Obama Seeks to Reassure Nation Faced With Evolving Terror Threat

Obama: This Was an Act of Terrorism
  • San Bernardino shooting rampage called an `act of terrorism'
  • President offers no new plans for fight against Islamic State

President Barack Obama sought to soothe a nation shaken by the terrorist attack in a California town with assurances that the U.S. is hardening its defenses, tempered by an acknowledgment that the threat has evolved.

Delivering an address from the Oval Office for only the third time in his presidency, Obama said Sunday the shooting rampage in San Bernardino was an act of terrorism carried out by a Muslim couple radicalized by extremist ideology, though not directed by a foreign group. He cautioned Americans not to discriminate against Muslim-Americans, saying that would play into the hands of Islamic State and other terrorists.

Obama speaks at the Oval Office
Obama speaks at the Oval Office
Photographer: Saul Loeb/Pool via Bloomberg

“The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it,” Obama said. “We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”

The president decided on Friday to deliver the speech after the FBI said it was treating the killing of 14 people and the wounding of 21 others as a terrorist attack. Following on the heels of the deadly strike by Islamic State terrorists in Paris three weeks ago, the mass shooting in California raised public alarm and revived criticism of Obama from political opponents and even some allies who say he hasn’t clearly articulated a strategy to combat the extremist group.

Strategy Review

“We constantly examine the strategy to determine when additional steps are needed to get the job done,” Obama said. He offered no new plans either for the fight on Islamic State territory or at home and instead reviewed what the U.S. has done so far and reiterated proposals to make it more difficult for would-be terrorists to obtain firearms.

Obama laid out actions to intensify the military campaign against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, including stepped-up airstrikes against oil infrastructure that the group partially relies on for funding. He cited the addition of France and U.K. to the coalition conducting bombing raids on Islamic State in Syria and greater intelligence cooperation with European governments.

“This is our strategy to destroy ISIL,” Obama said. “It is designed and supported by our military commanders and counterterrorism experts, together with 65 countries that have joined an American-led coalition.”

The coalition dropped the most bombs in November of any month so far in its 16-month campaign in Iraq and Syria, according to new Air Force data obtained by Bloomberg News in advance of publication. The coalition used 3,271 munitions last month.

‘No Changes’

Obama’s critics said his 13-minute address was insufficient.

“President Obama offered no changes to his reactive, indirect and incremental strategy,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in a statement. “He continues to assume that time is on our side. It is not.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus criticized both Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

“The attacks in San Bernardino should serve as a wake-up call for Obama and Clinton that the way to victory is not through the status quo but refocusing our efforts to defeat ISIS,” Priebus said in a statement.

‘Failing Policy’

House Speaker Paul Ryan characterized the remarks as an attempt to distract “from a failing policy.”

“The ultimate solution is a comprehensive plan to eliminate the extremist threat, and only the commander-in-chief can provide that,” Ryan said in a statement. “The horrific events of recent weeks remind us that any hope to contain ISIS has been a failure.”

Obama touched on two areas that have generated much debate in the presidential campaign: gun control and treatment of Muslim-Americans.

He repeated a proposal to deny gun purchases to anyone on the government’s no-fly list, which the Republican-controlled Congress has rejected. He said the U.S. should “make it harder” to buy military-style rifles of the type used by the San Bernardino attackers, another proposal Congress has previously defeated.

Law-Abiding Muslims

Obama also said that the battle against terrorism cannot be fought by targeting law-abiding Muslims in the U.S. At home, Obama called on the Muslim-American community to work with law enforcement to prevent and identify radicalization, while warning against against xenophobia that targets Muslims broadly.

“Muslim Americans are our friends, neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes, and yes, they are our men and women in uniform,” Obama said. “We have to remember that.”

While Obama didn’t name anyone, Republican presidential candidates including Donald Trump and Jeb Bush have suggested the government should scrutinize Muslims in the U.S. Trump on Sunday before Obama’s speech said on the CBS program “Face the Nation” that a reluctance to employ profiling may have allowed the California attackers to evade detection. Bush suggested last month that Christian refugees from Syria should get priority admittance to the U.S. over Muslims.

Seeking Clues

Law enforcement officials said the San Bernardino killers, Syed Rizwan Farook, a U.S. citizen, and Tashfeen Malik, his Pakistani wife, appear to have become radicalized in recent months or years, though the exact evolution of their extremist views remains a mystery. Agents are combing through the couple’s phone records, computers and phones seeking clues to what happened and who else they may have been working with.

Malik posted a pledge of allegiance to the leader of Islamic State on a Facebook page she controlled under an alias at about the time of the attack, law enforcement authorities said.

After the speech, the White House was forced to correct Obama’s statement that Malik, the female shooter, entered the country through the visa waiver program, targeted by members of Congress and the administration as a potential security vulnerability. Pakistan, where Malik is from, does not participate in the waiver program, which Obama has ordered the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State to review. Malik entered the U.S. on a so-called “fiancee visa.”

Obama said investigators to date have not found evidence that the couple was part of a broader network in the U.S. or that they coordinated their efforts with Islamic State overseas.

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