WASHINGTON – Terrorism has evolved since the events on September 11 into a less complex form of killing innocents, US President Barack Obama said Sunday night in an address to the American people, warning that successful lone-wolf attacks could tear at the country’s historic commitment to tolerance and equality.
“The terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase,” the president said. “As we’ve become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turned to less complicated acts of violence, like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society.”
“The threat from terrorism is real,” he said. “But we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”
The speech, short on new policy proposals, did call on Congress to pass legislation that would prevent those on the country’s no-fly list from buying guns. He also asked for an assault weapons ban, noting that this new brand of terrorism relies on inspiring homegrown recruits who can easily acquire military arms.
“What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semi-automatic weapon?” Obama said. “This is a matter of national security.”
“We also need to make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino,” he said. “I know there are some who reject any gun safety measures. But the fact is that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies – no matter how effective they are – cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual is motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology. What we can do – and must do – is make it harder for them to kill.”
Obama stood at a lectern set up in the Oval Office – only his third speech from the room and his first in the Oval Office since the end of US combat operations in Iraq in 2010.
His speech began with an update on the attack last week in San Bernardino, California, that took the lives of 14 people at a disability center holiday party. The perpetrators had pledged support for the terrorist group Islamic State on social media.
Tashfeen Malik, one of the perpetrators, was born in Pakistan and lived in Saudi Arabia.
She moved to the US, having met her husband and terrorist partner-to-be, Chicago- born Syed Rizwan Farook, on a dating site.
The two murderers walked down “the dark path of radicalization,” Obama said. The FBI sees no evidence the attack was orchestrated overseas.
“They had stockpiled assault weapons, ammunition and pipe bombs,” he added.
Republicans have condemned the president for linking national security with the issue of gun control, and argue that the White House seeks to take advantage of crisis and fear to push unrelated legislation.
But the president says this new kind of extremism, stoked by anonymous sources on social media, is forcing the country to restrict access to deadly weapons.
Donald Trump, front runner for the GOP nomination for president, asked if “that is all there is” from the president in a dismissive post on Twitter. And Marco Rubio, another leading candidate, said that gun control would have done nothing to prevent the California assault.
“The president should resist using terrorist attacks to try to take away the rights of law-abiding Americans,” said Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another presidential contender.
“Millions of Americans have chosen to protect themselves and their families by purchasing a firearm. This is their right; indeed protecting their families is their obligation.”
Half of the president’s remarks were devoted to his fear that successful attacks could challenge the character of the nation, as Republican presidential candidates debate whether to single out Muslim Americans for surveillance and to deny entry to all refugees from war-torn Muslim nations.
“We cannot turn against each other by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam,” the president said.
“That, too, is what groups like ISIL want. ISIL does not speak for Islam. They are thugs and killers, part of a cult of death, and they account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world, including millions of patriotic Muslim Americans who reject their hateful ideology.”
A White House official said the president was backing up his speech with action. The president seeks to deny Islamic State any safe havens worldwide, and has increased the tempo of US-led coalition air strikes against targets in Syria and Iraq.
The administration is also directing the Department of Homeland Security to work with Congress on updating the country’s visa waiver programs and its terrorism alert system.
“As we intensify our counter-ISIL military efforts, we are also pressing forward on a reinvigorated political track in Syria,” the official said. “On November 14, participants in the International Support Group on Syria, including Russia and Iran, announced a path towards a Syrian-led political transition process.”
While the president rarely uses the term “war on terror” – a phrase coined by former President George W. Bush after the attacks in 2001 – Obama said on Sunday night that the US has been “at war with terrorists since al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11.”
“I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history,” the president said. “We were founded upon a belief in human dignity – that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law.”
“Even in this political season, even as we properly debate what steps I and future presidents must take to keep our country safe, let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional,” he said.
“Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear; that we have always met challenges – whether war or depression, natural disasters or terrorist attacks – by coming together around our common ideals as one nation, as one people. So long as we stay true to that tradition, I have no doubt America will prevail.”