Perilous times are upon us as President Obama prepares this week to announce his strategy against the Islamic State (IS).
Until now the Administration has flunked the “knowing yourself" test, at least judged by the President's comment that he did not have a "strategy yet" and the wildly varying US objectives toward IS floated in recent days (President: make it a “manageable problem;” Vice President: "Chase it to the Gates of Hell.") A minor but less than reassuring detail has been the failure of Administration leaders to use a common name for their adversary. The President uses ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs prefers ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Neither calls the group by its chosen and most evocative name, IS (Islamic State.)
Now though, we are promised, the President has found a strategy and will soon share it with the country. This will be a welcome, if tardy, development, especially if the White House and its military and domestic security leaders finally “know” and agree upon the same strategy, and even more so if it includes the “defeat,” rather than containment, of IS.
It is too much to hope the President will channel Churchill and vow to "strangle the Islamic State in its cradle." Not because Obama is too diplomatic, but due to an apparent flaw in his strategy at the outset. This is the President’s seeming failure to “know” his enemy, or at least admit its full implications to himself and the nation.
After famously calling IS a "jayvee team" earlier this year, and then expressing surprise at its unexpected gains in Iraq, Obama over the weekend seemed to underestimate the threat once again: ...when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11."
“(We) have not seen any immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL. That's not what this (his new strategy) is about,” he explained. “What it's about is an organization that, if allowed to control significant amounts of territory, to amass more resources, more arms to attract more foreign fighters, including from areas like Europe, who have Europeans who have visas and then can travel to the United States unimpeded, that over time, that can be a serious threat to the homeland.”
The President's message: IS is not a threat like al-Qaida was (remember who killed bin Laden?); America has time to organize the “international community,” palaver with its allies and gradually ramp up operations against IS. There’s no need for haste, and especially not those dreaded “boots on the ground.”
If an IS threat does come to the homeland, Obama implies, it will be from Europeans legally arriving on transatlantic flights sometime in the future -- men whose freedom to travel can be blamed on lax enforcement by their home countries. No worries about deranged American citizens coming to a mall near you this holiday season, the President implies, or teams of hardened Chechen killers sneaking through the chaos of our southern border. The situation is under control, the enemy is still no real threat to the homeland and they won't catch us by surprise this time.
The President’s spokesman is more explicit, if still a bit "lawyered up." “There’s no evidence or indication right now that ISIL is actively (emphasis ours) planning or plotting to attack the United States,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest reassured the American people days ago.
The leader of the Islamic State might beg to differ. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-appointed “caliph” and leader of all Muslims, has promised “violent retaliation” for the killing of Osama bin Laden and other acts by the United States, punishment he implies will not be limited to hapless American reporters snared overseas. “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,” he warned us in January (the same month President Obama was calling his army "jayvees").
“So watch, for we are with you, watching,” the terrorist leader warned.
(image of Cyanide Weapon via IS Hashtag)
Apparently not watching, at least closely, is Mr. Earnest and his pr team, who might benefit from following the Islamic State’s social media, including the Twitter hashtag #CalamityWillBefallUS (changed from the clunkier and longer #FridayofWarningtotheAmericanPeople, perhaps to save those precious message characters for more descriptive invective, although we assume Jihadists are not supposed to text "OMG.")
The Islamic States' social media stream affirms its leader’s threat against America with great verve, detail and sophistication. On terrorism's "most sophisticated propaganda machine,” according to the head of the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), “(IS) supporters have sustained this momentum on social media by encouraging attacks in the U.S. and against U.S. interests in retaliation for our airstrikes.”
If you believe the White House, the Islamic State is neither "planning" nor "plotting" to attack the US. But the group’s followers appear to be giving it plenty of thought. One Tweet discusses the use of cyanide gas against America (see image above), a hideous and plausible weapon US security experts have worried might be used by Islamist extremists against "soft targets" such as subways, theaters and office buildings. Even "softer" targets are in the propaganda stream; “American soldier, we will target your family also,” warns one Tweet. Images of a burning White House, disfigured US soldiers and jumpers from the World Trade Center provide the sort of clarity sometimes lacking in Administration social media.
“God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House,” promised the group’s spokesman earlier this year. To make sure we don't take this sort of threat figuratively, IS chopped the heads off two captive Americans on video, warning: “So just as your missiles continue to strike out people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
The Pentagon does appear to get that message, but is downplaying it. “We don't believe they have the capacity right now, the capability to conduct a major (emphasis ours) attack on the homeland,” Rear Admiral John Kirby said on August 29.
The NCTC adopts a similar strategy, which both covers its bureaucratic rear-end and avoids contradicting the White House (much.) Matthew G. Olsen, NCTC director, noted a few days ago that the FBI has arrested more than a half dozen US citizens on the way to join IS, but more than 100 Americans and many more Europeans have successfully made the voyage to join IS and other terrorist groups in Syria. Olsen pointed out that a French IS veteran is now accused of coming home and gunning down four innocent victims in Belgium. Could it happen here? “(W)e remain mindful of the possibility that an ISIL-sympathizer—perhaps motivated by online propaganda—could conduct a limited, self-directed attack here at home with no warning. In our view, any threat to the U.S. homeland from these types of extremists is likely to be limited in scope and scale.”
In other words, all we need worry about in the short term is another Boston bombing or Fort Hood massacre.
This from the people who underestimated previous threats and allowed the Underwear Bomber to board a flight to Detroit; failed to detect the Times Square car bomb plot until the smoking SUV was spotted by street vendors; and ignored a Jihadist officer in the US Army despite his email correspondence with a terrorist leader and reports from his peers that he was a dangerous Islamist extremist. In the first two of these cases, deadly consequences were avoided only due to mistakes by the terrorist. When the third attacker did prove capable of using his weapon (he had been trained in firearms by the very Army he was attacking), the Administration simply denied the result was terrorism. Meantime, huge holes in homeland security remain unfixed, such as a broken visa system that was exploited by 9/11 plotters but still remains vulnerable to the next wave of extremists (say those European IS members the President talked about).
To be fair, federal, state and local agencies have done much good work and foiled dozens of terrorist plots, but not enough to earn the right to be sanguine about the threat from the Islamic State.
After 9/11, a compelling alternative history question revolved around "what might have been" had Presidents Clinton and Bush taken the al-Qaida threat seriously before the attack. What would have been required beforehand for our leaders, and the nation as a whole, to accept the enormity and proximity of the threat, to understand the enemy meant what it was saying? Could our federal government have shouldered its most fundamental responsibility -- to destroy any group that publicly promised and prepared to come to America and kill us? Was our political system capable of making the difficult decisions needed to act before the enemy left no other option?
Even before the days of social media, al-Qaida had warned us clearly and repeatedly in word and deed. Among the deeds were the 1993 World Trade Center blast; embassy bombings of 1998; 2000 Millennium plots and USS Cole attack. The words were just as clear, including the enemy’s chilling public directive in 1998, “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders:” “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…” The CIA tied together many of these warnings in its infamous Aug. 2001 memo for President Bush, “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.” Even that neon billboard failed to attract sufficient attention. The terrorists were telling us their plans, but we weren’t listening. Our system, as in other areas, was incapable of proactive change.
In their defense, Bush and Clinton officials have blamed their inaction on the lack of specific details ahead of time on 9/11 and other plots, along with bureaucratic impediments and a widespread bi-partisan, multi-agency failure of imagination. Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. What happened on 9/11 was unprecedented, the explanation goes, and no one could have expected it. It took the shock and sacrifice of that awful September morning, they assert, to “awaken” America and finally prompt long overdue improvements in the government's alertness, attitude and ability. Just as airline passengers will no longer sit quietly during a hijacking, it's claimed, the US national security system will never again underestimate the explicit threats of our sworn enemies, or downplay them for political reasons.
Now, not 15 years later, a Jihadist group -- born of al-Qaida and stronger than its forebear was on 9/10/2001 -- is once again telling us its plans. The Islamic State’s “caliph,” fresh off his victories that have so surprised Washington, recently issued a new statement, identifying America (and Russia) as the main enemies of the Muslim people. “Go forth, O mujahidin in the path of Allah. Terrify the enemies of Allah and seek death in the places where you expect to find it. …let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and amazed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism…”
It may be thundering, but is that message really being heard in the White House?
(message on Islamic State hashtag)