President Barack Obama said Thursday that the US has entered “a new phase of terrorism,” during remarks at the National Counterterrorism Center in Virginia.
Obama sought to “reassure a jittery nation,” as The New York Times put it, with his speech on US counterterrorism policy, one of several similar addresses he has given since terror attacks hit San Bernardino, California, and Paris in recent weeks.
“We are in a new phase of terrorism, including lone actors and small groups of terrorists like those in San Bernardino,” Obama said. “Because they are smaller, often self-initiating, self-motivating, they’re harder to detect, and that makes it harder to prevent.”
The terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh) has been tied to the attacks in California and Paris, and it’s known for disseminating its propaganda online and recruiting Westerners using social media.
Earlier this month, attackers — including one who reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — killed 14 people at a community center in San Bernardino. Last month, a group of ISIS-affiliated attackers killed 130 people and injured hundreds more as they took hostages, detonated suicide vests, and shot dozens across Paris.
Obama assured the nation that the US is prepared to deal with such threats.
“Just as the threat evolves, so do we,” Obama said. “We’re constantly adapting, constantly improving, upping our game, getting better.”
He said that the “mission to protect our homeland” today stretches across three main fronts:
- Going after terrorists where they are, namely in Syria and Iraq;
- Preventing terrorists from getting into the US; and
- Preventing attacks in the US.
Obama said the US is “hitting ISIL harder than ever in Syria and Iraq” by taking out their leaders and coordinating with ground forces to deprive ISIS of territory.
“Our special operations forces are hard at work,” Obama said. “We took out the ISIS leader in Libya. We’ve taken out terrorists in Yemen and Somalia. So we’re sending a message: If you target Americans, you will have no safe haven. We will find you and we will defend our nation.”
Earlier on Thursday, senior Obama administration officials held a call with reporters to discuss the vetting process for the US’ visa programs. One of the San Bernardino attackers entered into the US on a K-1 visa with a Pakistani passport. She was married to the other attacker, a US citizen.
“We strive to have the most rigorous security and background vetting for all people who apply for visas to enter the United States,” one senior administration official said.
The official noted that nearly all visa applicants are interviewed by a consulate officer and that the US can revoke visas if new information comes to light even after a person enters the country.
“We constantly review records of these individuals as new information is made aware … and if information becomes available that would support the revocation of that visa, the appropriate messages are sent to the State Department,” the official said.
The Obama administration is now reviewing the visa-vetting process to determine whether additional checks are necessary.
“The working groups are already convened and they are reviewing all these materials as we speak and certainly the president … has asked us to redouble our efforts,” another senior administration official said on the call. “… It’s a rigorous review … and there are a lot of areas we are covering.”
Reports that Tashfeen Malik — the San Bernardino shooter who came into the US on a visa — posted support for terrorist groups on social media before she was approved, led some to question why immigration officials haven’t typically included social media in vetting. (Malik’s posts in particular, however, weren’t public. FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that she sent private messages supporting jihad to a small group of people in Pakistan.)
Obama offered more assurances about the US visa program during his speech.
“Any refugee coming to the United States, some of them victims of terrorism themselves, will continue to get the most intensive scrutiny of any arrival,” he said, noting that refugees go through up to two years of vetting, including biometric screening.
“We’ve prevailed over much greater threats than this,” Obama added. “We will prevail again.”
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