The blunt tone, with its echoes of President George W Bush’s reference to “Wanted, dead or alive” posters in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, appeared intent on defying critics who accuse the president of lacking aggression against jihadists in Iraq and Syria. But it disappointed those seeking a change of direction.
Flanked by Vice-President Joe Biden, the defence secretary, Ash Carter, and three military generals, Obama condemned Isis leaders as thugs, thieves and killers and confirmed the death of Mohammed Emwazi, a Briton known as “Jihadi John”, in an air strike last month.
“As we squeeze its heart, we’ll make it harder for Isil to pump its terror and propaganda to the rest of the world,” the president said, using an alternative acronym for the extremist group, in an eight-minute statement after meeting his national security council.
America’s strategy of hunting down leaders, training forces and stopping the group’s financing and propaganda is moving forward “with a great sense of urgency”, he said, and had been intensifying even before the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and San Bernardino, California. But he acknowledged: “We recognise that progress needs to keep coming faster.”
Obama told reporters: “This continues to be a difficult fight. Isil is dug in, including in urban areas, and they hide behind civilians, using defenceless men, women and children as human shields. So even as we’re relentless, we have to be smart, targeting Isil surgically, with precision.”
Fighters, bombers and drones have been increasing the pace of airstrikes, now up to nearly 9,000 as of today, he said. In November, the coalition dropped more bombs on Islamic State targets than in any month since the campaign started. “We are hitting Isil harder than ever.”
He listed several prominent Isis leaders, commanders and killers who have been “taken out”, including Emwazi, “who brutally murdered Americans and others”.
The statement came at the start of a week-long push to explain his strategy for combating Islamist extremism abroad and its sympathisers at home. Obama is also slated to attend a briefing at the National Counterterrorism Center later in the week.
But Republicans were unimpressed by the show of military muscle. House majority leader Kevin McCarthy said: “The American people are smart enough to know when something is working or not, and it’s obvious that the president’s current strategy isn’t working.”
Seven in 10 Americans rate the risk of another attack in the US as at least somewhat high, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll, up from five in 10 in January. Asked if Obama had consciously chosen to make his rhetoric more aggressive for public benefit, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said when the president meets the national security council, “he is not looking at public opinion polls”.
In a change of emphasis from an oval office address just over a week ago when he appeared tired, Obama promised: “We’re going after Isil from their stronghold right in downtown Raqqa, to Libya, where we took out Abu Nabil, the Isil leader there. The point is, Isil leaders cannot hide. And our next message to them is simple: You are next.”
Since this summer, Isis has not had a single successful major offensive operation on the ground in Iraq or Syria, Obama said. “So far Isil has lost about 40% of the populated areas it once controlled in Iraq, and it will lose more… Isil’s lost thousands of square miles of territory it once controlled in Syria and it will lose more. The special forces that I ordered to Syria have begun supporting local forces as they push south, cut off supply lines and tighten the squeeze on Raqqa.”
But analysts accused Obama of posturing and failing to match his words with deeds.
Bilal Saab, senior fellow for Middle East security at the Atlantic Council, said: “If Christmas were not around the corner, he would not be making this speech. If you look at the content, nothing much has changed. The four elements of the strategy have stayed the same. I would call it a political speech because he’s been hammered by his opponents.”
Thomas Sanderson, director of the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US could make a difference with special forces and diplomacy but was far from being able to combat Isis recruitment, propaganda and training and equipment.
“The president is now imbued with reluctant enthusiasm,” he said. “He doesn’t have a choice now. San Bernardino really forced his hand.”
At the Pentagon Obama also claimed that Isis is losing the propaganda war. “More people are seeing Isil for the thugs and the thieves and the killers that they are. We’ve seen instances of Isil fighters defecting. Others who’ve tried to escape have been executed. And Isil’s reign of brutality and extortion continues to repel local populations and help fuel the refugee crisis. ‘So many people are migrating,’ said one Syrian refugee. Isil, she said, will “end up all alone.”
“All this said, we recognise that progress needs to keep coming faster… Just as the United States is doing more in this fight – just as our allies France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, Australia and Italy are doing more – so must others.”
Carter will go to the Middle East from Monday to work with the coalition to secure greater contributions, Obama said.
Bruce Riedel, a security and counter-terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said: “What strikes the most is the open admission that the Arab allies are not doing enough. Secretary of defence Carter is sent to get the Saudis and others to focus on ISIL (instead of Yemen), an implicit acknowledgement that the coalition has an Arab deficit. Since the strategy is based on their contributions to win, it’s an urgent priority.”
He added: “The president’s strategy has always been nuanced, promising the defeat of Isil but without American combat troops and another quagmire. This rhetoric has more about achieving success but the constraints and risks are still there in the president’s assessment.”