President Obama, in what was billed as his last major national security speech in office, defended his counterterrorism record and strategy Tuesday while warning “the threat will endure” well into the future – and taking a glancing shot at his successor’s approach.
Even as a new congressional report declared the U.S. is facing its highest threat from Islamist terrorists since 9/11, Obama claimed progress in the fight against terror in his address at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, home to U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command.
While calling Al Qaeda a shadow of its former self, the outgoing president said the U.S. and its allies also are “breaking the back of ISIL.”
“The results are clear. ISIL has lost more than half its territory, ISIL has lost control of major population centers, its morale is plummeting, its recruitment is drying up,” Obama said.
He also declared that during his two terms, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned or executed an attack on the homeland.
At the same time, Obama acknowledged America has faced numerous attacks from “homegrown and largely isolated individuals who were radicalized online.”
“To say that we’ve made progress is not to say that the job is done,” Obama said, adding “violent extremism will be with us for years to come.”
He also seemed to critique President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric on the subject, without mentioning him by name: “Rather than offer false promises that we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs, or deploying more… troops or fencing ourselves off from the rest of the world, we have to take a long view of the terrorist threat.”
Despite Obama’s claims of progress, a new report published earlier Tuesday afternoon by the House Homeland Security Committee showed a growing threat to the United States and Europe.
“Make no mistake: we face a deadlier threat than ever before not only because our enemies have gotten savvier, but because we took the pressure off them,” House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said in a statement on the report. “For eight years, the Obama Administration reluctantly played global whack-a-mole with terrorists rather than leaning into the fight with decisive leadership.”
The report said that throughout 2016, ISIS conducted 62 attacks worldwide, injuring 732 people and killing 215 in several countries, including the United States, France, and Belgium.
According to the report, ISIS’ shift in messaging from joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq to carrying out attacks in fighters’ home countries is likely to accelerate the trend of at-home radicalization.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also slammed Obama's speech Tuesday as a "feeble attempt to evade the harsh judgment of history."
He said in a statement that "his legacy on counterterrorism is unmistakably clear: a disastrous withdrawal from Iraq, the terrorist rampage of ISIL, an indecisive approach to the war in Afghanistan that has empowered the Taliban, and an indifferent approach to the carnage in Syria on which our terrorist enemies have thrived."
Before taking the stage Tuesday, Obama met with top military leaders at the base, including Gen. Raymond Thomas, who heads U.S. Special Operations Command. He also told about 250 U.S. service members gathered in a gym that it had been the privilege of his lifetime to serve as their commander in chief.
For Obama, who came into office telling a war-weary nation he would wind down two wars and prevent new ones, the inclination toward smaller-scale, limited military involvement was a natural extension of his foreign policy philosophy. But his approach has most notably come up short in Syria, where Obama long ago predicted that U.S.-backed forces would eventually prevail over Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad's grip on power appears stronger than it has in years while the brutal civil war continues to rage.
Trump has said little about how he intends to shift course in Syria and whether he would continue Obama's strategy in other regions destabilized by extremist group. He's argued that ambiguity and unpredictability are assets that deny the enemy a chance to plan ahead.
Still, all signs suggest he'll pursue a more muscular, military-driven approach to extremist groups like the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Trump has argued that Obama's decision to withdraw the bulk of troops from Iraq, rather than negotiating harder with Baghdad to leave some there, created a power vacuum that allowed ISIS to form and seize territory.
During the presidential campaign, he said he would listen to top military officers about the need for ground troops to fight ISIS, at one point floating a figure of 20,000 to 30,000. Meanwhile, he's suggested that ousting Assad isn't a top priority and that closer alignment between the U.S. and Russia, which backs Assad, would be positive.
Obama was promoting Tuesday the benefits of his more limited approach. Under Obama, the number of U.S. troops Iraq and Afghanistan has dropped from roughly 180,000 to 15,000 today, according to deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been able to take out key Al Qaeda leaders, most notably Usama bin Laden, and has started edging the Islamic State group out of strongholds like Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
Yet while U.S. troop casualties declined significantly under Obama's approach, as he finishes his term the U.S. is fighting in far more corners of the globe – as ISIS has nearly tripled the number of countries where it operates.
Military action under former President George W. Bush was mostly limited to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Under Obama, the U.S. is also launching strikes in Syria, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, according to a report to Congress the White House released this week. Additional U.S. troops and assets are also in Jordan, Djibouti, Turkey, Egypt and Cameroon to support counterterrorism missions, while other overseas operations remain classified.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.