Obama's Islamic State address marks shift in war on terror

President Obama talked about efforts to defeat the Islamic State in his Oval Office address Sunday. But for success, the US might have to fight very differently.

Sandy Huffaker/Reuters
Mourners engage in a group prayer Saturday at a makeshift memorial for victims following Wednesday's shooting attack in San Bernardino, Calif. The Islamic State said that the married couple who killed 14 people were followers of the militant group. President Obama will speak about the situation in an Oval Office address Sunday.

President Obama's Oval Office address Sunday night pointed to a shift in America's fight against terrorism that could require, as much as bombs and bullets, a more fundamental attack on the idea of terrorism at home.

Responding to the mass killing last week in San Bernardino, Calif., by a radicalized Muslim couple that reportedly pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State, Mr. Obama said: "The terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase." 

The Islamic State is not Al Qaeda, nor at this point does it appear to pose a 9/11-style threat to the United States. Its threat is not in planning attacks on American soil, but in exhorting anyone to do it for them through its hateful, social-media fueled rantings.  

This new strain of "lone wolf" terrorism suggests that, beyond military action abroad, fighting the Islamic State also means engaging it on social media and in homes to disarm the very idea of terrorism. 

The Islamic State is "not looking to direct attacks at all," said Michael Leiter, a former senior counterterrorism official in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, to the Los Angeles Times. "[T]heir direction is to inspire."

Limited military options

One way to stem this inspiration is to destroy the group at the source, and Obama said a combination of airstrikes, special forces on the ground, and cooperation with local fighters would "achieve a more sustainable victory." 

But these military options appear to have their limits.

Kurdish forces supported by the West have shown success against the Islamic State. But the Kurds are distrusted by many of the major players in the region, and so are not seen as a final solution.

Sunni governments from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, are more concerned with toppling the Iran-backed president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, than with the Islamic State. Indeed, many Sunni governments see the Islamic State as a useful weapon in their region-wide power struggle with Shiite Iran. These countries have proven unreliable partners in the war against the Islamic State. 

The West could increase military action on its own, and France has been pushing for this since the Paris attacks last month. But it's unclear what would be effective, short of a second Iraq-surge-style Sunni Awakening, with the tens of thousands of ground troops that would require.

Even on the American homefront, experts note that the Islamic State has become savvier. By using the Internet to inspire more than direct, there is less of an online trail for law enforcement to detect. That limits the Islamic State's ability to carry out a coordinated attack – as in France – but allows lone wolves to carry out San Bernardino-style assaults.

"There are no direct communications or orders that you can intercept to realize that there's a plot going on," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, to the Times. "There's an absence of red flags."

Time for 'a whole new approach'?

This dawning realization is forcing the Obama administrations to consider "a whole new approach" to the domestic terror threat, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told The New York Times Saturday.

To some, this is precisely what is needed. Dubbing the San Bernardino attack "DIY jihad," former State Department official Alberto Fernandez told The New York Times that it "forces the administration to look at where it does not want to go and is weakest, at jihadist ideology and its dissemination."

New social media approaches are a start. That includes matching the Islamic State's energetic message and sophisticated manipulation of social trends.

The most successful State Department anti-Islamic State YouTube video, posted in 2014, has 120,000 views, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. But this October, a bootleg helmet-cam video of a Kurdish commando storming an Islamic State prison to free 70 prisoners was leaked to a Kurdish site. It got 1.2 million views in five days.     

"The video showing the images of the rescue contains key elements for becoming viral in social media: a short length (4 minutes), shocking images, cultural resonance from action films like 'Zero Dark Thirty,' and a real, emotional story," concludes Javier Lesaca of Brookings. 

War has always involved propaganda. But, in some ways, the evolving terror war is a direct clash of values, suggesting propaganda can play as crucial a role as airstrikes. "Military operations against terrorism should be accompanied by a digital communication strategy that provides audiovisual material to be shared on social media," concludes Mr. Lesaca.

Beyond social media

But social media alone isn't enough. The New York Times suggests the the administration will also look to improve relations with American Muslims, so they will feel comfortable coming forward to law enforcement. Obama said Sunday: "We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam."

But turning in a friend or family member is not so simple. Once someone has begun turning toward terrorism, there's often no off-ramp – no way to turn them around without risking a decades-long prison sentence, the Monitor's Warren Richey noted in his ISIS in America series.   

The way forward, he suggests, is in speaking plainly to disgruntled American Muslims about American foreign policy – not shying away from the tough questions – and helping parents and family members tools to intervene effectively.  

For example, German antiterror researcher Daniel Koehler has set up an international network of mothers who have lost sons and daughters. Many parents don’t trust authorities, so Dr. Koehler's counselors act as moderators, "opening up space for trust and communication where before that nothing was there. [Families and law enforcement] were simply treating each other as opponents," he told the Monitor.

The challenge might seem an unfamiliar one, with Twitter feeds and community outreach being marshaled as modes of war, but there's nothing that gives the Islamic State an inherent advantage, some say.

"The struggle against extremism, in this respect, is no different from prior moments in history when we have had to mobilize all of our resources – regardless of sector or age – in defense of the common good. This is how we fight World Wars, find cures for diseases, aid victims of natural and man-made disasters, and race into space," writes David Lawrence, founder of the Risk Assistance Network+Exchange, a risk-management firm. 

"Now is the time to mobilize our best people, ideas, narratives and ideals to defeat a force that would divide and destroy us."

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