President Obama so far has escaped a Sept. 11-style catastrophe, but his time in office still has been peppered with terrorist-related shootings from Fort Hood to Benghazi, raising complex questions about this administration’s handling of the fight against Islamist terror and putting a spotlight on controversial domestic issues such as gun control.
Last week’s attack at a Chattanooga, Tennessee, military base — which is still under investigation, though mounting evidence points to an act of terrorism — has renewed the national debate over whether the administration is doing enough to defeat Muslim extremist groups around the world, and whether the federal government needs to rethink long-standing policies prohibiting military personnel from carrying firearms on bases.
Critics also have charged that the White House is foolish in its refusal to use terms such as “radical Islam” or “Islamism” when discussing the fight against extremist groups. Officials maintain that they don’t want to associate terrorists with Islam, even when “Islam” is the explicitly stated motivation of the attackers themselves.
For Mr. Obama, the Chattanooga shooting, which claimed the lives of five service members, is yet another reminder that U.S. military personnel, police and civilians sometimes are in danger on American soil. Analysts say the threat of such shootings or other attacks, whether they be orchestrated directly by a terrorist group such as the Islamic State or carried out by a lone wolf inspired by their ideology, has increased in recent years.
“I’d say we’re not better off than we were five years ago because with the advent of ISIS the threat has increased. There are more individuals potentially attracted to the ideology because of ISIS’ success and its strength in messaging,” said David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, using another term for the Islamic State terrorist group. “Perfection is impossible. We have a pretty strong methodology of trying to identify these individuals before they engage in violence. This is a tough nut to crack because it’s very easy for people to hide their intentions.”
Law enforcement officials told The Washington Times over the weekend that they are investigating the recent travels of Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, the gunman the Chattanooga shootings, to determine whether he may have come into contact with Islamic extremists during a trip to Jordan last year.
Top Obama officials have not explicitly labeled the attack as terrorism, though they have indicated that they are open to such a designation.
“I know that the FBI made clear yesterday that they’re looking at a variety of possible motives, including the possibility of domestic terrorism. So that is a part of their ongoing investigation, but I will allow the investigators themselves to provide you with an update when they’re able to,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday.
While the investigation plays out, analysts say, it’s becoming clear that the incident was an act of terrorism.
“I think every indicator is that’s what it is,” Michael Leiter, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program Sunday.
The Chattanooga shooting was the latest in a string of incidents dating back to the early days of Mr. Obama’s tenure. In 2009, Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others in an attack at Fort Hood, Texas. It later became clear that Hasan was inspired by Islamism and last year asked to be admitted as a “citizen” of the Islamic State.
Despite that, the White House has classified the shooting as “workplace violence,” not terrorism.
Other incidents included a shooting at a Little Rock, Arkansas, military recruiting station in 2009. The gunman apparently acted out of political and religious motives, officials said.
Last year, a man attacked New York City police officers with a machete after self-radicalizing, officials said.
Outside the U.S., the administration also was rocked by the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which claimed the lives of four Americans and led to charges that Mr. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, secretary of state at the time, hadn’t done enough to guard personnel abroad.
Mr. Obama said protecting Americans at home and around the world is his top priority. Still, some analysts say the issue of confronting terrorism often has taken a back seat to domestic issues.
“They’ve chosen not to make it a priority as they have made the economy a priority,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who was written about presidential leadership. “It became clear, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, that President Bush’s legacy would be defined on how well the fight on terrorism went. That is not true for President Obama, whose legacy is connected much more on domestic policy victories and movements on social policy.”
Outside the foreign policy realm, the Chattanooga shooting also has reignited the debate about whether military personnel should be allowed to carry firearms on bases.
Federal law prohibits service members from carrying guns unless they are working in a security role. Critics of the policy have said armed military personnel could have saved lives at Fort Hood, Chattanooga and elsewhere.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, said Sunday that he was ordering state officials to conduct a review and determine to what extent he can change such protocol.
He said the policy is largely up to the federal government.
“We’ll have a directive that comes out today that basically asks the adjudicant general to review the safety at all of our facilities, not just our armories, but the storefront recruiting units reviewing where it’s appropriate for our officers to be armed to a better degree than they were in the past, both where that’s appropriate and where it’s legal,” he told NBC News. “We’re going to do everything we can. End of the day, it will be a lot better if we have clarity from the federal side.”