Under President Obama’s watch, the Islamic State has risen rapidly from the ruins of its Iraq insurgency in 2010 into a full-service global terrorist group with an army able to direct and inspire attacks from a buzzing Syria headquarters.
The organization now has affiliates in 19 countries, thousands of adherents in Europe and hundreds of followers in the United States.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Monday that “our own city streets are now the front lines.”
He expressed disappointment that Mr. Obama’s national TV address Sunday night, billed as a discussion on the terrorist threat, contained no new ideas.
“Their ability to conduct external operations is growing,” Mr. McCaul said at the National War College. “ISIS has been linked to more than 60 terror plots or attacks against Western targets. It has established a presence in 19 countries. And it has recruited operatives from more than 100 nations, creating the largest global convergence of jihadists in world history. ISIS is more dangerous than al Qaeda ever was under Osama bin Laden.”
Last month, Secretary of State John F. Kerry described the Islamic State as “the gravest extremist threat faced by our generation.”
How did the Islamic State grow so big so fast?
“The Islamic State knows that Obama lacks both the will and the ability to lead a campaign against them,” said Ken Allard, a former Army intelligence officer.
This fall, the Islamic State — also known as ISIL and ISIS — has shown in a short span that it could bring down a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai region, bomb a crowded market in a Beirut suburb and unleash a massacre in Paris. Right before that Nov. 13 attack, Mr. Obama declared that the Islamic State was “contained.”
On Wednesday, a husband-wife team in San Bernardino, California, guided by Islamic State propaganda, carried out the deadliest terrorist attack since al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, strikes on New York and the Pentagon.
The Islamic State has capitalized on two major events: the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011 and the contemporaneous Arab Spring, which ushered in strife and power vacuums, such as that in Syria, and created a welcome mat for terrorists.
“What’s the old expression: Nature abhors a vacuum,” said Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism official.
The Islamic State’s most important strategic move was to declare itself not an organization but a state — a caliphate — to attract thousands of fighters who believe they are living the words of the Koran.
The San Bernardino massacre of 14 innocents is at least the fifth attack by Muslims in the U.S. during the Obama administration that analysts consider to be terrorism. Some conservative groups say the list of domestic Islamist-inspired killings is much higher.
‘Embodiment of evil’
The U.S. narrowly avoided mass deaths on two other occasions. In 2009, an al Qaeda-trained operative nearly succeeded in igniting a plastic explosive hidden in his underwear in an airliner over the skies of Michigan. The following year, Islamists placed in New York’s Times Square a car bomb that emitted smoke but did not go off.
The Islamic State’s phenomenal growth — with a 30,000-strong army, vast social media campaigns, economic commerce and a ruthless Salafist cleric, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as its leader — began with the 2011 Arab Spring.
Mr. Obama mostly watched as the group, defeated by U.S. forces in 2009, reassembled the old al Qaeda in Iraq leadership apparatus across the border amid the turmoil of the Syrian civil war.
Mr. Obama turned down options from his war cabinet, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to train, build up and arm a moderate Free Syrian Army as a counter to what was emerging as today’s Islamic State.
Yet the administration encouraged Persian Gulf nations such as Qatar to pour weapons into Syria that surely fell into the hands of Islamists fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Mr. Obama openly urged regime change amid the Arab Spring. He had authorized an air war to remove Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But there was no follow-up. Islamists now control much of northern Libya, and the Islamic State operates a growing organization that has committed mass killings of Christians there.
“The Obama administration launched a covert program that included money to the CIA to support the Arab Spring and movements throughout the Middle East,” Mr. Johnson said. “After the uprising in Tunisia, the full effort started in Libya and Egypt and in Syria. These were not spontaneous uprisings. This was done with the full knowledge and intent of the Obama administration.”
In a major speech on Syria last month, Mr. Kerry laid blame for the Islamic State — known by the Arabic acronym Daesh — in Mr. Assad’s lap.
“The violence only began when Assad responded to peaceful demonstrations by sending in thugs to beat up young people,” the secretary of state said. “And when the parents of those young people objected, they took to the streets themselves. The regime replied with bullets and then with bombs. Having made peaceful change impossible, Assad made war inevitable. And this war gave rise to Daesh — ISIL — the gravest extremist threat faced by our generation and the embodiment of evil in our time.”
With Syrian territory captured and secured, the Islamic State executed its first invasion in the winter of 2013, gobbling up Sunni-dominated land in western Iraq — towns for which Americans shed much blood in the 2003-2011 Iraq War. Asked about the Islamic State at that time, the president dismissed it as a junior varsity sports team.
Before that summer, the Islamic State made another thrust into Iraq, this time the northern Sunni-Kurdish region. The militants captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and then went on a mass killing rampage of beheadings and firing squads.
It was this undeniable expansion that finally prompted Mr. Obama to go to war.
No new ideas for the fight
But it has been a greatly limited war of airstrikes under strict rules of engagement and a gradual buildup of 3,500 troops restricted to training and advising.
Last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, signaling there is intense internal discussion on what to do next, announced the creation of a special operations task force to strike Islamic State leaders in Iraq and Syria.
Now, the focus of debate in Washington is not so much what Mr. Obama did and didn’t do in 2011, but what he won’t do today.
Hawkish Republicans and some moderate Democrats are demanding a complete strategy overhaul. Some want a sizable force of 10,000 troops or so, allied with Arab soldiers, to invade Syria and obliterate the Islamic State and take away its proclaimed capital of Raqqa in Syria.
Mr. Obama again said last night, in a nationally televised speech that offered no new initiatives, that he would not introduce ground combat forces in any significant numbers.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Scott Mann, who teaches Green Berets at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, how to win over the native population in a counterinsurgency, said flatly that “America is losing this war against ISIS.”
“If we don’t change our strategy, ISIS is going to employ a campaign of audacious violence in our country that is going to change us forever,” said Mr. Mann, author of the book “Game Changers.” “More importantly, ISIS’ continued success will trigger an emotional response in us that will propel us deeper into this war with no strategy and no viable endgame toward defeating these Islamist violent extremists.”
Mr. McCaul, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, gave a report card Monday.
He said the FBI is investigating nearly 1,000 homegrown terrorists, that Islamic State followers have been linked to 19 terrorist plots or attacks in the U.S. and that authorities have arrested 70 Islamic State supporters in the U.S.
“Our own city streets are now the front lines,” Mr. McCaul said. “Indeed, San Bernardino was not an isolated event. Terrorists are on the offensive, working to deploy operatives to our shores and to radicalize our citizens to commit acts of violence.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at email@example.com.
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