Obama: U.S. Will Prevail Against "Evolving" ISIS

Obama: U.S. Will Prevail Against "Evolving" ISIS
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President Obama, in a rare Oval Office address Sunday night, sought to talk tough and also reassure Americans that his administration has strengthened America’s defenses against an “evolving” terror threat he will hand off to his successor in a little more than a year.

“We will prevail by being strong and smart,” he said.

Obama called the murders of 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., Wednesday an act of terrorism, perpetrated by American Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his Pakistan-born wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29. Both died in a bloody shootout with authorities hours after opening fire on some of Farook’s colleagues during a holiday reception. The FBI’s investigation is continuing.

The president said there is no evidence to date that the couple, who authorities said planned the attack and possessed an arsenal of deadly weapons and ammunition, had been recruited, trained, instructed or financed by the Islamic State, or were part of a terror cell operating in the United States. Authorities are examining possible ISIS ties to Malik prior to her marriage to Farook in 2014.

Obama, speaking briskly and with assurance, described steps the U.S. military and its European partners, along with key domestic agencies and law enforcement, are taking to combat ISIS. He dubbed the terrorist group a “cult of death” that lures recruits down “the dark road of radicalization” to join Islamic fighters on the battlefield. The president said one of ISIS’s distinguishing characteristics is its exploitation of the Internet to “poison the minds” of would-be followers to commit mass murder in Western cities, such as Paris and San Bernardino.

In response to the group’s rise, he cited airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, and the deployment of up to 50 U.S. Special Operations forces into Syria – intelligence specialists who are not yet on the ground. Obama said he wants the private sector and government to develop techniques to thwart Internet recruitment and propaganda communications on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other pathways, but the administration has previously discussed various hurdles to those countermeasures and the president offered no new details.

He said the White House plans to host a Dec. 17 summit to examine the financing of ISIS and other extremist groups. (The White House has repeatedly expressed frustration that confirmation of the administration’s terror financing expert, Adam Szubin, nominated to a Treasury Department position, has been held up in the Senate.)

Standing at a lectern rather than sitting at the famous “Resolute” desk to deliver his 13-minute pep talk, Obama did not propose or announce any major modifications to his strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS, also known as ISIL or Daesh. Instead, the president sought to discourage fearful Americans from discriminating against Muslims, and to encourage a confused and anxious public to unite in opposition to ISIS, much as the developed world joined forces following the 9/11 attacks carried out by al-Qaeda.

The president urged Muslims to root out any radical extremists in their midst. And he said “it is the responsibility of all Americans, of every faith, to reject discrimination.”

Without mentioning GOP presidential candidates who refer on the campaign trail to “radical Islam,” or naming Donald Trump, who endorsed the idea of a Muslim registry in the United States, the president made a passing reference to the “political season” before telling Americans that “freedom is more powerful than fear.”

“It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It's our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim-Americans should somehow be treated differently,” Obama said, “because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL.”

The president made clear he continues to oppose sending U.S. combat forces into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS, arguing it would play into the group’s ambitions to propagandize their actions as a U.S. war against Islam. Obama continues to oppose a no-fly zone over Syria; rejects calls for a U.S.-defended “safe zone” for Syrian refugees in or near their country; and has not warmed to proposals for new legislation to address encrypted communications technologies exploited by terrorists and criminals, according to a senior administration official who spoke to reporters in advance of the speech.

Congress, Obama said, could bolster the anti-ISIS strategy by updating the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which forms the underpinnings of the U.S. military battle against al-Qaeda and its offshoot, ISIS. Congress has shown no appetite to debate a new AUMF, especially heading into an election year. Obama also asked lawmakers to adopt legislation to tighten visa waivers, such as those that permit foreign fiancees of U.S. citizens to enter the United States, and those that allow entry from a war zone with no special scrutiny.

The president repeated his call to lawmakers to bar anyone on a terror watch list or the government’s no-fly list from being able to pass a background check to buy a firearm. He also reprised his call for “common sense” gun safety legislation to expand background checks and ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Such legislation has languished on Capitol Hill since 2013.

Whether killers are motivated by jihadist ambitions or other “hateful ideology,” the president argued, mass murderers should not be able to destroy innocent lives so easily. “What we can do, and must do, is make it harder for them to kill,” he said.

The White House for several months has advertised that Obama is weighing new executive actions to regulate guns, but the president made no reference Sunday to tapping his presidential powers to act where Congress has balked. For instance, he has considered a proposal to expand the universe of firearms sellers who must conduct background checks, although it is unclear such an initiative would survive a legal challenge. Obama met last week with gun control advocates at the White House. Following the tragic mass murder of 23 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, he announced in January 2013 23 executive actions tied to firearms, followed by two more in August of that year.

White House aides said Obama has no immediate plans to travel to San Bernardino to meet with families of victims or survivors of last week’s massacre.

After delivering his remarks, Obama and wife Michelle, dressed in a black and blue Oscar de la Renta gown, departed the White House to attend a Kennedy Center Honors program, which began with an East Room reception for the celebrity honorees earlier in the evening.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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