Somehow, to paraphrase President Barack Obama, it has become routine - the president dismisses the terrorist threat, only to see terrorists carry out horrific attacks that give lie to his complacency.
On Sept. 6, 2012, Obama boasted at the Democratic National Convention that “al-Qaida is on the path to defeat.” Five days later, al-Qaida-linked terrorists attacked two U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
On Jan. 7, 2014, Obama dismissed the Islamic State as the “JV” team in an interview with the New Yorker, adding that the rise of the Islamic State was not “a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.” That same month, the Islamic State began its march on Iraq, declaring a caliphate, burning people alive in cages and beheading Americans.
Then on Thursday, Obama did it again, telling ABC News, “I don’t think 1/8the Islamic State is3/8 gaining strength” and promising “we have contained them.” The very next day, the Islamic State launched the worst attack on Paris since World War II, killing at least 132 people and wounding more than 350 others.
How many times is this sad spectacle going to repeat itself?
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes now claims that Obama meant the Islamic State had been contained “geographically” in Iraq and Syria. Even if he did, that is also wrong. On Obama’s watch, the Islamic State has expanded into more than a half-dozen countries, has claimed responsibility for bringing down a passenger plane in Egypt and now has carried out a horrific terrorist attack in France. If that is what geographic containment looks like, I’d hate to see expansion.
The fact is, Obama continues to stubbornly insist that the terrorist threat is overblown. Earlier this year, in an interview with Vox, Obama was asked, “Do you think the media sometimes overstates the level of alarm people should have about terrorism and this kind of chaos, as opposed to a longer-term problem of climate change and epidemic disease?” “Absolutely,” Obama replied, “it’s all about ratings,” adding that “we’ve got to make sure we’re right-sizing our approach” to terrorism because in the past “the strategy that was crafted in Washington didn’t always match up with the actual threats that were out there.”
Apparently, in this administration’s assessment, the “actual threats” did not include Islamic State attacks in the West. In August 2014, deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken declared that “Unlike core al Qaida, right now, their focus is not on attacking the U.S. homeland or attacking our interests here in the United States or abroad. It’s focused intently on trying to create a caliphate now in Iraq.” Rhodes echoed this sentiment in a White House blog post, explaining that “While both 1/8al-Qaida and the Islamic State3/8 are terrorist forces, they have different ambitions. Al-Qaida’s principal ambition is to launch attacks against the west and U.S. homeland. . . . Right now, ISIL’s primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East region to establish their own Islamic State. So they’re different organizations with different objectives.”
Tell that to the people of Paris.
What will it take for Obama to wake up to the danger? A successful Islamic State attack on the United States? Because that may be where we are headed. While Obama wages perhaps the most tepid military campaign in our nation’s history (75 percent of U.S. air sorties do not drop any bombs), the Islamic State has grown on his watch into the wealthiest, most powerful terrorist network in human history. It now controls territory the size of the United Kingdom, and according to the RAND Corporation, raked in $1.2 billion in 2014 from extortion, taxation, money stolen from Iraqi banks and oil. To put that figure in perspective, al-Qaida spent about $500,000 to carry out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
And the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has repeatedly warned that it is coming after us. In an audio address last year, he declared: “Our last message is to the Americans: Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day. So watch, for we are with you, watching.” And following the Paris attacks, the Islamic State released a new video in which it warned, “By God, as we struck France in the center of its abode in Paris, then we swear that we will strike America at its center in Washington.”
You can’t get much clearer than that.
Obama needs to take the words of the enemy seriously. If he fails to do so, it is only a matter of time before the Islamic State follows through on its threats to bring the violence we just witnessed in Paris here to our shores.
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Thiessen was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2009.