inspired Islamists have launched four terror attacks on American soil in the past 13 months: the Garland, Texas attack on a “draw Mohammed” contest, the Chattanooga shooting that killed four Marines and a Navy sailor, the San Bernardino attack that killed 14 people and injured 22 more, and now Orlando, where one gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 others.

The frequency of these attacks is increasing late on Obama’s watch, but they are not a new phenomenon. There were intermittent “lone-wolf” terror attacks during the Bush years. On July 4, 2002, a 41-year-old Egyptian national killed two Israelis and wounded four others at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport. In 2006, UNC-Chapel Hill student Mohammed Taheri-azar drove an SUV into a group of pedestrians “to avenge the killings of Muslims by the U.S. across the world.” That same year, Pakistani-American Naveed Haq killed one woman and wounded five others at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.

But as the dominant Islamist terror group of that era, al-Qaeda mostly put its focus and efforts into large-scale attacks. They even developed a “signature” of simultaneous attacks. It was a high-risk, high-reward approach. When it worked, as it did on 9/11, the result made the infidel superpower appear more vulnerable, and more beatable, than ever before. But large, complicated plots involved more people, required more planning and more time, and created more opportunities for mistakes that could alert police or intelligence agencies. Al-Qaeda’s insistence on such plots made their attacks more predictable, and thus easier to foil.

RELATED: Obama’s Increasingly Surreal War on ISIS

As 9/11 receded into history, Islamists not formally affiliated with al-Qaeda demonstrated that they didn’t need a big group, enormous resources, or time in an Afghan training camp to kill or injure lots of Americans. In 2009, the Fort Hood shooter killed 13 people and injured 29 others. In 2013, the two Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 180.

Enter ISIS, which aims to do two things al-Qaeda never could.

#share#First, as revealed in their name, they see themselves as a state and control territory. As Graeme Wood described in a widely praised Atlantic article, we know that this state “rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.”

And they use their control of territory and resources to promote those core principles through the creation and dissemination of propaganda that would sicken the most strong-stomached horror-movie fans. Al-Qaeda occasionally videotaped and released individual beheadings; ISIS broadcasts the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in one sitting. In their videos, bombs blow off prisoners’ heads, gays get thrown off buildings, and Christians get crucified. A group of 19 Yazidi girls, having fought against a life of sex slavery, get burned alive.

RELATED: What Was Scrubbing Mentions of ISIS from the Orlando 911Transcript Supposed to Accomplish?

This propaganda is twisted and impossible to ignore. It also perhaps appeals to the Tsarnaevs and Mateens of the world — deeply troubled people who seek the assurance that a higher being approves of their most cruel and violent impulses.

That leads to ISIS’s second major difference from al-Qaeda: an early enthusiasm for and success in encouraging “lone-wolf” attacks. In September 2014, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani called for attacks on infidels everywhere:

If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever . . . including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling.

He also offered a message to Americans:

You will pay the price as you walk on your streets, turning right and left, fearing the Muslims. You will not feel secure even in your bedrooms. You will pay the price when this crusade of yours collapses, and thereafter we will strike you in your homeland, and you will never be able to harm anyone afterwards.

As law-enforcement and counter-terrorism officials are quick to point out, it’s much harder to predict and prevent “lone-wolf” attacks than it is to foil the next 9/11. There are fewer or no communications to intercept. Lone wolves have rarely traveled to locations known for terrorist activity. Sometimes they’re openly religious; sometimes they aren’t.

Obama has made a habit of declaring that ISIS is “not an existential threat to us,” setting the bar at a level that only the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan have ever met. After the Brussels terror attack, on a trip to Argentina, Obama declared, “I addressed this issue a little bit at the baseball game when I was interviewed by ESPN, but let me reiterate it: Groups like [ISIS] can’t destroy us. They can’t produce anything.”

This isn’t correct. Right now ISIS is producing American-born mass killers.

#related#The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg offered a jarring comment about the president’s perspective in his much-ballyhooed deep dive into his administration’s foreign policy: “Obama believes that the clash is taking place within a single civilization, and that Americans are sometimes collateral damage in this fight between Muslim modernizers and Muslim fundamentalists.”

There were no “Muslim modernizers” on the scene in Fort Hood or Boston or San Bernardino or Orlando. Americans weren’t “collateral damage” in those attacks — they were deliberately targeted victims.

Two and a half years after his “JV” comment, there’s painfully little evidence that Obama understands any of this better than he did then. How many more of our citizens must die before he gets it?

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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