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Obama: US will defeat new phase of terror

Published 07/12/2015

President Barack Obama addresses America from the Oval Office (Pool photo/AP)
President Barack Obama addresses America from the Oval Office (Pool photo/AP)

Barack Obama has vowed that the United States will overcome a new phase of the terror trying to "poison the minds" of people around the world, as he sought to reassure Americans rocked by the attacks in Paris and California.

The US president's speech, in a rare Oval Office address, followed Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people and wounded 21.

Husband and wife Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik carried out the attack and authorities say Malik had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and its leader in a Facebook post.

"I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure," Mr Obama said, speaking in his West Wing office. "The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it."

Mr Obama said in his 13-minute address that while there was no evidence the California killers were directed by a terror network overseas or part of a broader plot, "the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalisation".

The president's decision to speak from the Oval Office in US prime time reflected the White House's concern that his message on the recent attacks has not broken through, particularly in the midst of a heated presidential campaign.

Yet the speech is likely to leave his critics unsatisfied. He announced no significant shift in US strategy and offered no new policy prescriptions for defeating IS, underscoring both his confidence in his current approach and the lack of easy options for countering the extremist group.

Mr Obama did call for co-operation between private companies and law enforcement to ensure potential attackers cannot use technology to evade detection. He also urged Congress to pass new force authorisation for military actions under way against IS in Iraq and Syria, and also to approve legislation to stop guns from being sold to people prohibited from flying on planes in the US for terrorist concerns.

He implored Americans to not turn against Muslims at home, saying IS was driven by a desire to spark a war between the West and Islam, but called on Muslims in the US and around the world to take up the cause of fighting extremism.

The spread of radical Islam into American communities, he said, was "a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse".

The president's most specific policy announcement was to order the departments of state and homeland security to review the fiance visa programme that Malik used to enter the US.

In his remarks, Mr Obama referred to a visa waiver programme that Congress is also reviewing, but the White House later clarified he meant the fiance programme.

He also reiterated his call for broader gun control legislation, saying no matter how effective law enforcement and intelligence agencies were, they could not identify every would-be shooter. He called it a matter of national security to prevent potential killers from getting guns.

"What we can do, and must do, is make it harder for them to kill," he said.

But Mr Obama stands little chance of getting the Republican-led Congress to agree to any gun control measures.

On Thursday, the Senate rejected legislation barring people suspected by the government of being terrorists from purchasing firearms. Gun rights advocates say such a ban would violate the rights of people who have not been convicted of crimes.

Congress also has been unable to agree any plan to authorise more force against IS and the administration's proposal has languished since February.

Mr Obama repeated his long-standing opposition to an American-led ground war in the Middle East and made no mention of the more aggressive action others have suggested, including a enforcing a no-fly zone and safe corridors in Syria.

"Our success won't depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values or giving in to fear," he said. "Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless."

The president's critics - and increasingly, some members of his own party - have questioned his strategy.

Hours before he spoke, Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state and the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the US was "not winning" the fight against IS.

Mr Obama has insisted that IS is contained in Iraq and Syria, but the group has set its sights elsewhere in the world, launching attacks in Lebanon and Turkey and downing a Russia airliner over Egypt.

The November 13 attacks in Paris marked the group's most aggressive actions in Europe, a co-ordinated effort that left 130 people dead and wounded hundreds more.

Last week, the terror threat drew even closer for Americans when Malik, 29, originally from Pakistan, and her 28-year-old American-born husband launched an attack on an office party lunch in San Bernardino.

The FBI is investigating the massacre as a terrorist attack that, if proved, would be the deadliest by Islamic extremists on American soil since September 11 2001.

A Facebook official said Malik's post pledging allegiance to IS came about the time the couple stormed the San Bernardino centre.

Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush were not impressed with the speech.

Florida senator Mr Rubio said people were growing scared because "we have a president who is completely overwhelmed" by the terrorist threat.

He told Fox News that he heard nothing new in the speech except a call for gun control, which would make no difference and Mr Obama may have made things worse, rather than better.

Former Florida governor Mr Bush said: "Obama has finally been forced to abandon the political fantasy he has perpetuated for years that the threat of terrorism was receding."

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