On the same day he nominated a new military chief, President Obama encountered renewed criticism over his war on the Islamic State and was forced to confront a real possibility that the terrorist group may already have agents operating inside the U.S.
White House officials stressed Tuesday that it’s too early to determine whether the two Muslim gunmen who tried to attack a Texas cartoon contest over the weekend were Islamic State fighters, as the group has claimed and as one of the gunmen suggested on social media.
Republicans are blasting the president over his broader strategy to defeat the Islamic State, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria and has proved in recent weeks that it is capable of carrying out atrocities in North Africa and elsewhere.
With an inadequate offensive against the group, Republicans say, more attacks in the U.S. are inevitable.
“We need a president for this country who will look the American people in the eye and who will tell people the truth and say it may not be tomorrow, a month or even a year. But it’s when another terrorist attempt is made on our soil. I’d rather take the fight to them before they bring the fight to us,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate, said in a speech Monday night in Michigan, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Mr. Walker said the U.S. needs a leader who recognizes the threat posed by “radical Islamic terrorism” — a term the White House has refused to use.
Mr. Obama on Tuesday nominated Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford to serve as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During a speech in the Rose Garden, the president called Gen. Dunford “a proven leader” and a strategic thinker.
Gen. Dunford — along with Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, nominated to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs — will be two of Mr. Obama’s closest partners as he winds down military operations in Afghanistan and tackles a number of other foreign policy priorities during his final 18 months in office.
Top Republicans on Capitol Hill said they welcomed the nomination. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Gen. Dunford is “extremely enthusiastic,” and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, called him “a good man and a good commander.”
“His leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan were critical for the successes we have had there,” Mr. McCarthy said. “I can imagine few others better suited to serve as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Mr. Earnest said Gen. Dunford’s combat experience in the Middle East was an important factor in the president’s decision. “Gen. Dunford isn’t somebody who just talks the talk, but walks the walk,” he said.
The fight against the Islamic State, which began last summer with U.S. airstrikes, surely will remain one of the most pressing and complex challenges.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, claimed responsibility Tuesday for a gunbattle with police outside a Garland, Texas, contest in which a $10,000 prize was awarded for the best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. The two gunmen were killed before they could claim any lives, though a security guard was wounded during an exchange of gunfire.
One of the gunmen, Elton Simpson, reportedly used his Twitter account to affiliate himself with the Islamic State just hours before the shooting. The tweets are fueling speculation that even if the shooters weren’t members of the terrorist group, they were clearly inspired by its message.
Administration officials say it’s too early to draw conclusions, though they concede that the Islamic State is trying to recruit Americans to carry out attacks inside the U.S.
“There have been a number of individuals, Americans, who have been apprehended by law enforcement, who are attempting to travel to the Middle East. That, at least, is an indication of their level of sympathy for ISIL or for extremist organizations around the world,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
“And so we’re very vigilant about the efforts that are underway by ISIL and other extremist organizations to try to radicalize some individuals in the United States. And we’re working closely with community leaders, law enforcement officials, of course, to try to counter that threat,” he said.
Analysts say the Texas shooters might have been inspired by the Islamic State, but it’s unlikely the organization has the type of international infrastructure to plan and execute attacks in the West.
“I think we will continue see ‘copycats’ around the globe who want to cash in on ISIL’s infamy. There may be some ideological affinity and proclamations of unity, but I doubt that will translate into much real coordination or authentic centralized command and control,” said Charles Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force deputy judge advocate general and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.
Meanwhile, the White House said the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies were aware days in advance about the Texas cartoon event, but officials wouldn’t cast judgment on whether the contest was appropriate.
“There is no expression, however offensive, that justifies an act of terrorism or even an act of violence,” Mr. Earnest said.
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said the contest wasn’t offensive and that the shooters targeted the event in the hopes of bringing “Sharia law into America by intimidation.”
“I think we have to push back on this. I don’t think that what they did down there was offensive. I think it was a robust demonstration of freedom of speech and we have to do that,” he told CNN on Tuesday.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.