We Need a New Plan for the New Threat: James Robbins

President Obama said Sunday that the United States has entered into a new phase in the war on terrorism. But the strategy he outlined to combat the Islamic State group is essentially the same approach the White House has been touting since the war against the terrorist organization began. And it isn’t working.

On Dec. 2, Islamist radicals Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 and wounding 23 others before being gunned down by police. It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a shocking warning of the Islamic State group’s strategic reach. Whether or not Farook and Malik were directly recruited by the Islamic State group, they were inspired by the same violent ideology and motivated to act for the same purpose: to sow chaos and fear.

Islamic terror groups such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida have been promoting this model of “jihad in place” for years. As President Obama noted, the United States and its coalition partners have since 2001 disrupted Osama bin Laden’s 1990s-era strategic concept of more tightly networked terrorism. However, given the increasing reach of social media and other ideological networks, Islamist terror groups have been able to inspire individuals to commit acts of violence in the interests of jihad with minimal if any central guidance. Sometimes there is more planning and direction, as in the case of the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris; sometimes little to none, as in the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombing. Yet such attacks by novice terrorists can have dramatic strategic effects. The Islamic State group and other organizations now know that terror attacks do not have to be part of a master plan to be effective, they simply have to happen, and the more frequently the better.


The San Bernardino massacre fit this model of decentralized jihad. But there was little in Obama’s speech that indicated the U.S. government was responding to this aspect of the threat. It tracked closely to the nine-lines-of-approach strategy outlined in November 2014, or the “four pillars” approach articulated in July 2015. In his speech, the president said that “our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary” and that the U.S. will “continue to provide training and equipment” to local forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq to “take away [terrorists’] safe havens.” He also noted that the U.S. is “working with friends and allies to stop ISIL’s operations to disrupt plots, cut off their financing, and prevent them from recruiting more fighters.” The only new aspect of the strategy is the attempt to “establish a process and timeline to pursue cease-fires and a political resolution to the Syrian war.”

These are necessary aspects of combating the Islamic State group, but hardly sufficient to meet the threat. Obama failed to address the central, most disturbing aspect of the San Bernardino attack – namely, that two radicalized Islamists were able to plan, prepare and conduct a significant terrorist attack inside the United States while remaining undetected by security forces until the attack was under way. It was a model example of the type of post-bin Laden terrorism that radical extremists have been promoting for years. And the president’s linear response – essentially, kill terrorists and seize their territory – simply will not be effective against this type of complex, decentralized insurgent strategy.

The center of gravity for the new breed of Islamic terrorists is not their territory or the number of fighters they can put in the field in Syria or Iraq. Rather it is their ideology, their ability to inspire fellow travelers to join in their cause and mobilize them to commit acts of violence even at the probable cost of their own lives. The White House response to this critical ideological dimension of the conflict is to dismiss the Islamic State group’s claim that it is acting in the name of Islam and to offer a competing vision. “Ideologies are not defeated with guns,” Obama said at the U.N. in September, “they’re defeated by better ideas.”

But the Islamic State group and those who support it specifically reject Western liberal ideals. Promoting the “better ideas” of freedom of speech, religion and gender equality only reinforce the Islamic State group’s central critique of Western culture. As for the claim that the terrorists do not represent Islam, the president seems to be addressing that point more to the American people than to the terrorists. In any case, Obama lacks the moral or spiritual authority to tell the Muslim world who represents their faith. That talking point may be doing more harm than good.

The good news is that the president knows that the Islamic terror threat is evolving and becoming more dangerous. But he still needs to demonstrate that he understands the challenges of the new terrorism and has a plan to defeat them.


James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of “The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero.” This column originally appeared in U.S. News and World Report.


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