Reflections on President Obama’s IS speech

This piece was first published on King’s College London’s Kings Of War blog.

On September 10, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the threat represented by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. A lot has already been said and written about Obama’s four-point strategy to tackle the IS.

In this blog post, I would like to draw your attention on two aspects that have received less coverage but that I believe to be quite important nonetheless.

First, Obama said: “Now let’s make two things clear: IS is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of IS’s victims have been Muslim. And IS is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. IS is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

For President Obama, the Islamic State is “a terrorist organization, pure and simple”. This is a clear oversimplification of a much more complex phenomenon. As we know, the IS includes former Iraqi Baath party members and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen that do not squarely fit Obama’s definition of terrorists and are not simply fighting or supporting the IS for the sake of slaughtering all who stand in their way. My concern is that by narrowly defining the IS threat as a terrorist threat, the US response will be inadequate to solve the crisis in the long term. The United States, in fact, may be tempted to focus too heavily on military means while discounting the importance of addressing the political, economic, and social grievances that enabled the rise of the IS in the first place.

Second, Obama said: “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out IS wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.

Here, I am skeptical about President Obama’s description of the US counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and Somalia as “successful”. This point is also discussed in an interesting article by Hayes Brown.

As for Yemen, years of US counterterrorism have failed to eradicate the local branch of Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, National Counterterrorism Center Deputy Director Nicholas Rasmussen recently stated that “We [the United States] continue to assess that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [which is based in Yemen] remains the Al-Qaeda affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United State.”

As for Somalia, the United States has been fighting the US-designated terrorist group al-Shabaab at least since 2008. In his speech, President Obama singled out the killing of Ahmed Godane, the top commander of the group, as evidence of the effectiveness of US counterterrorism strategy in the country. However, as noted by Brown, rather than discouraging the remaining members, the killing of Godane has led al-Shabaab to quickly name a new leader and to renew its allegiance to al Qaeda.

Given the persistent threats represented by AQAP in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is not straightforward to understand President Obama’s choice of these two countries as successful examples of the US strategy of counterterrorism.

These are my thoughts. Now, I would like to hear from you. What is your take on these two issues?

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4 comments

  1. Vasant Moharir, Dr

    Although it is true that behind the sudden support which IS movement has received there can be different reasons like underdevelopment of particular regions, large scale youth unemployment, neglect of minorities, etc in addition to the desire among some to complete the task from the days of crusades. In this context the need for more development and political reforms in countries concerned is important but this is a time consuming task in which the local government has to play a major role. There is also a danger that waiting for these reforms to take place can make the IS even stronger. Important thing is how many Islamic countries join the fight against IS and how long the US Congress supports Obama’s actions. Vasant Moharir

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    • Eugenio Lilli

      Hi Vasant,

      I agree with you on:
      1) That the development and political reforms needed are time-consuming
      2) The importance of Islamic/Arab countries joining the anti-IS coalition

      However, regarding point 1, I believe that it is indispensable to plan for social/political/economic refomrs well in advance (especially because they are time-consuming). Otherwise you might be able to defeat the current threat represented by the IS but you will leave all the conditions on the ground for the rise of future similar threats, possibly with a different name but drawing support from the same problems.

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  2. Greg

    Actually it doesn’t much matter what President Obama said in his speech. He is the commander-in-chief, but only of the United States forces, so he doesn’t get to define anyone else outside his own scope of authority. I doubt very much anyone in the Islamic world will care about his redefining IS.

    As for the actual wording, which no doubt was carefully prepared…
    1. “IS is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of IS’s victims have been Muslim.” – Well, it IS Islamic since it does follow Islamic precepts and ideology. Who is defined as “innocents” in Islam is different to that of the US law. There had been many conflicts in which ‘Muslims’ killed other ‘Muslims’, just as the case with ‘Christians’, so this too is fluff.

    2. “And IS is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates.” – there was a time when a certain self-proclaimed state received clandestine support from France while exploiting the post-war economic weakness of the English Crown to seek independence. In fact at last count I think there were 19 unrecognised states in the World.

    3. “IS is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.” – One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and this is certainly true in the Islamic world. And, not unlike any other revolutionary movement, they are removing opposition from their path in any way they can. Over 40,000 colonists that remained loyal to the English Crown were forced to flee the 13 colonies during the rebellion. Of course in the more civilised France a decade later other measures were used to deal with opposition like beheading….

    Popular revolutionary movements are immune to air strikes. Their ‘fuel’ are recruiting and training centres located well away from the front lines. This means that the USAF isn’t even hitting the right targets as was the case in Vietnam. Targeting leaders only brings to fore younger, more energetic and adaptable new leaders; the strategy is self-defeating.

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  3. Michael

    I agree. The Obama strategy is weak. It is not a strategy at all as stated, so much as a stopgap to plug the rising opposition at home to the Obama administration. Americans do not want their soldiers fighting again on Iraqi never mind Syrian soil for no gain. The failure of the former US administration to support the Sunni people and place some Ba’ath party members in important admin positions in the post Saddam Iraqi gov ensured the rise of what the Obama admin now refers to as terrorists. Pointing to Somalia and Yemen as previous successful examples of this strategy is an indication of the weakness of the strategy. The newly elected Iraqi gov must cherish all it’s diverse ethnic and religious groups equally as must the Assad regime or it too will fail as Maliki failed. Iraq will disintegrate into Shia, Sunni and Khurd statelets with the regional leaders forever intervening and vying for control of their sponsored statelet. Perhaps this is the US real strategy. Keep all sides weak and when one rises to a position which threatens to dominate then pour in support, short of major troop investments, to re establish the unstable status quo. It may prove a cheaper strategy in the end but let’s get it out there as the strategy. Once the oil continues to flow, once no huge US troop investments are required and once the cost equation balances this might be a successful formula from a US standpoint. God help you if you are a citizen trying to live under the effects of such a strategy.

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