An Unacceptable Danger

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Last week's attacks in France, Kuwait and Tunisia – all conducted within three hours of each other – demonstrated again the enduring and global nature of the threat from Islamist terrorism. Though terror groups have been unable to carry out mass-casualty attacks akin to those of Sept. 11, 2001, the new era of smaller-scale attacks, often perpetrated by "lone wolves" trained or inspired by extremist networks, entails a serious threat to U.S. and international security.

President Barack Obama and the candidates seeking to replace him should recognize that the global war on terror did not end or even begin to end with the death of Osama bin Laden. Instead, the forces of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group pose a growing, unacceptable danger to the United States and our allies. Degrading and destroying this threat will require far more resources and effort than Obama has thus far been willing to provide. But first of all, the president himself must understand the nature of the threat and be willing to confront the world as it truly is, not as he wants it to be.

The triple attack on France, Kuwait and Tunisia underscores the truth of the Wall Street Journal's quip that "the Middle East is no Las Vegas: What happens there doesn't stay there." The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait, and the French attacker appears to have responded to the radical jihadi group's call for attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. These incidents closely mirror other Islamic State group-linked attacks this year against Western targets, including the January assault on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the March massacre of tourists in Tunisia's Bardo National Museum and the attempted assault on a "Draw Muhammad" event in Garland, Texas, in May. The gunman in last Friday's attack in Tunisia had even trained in neighboring Libya with the Bardo museum attackers, according to security officials.

U.S. intelligence officials reportedly fear that others may follow the Islamic State group's call for attacks during Ramadan, and the FBI has begun arrests of potential "lone wolves" as a pre-emptive measure. Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell warned that "I wouldn't be surprised if we're sitting here a week from today talking about an attack over the [Independence Day] weekend in the United States. That's how serious this is."

While the threat is rapidly growing, the administration still insists that the United States should focus its energy elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the White House sought to redefine its foreign policy at the beginning of Obama's second term. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes described the president's new attitude toward violent extremism as "Yes we have to deal with terrorism, we have to deal with security challenges in the Middle East, but we can't be consumed by that." This new policy was on full display in the president's May 2013 speech at National Defense University, where he said "we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror,' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."

When one of those networks expanded rapidly across the region, it took the White House by surprise. Unsettled, Obama admitted that he had no strategy for dealing with the Islamic State group, a comment that provoked a torrent of criticism despite its unusual candor. Rather than renewing his determination to defeat Islamist terrorism, Obama, according to the Wall Street Journal, "feared that Iraq, a problem he had hoped to put behind him, was returning to knock his agenda off its course."

This attitude helps to explain why the White House seems incapable of responding vigorously to clear indications of a growing threat. In 2014, Islamic State group forces captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and declared a caliphate. Since then, the organization has weathered a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes and has even expanded its territory. The organization has spread to a dozen countries, with 35 local affiliates having pledged their allegiance to the group. The Islamic State group's success has allowed it to supplant its parent organization, al-Qaida, as The Guardian recently reported. Senior Islamist clerics said that the group has been "drained of recruits and money after losing territory and prestige to its former subordinate division."

There are several steps the White House should immediately take to deal with the Islamic State group's flagship territory in Iraq and Syria. This would include the deployment of as many as 20,000 U.S. troops to train, advise, assist and enable the Iraqi Security Forces; Special Operations forces would help target Islamic State group fighters in airstrikes and conduct independent raids against leading extremists. In addition, the United States should join the new Jordanian and Turkish initiatives to create "safe zones" along their borders to provide an area for refugees fleeing Syrian President Bashar Assad's brutal campaign. The administration should also overhaul its effort to train moderate Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State group. This program, which is supposed to train 5,400 fighters per year, currently has fewer than 100 being trained.

To deal with the rising global threat of Islamist terrorism, the president should stop thinking in terms of "targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists." These networks are part of a global movement grounded in a shared, poisonous ideology. New networks and new leaders can rise up to take the place of those that are dismantled and killed. To defeat this threat, it must be defeated as a whole, as part of a global war on terror.

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