The Obama administration oversaw the 2011 takedown of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden but has since failed to confront honestly the more dangerous rise of the Islamic State, according to the Republican head of the House Committee on Homeland Security, who worries that the president’s “tone-deaf” posture toward Islamist terrorism has damaged the intelligence community’s own assessment of the new group.
“We’re facing the most severe terror threat environment since 9/11,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and a leading voice on Capitol Hill on security issues, accusing President Obama of remaining “willfully blind to the growing terror threat because it ran counter to his narrative.”
“He said terrorists were on the run, and he made clear the global war on terror was effectively over, but he was wrong,” Mr. McCaul told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview as part of a special series of articles examining the status of war against the group, also known as ISIL and ISIS, as the U.S. prepares to elect a new president.
“We’ve seen an unprecedented terror surge and it happened largely because we were looking the other way,” Mr. McCaul said, adding that “even our military and intelligence analysts have felt pressure to put out upbeat, unrealistic assessments of the threat.
“That’s partly a result of the tone the president has set at the top,” he said. “We cannot defeat an enemy we refuse to define, so the next commander in chief must make clear what this one didn’t — that we are at war with Islamist terrorists, a global movement based on a hateful ideology.”
Mr. McCaul, who recently led a bipartisan delegation on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe on the reach of Islamic State, spoke with The Times ahead of the rollout by House Republicans of a new and “comprehensive counterterrorism strategy” for the incoming administration geared to “winning the war against Islamist terror.”
“There is a lot more we can and should be doing to protect our homeland, counter radicalization, take the fight to the enemy and keep new networks and safe havens from emerging,” he said. “The bottom line is that right now ISIS and other Islamist terrorists look like they’re winning, and if we want to break the movement, we’ve got to make it look like they’re losing. Only then can we deprive them of the foot soldiers and funds they need to expand.
“Our enemy is adaptive, so we must be too,” he added. “Gone are the days of bin Laden, who relied on couriers and caves to plot attacks. This is a new generation of terrorists who exploit 21st century communications to spread their seventh century ideology, and it’s allowed them to franchise their recruiting and crowdsource their violence.”
“The dual threat from homegrown jihadists and foreign fighters is the biggest danger we face,” he said, pointing to committee data linking Islamic State to more than 100 plots or attacks against the West. Some 40 percent of the “external operations” — carried out beyond the group’s Syria and Iraq “caliphate” base — having targeted Americans.
“A majority were led by individual or so-called ‘lone wolf’ extremists, like in Orlando, but my concern is that ISIS is increasingly involved in directing and enabling such attacks,” said Mr. McCaul, adding that the group is believed to have deployed a growing number of its trained operatives to conduct external strikes — drawing from more than 40,000 foreign fighters that have poured into Syria and Iraq from 120 nations.
“[It’s] a fighting force larger than the armies of some of our own allies,” he said. “Their ranks include thousands of Westerners, and now they are returning home, including some to the U.S., where we worry they’ll radicalize others and potentially carry out attacks.”
The situation is worse in Turkey, North Africa and Western Europe. There are dramatically “more foreign fighters returning to Europe than to the U.S.,” said Mr. McCaul, who believes much of the region remains stuck in a “pre-9/11 counterterrorism mindset” that amounts to “a recipe for disaster.”
“Widespread security gaps are putting the continent in danger, including porous borders, weak traveler screening, poor intelligence sharing and inadequate counterterrorism laws,” he said. “Terrorist operatives are having a field day. Not only have they turned the refugee flows into a Trojan Horse for extremists, but in some cases they’ve been able to simply return on their own travel documents.”
Foreign fighters who make it home to Europe are a crucial step closer to the U.S., where the FBI is already investigating more than 1,000 homegrown terrorist suspects across the 50 states. “We’ve already arrested more than 100 ISIS supporters and plotters within our borders,” said Mr. McCaul.
President Obama’s domestic counter-radicalization initiatives have “completely failed,” he contended. “The next president must make that a focus and a priority. We’ve also got to launch a serious, concerted effort to identify and close security gaps that could be exploited by terrorists to get into our country.
“I don’t see that happening right now at the White House level,” said the congressman, who also lamented Mr. Obama’s push to close Guantanamo, saying it’s allowed “seasoned terrorists to return to the fight” and “left us without a clear detention and interrogation policy.”
“We can’t simply kill all the terrorists,” Mr. McCaul said. “We’ve got to bring some of them into custody, get the intelligence needed to stop plots and break up their networks, and put them on trial.
“We are facing a sophisticated and dangerous enemy. We’ve got to take it seriously,” he added. “If you don’t understand and define your enemy, like we did with communism and fascism, you can’t defeat them.”