Obama’s challenges on terror — and ours

President Obama spoke about counterterrorism and the fight against ISIS in a primetime address Sunday night from the Oval Office.
President Obama spoke about counterterrorism and the fight against ISIS in a primetime address Sunday night from the Oval Office.

President Obama’s rare Oval Office address on Sunday night sought to reassure the nation that he has an effective strategy for countering terrorism. While it is still unclear what role, if any, the Islamic State played in inspiring the couple who launched the mass shooting attack at an office holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., last Wednesday, Obama outlined his plan for combating the ISIS by arming and equipping thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.

“We will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history,” Obama said in a speech sprinkled with reminders that he was the president who killed Osama bin Laden and who authorized drone strikes all over the world.

The greatest challenge the US government faces is not on the battlefield, however, but in cyberspace, where ISIS has proven to be far more masterful at propaganda than the US State Department.


Obama hinted at that challenge when he outlined efforts to cooperate with Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities here at home to counter the vicious ideology that attracts young people to the battlefields of Syria, and “do-it-yourself” terrorists to launch attacks like the one last Wednesday.

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“If we are to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies rather than push them away through suspicion and hate,” Obama said.

He’s right. The trouble is that the US government does not seem to have come up with an effective way to partner with local Muslim communities to detect and combat radicalization. A White House effort launched last year in three pilot cities – including Boston – seems to have elicited more animosity than tips. Critics say US government officials are training school counselors, religious leaders, and parents to report behavior that is not necessarily abnormal in teens: Sudden personality changes. Clashes over ideology. An interest in traveling to conflict zones.

“How many kids does that apply to?” asked Shannon Erwin of the Muslim Justice League. Overly-broad criteria like that could lead to far too many false positives and Muslim young people feeling singled out.

The White House “Countering Violent Extremism” project might have more credibility among Muslims if it made a similar effort to disseminate warning signs of violence among non-Muslim terrorists. White supremacists, antigovernment fanatics, and other non-Muslim extremists have taken more lives than Islamic extremists since September 11, 2001, according to New America, a Washington think tank.


The truth is, it’s incredibly difficult to determine who subscribes to a violent ideology, and harder still to determine who will act on those beliefs. That’s why the most common-sense solution in the president’s brief address was the challenge to Congress to prevent terrorist suspects on the no-fly list from being able to obtain a gun, and to keep automatic weapons out of the hands of people who would use them to commit acts like the mass shooting in California. If the US government can prevent a person from boarding a plane, surely the US government can curtail that person’s right to purchase a gun.

Whether conservatives like it or not, the truest line in Obama’s address was this one: “The fact is that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, no matter how effective they are, cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual was motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology. What we can do and must do is make it harder for them to kill.”