WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S.-led military coalition is hitting ISIS “harder than ever,” President Barack Obama said at the Pentagon on Monday, sharpening his rhetoric on the war as he comes under criticism for his strategy after a pair of ISIS-linked attacks.
Listing Islamic State leaders taken out by U.S. airstrikes — including the executioner known as “Jihadi John” — Obama sought to convey forward momentum in the battle, even as Americans’ fears of an attack inside the United States grow.
“ISIL leaders cannot hide, and our next message to them is simple: You are next,” Obama said, using the government’s preferred term for ISIS, assessing that ISIS had lost 40% of the territory it once held in Iraq.
Obama said the U.S. and coalition partners had launched nearly 9,000 airstrikes since the campaign against ISIS began last year, noting the number of bombs dropped in November was higher than any previous month.
“Every day, we destroy as well more of ISIL’s forces — their fighting positions, bunkers, and staging areas; their heavy weapons, bomb-making factories, compounds and training camps,” Obama said. “In many places, ISIL has lost its freedom of maneuver because they know if they mass their forces, we will wipe them out.”
But even that progress, Obama admitted, remains incremental. And he acknowledged that far-away victories do little to calm fears inside the U.S. of an attack on the homeland.
“We are recognizing that progress needs to keep coming faster,” Obama said. “Nobody knows it more than the countless Syrians and people living under the terror, and the people in San Bernardino and Paris and elsewhere who are grieving the loss of their loved ones.”
Obama was speaking after meeting with his National Security Council at the Pentagon. It’s rare for Obama to meet with his top military brass and homeland security experts outside the White House Situation Room; the session at the Defense Department was meant to convey the seriousness with which the President is approaching the military strategy in Iraq and Syria.
Obama said the visit was part of an ongoing effort to “review and constantly strengthen” U.S. military plans against ISIS. He announced during the meeting the Defense Secretary Ashton Carter would soon depart on a trip to the Middle East to further examine the anti-ISIS military strategy.
Obama has been under pressure to reassure Americans that his strategy against ISIS is working following terror attacks linked to the group in Paris and California.
Before those incidents, Obama sounded confident in coalition efforts against ISIS, saying in interviews that the group’s land-grab was “contained” and that the U.S. homeland has “never been more protected.”
The U.S. and its partners have been enjoying some gains on the ground, including retaking Sinjar Mountain in Iraq and beginning to advance on Ramadi, held by ISIS since the spring.
In his remarks, Obama noted recent attempts to destroy ISIS oil infrastructure and touted the recent death of ISIS’ finance chief. He said some who previously pledged allegiance to the group were defecting.
“More people are seeing ISIL for the thugs, and the thieves, and the killers that they are,” he said.
But despite the actions the President detailed, the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino shook Americans’ confidence in the government’s ability to protect them from terror groups. Obama delivered a rare primetime address to update the nation on his anti-ISIS strategy last Sunday, and on Thursday will receive a briefing at the National Counterterrorism Center, outside Washington, on the latest intelligence about holiday threats.
But the ramp-up in events designed to convey Obama’s steadfastness against ISIS hasn’t been paired with a large-scale shift in strategy. Obama has consistently ruled out sending a large number of ground forces into Iraq or Syria, saying the nation has no appetite for another American-led war in the Middle East.
He has sent small number of Special Operations forces, including announcing the deployment of additional operators to Iraq at the beginning of December.
The U.S. has also ramped up intelligence gathering in partnership with European allies, an effort that doesn’t lend itself to grand displays of military strength that could help assuage fears in the U.S.
Republicans, long critical of Obama’s ISIS strategy, said the President’s Pentagon visit Monday amounted to a public relations campaign.
“This politically motivated photo-op won’t do a thing to protect the American people from another attack,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short.
While scaling up his ISIS messaging, Obama has also attempted to counter anti-Islam sentiments in the United States, insisting that the U.S. is not at war with the millions of peaceful Muslims who have decried terrorism.
As part of those efforts, members of Obama’s staff were meeting with American Muslim leaders at the White House Monday, though the President himself was not scheduled to attend.