Obama unveils air strike plans against Islamic State

President warns radical Muslim fighters could pose threat to US if not stopped

US president Barack Obama unveiled plans early today to expand a month-long campaign of military strikes against radical Muslim fighters from Iraq into Syria. Video: The White House

US president Barack Obama unveiled plans early today to expand a month-long campaign of military strikes against radical Muslim fighters from Iraq into Syria, warning that they could, if not stopped, pose a threat to the US.

In an unusually aggressive speech for the president making his case for escalating action against militants, the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, Mr Obama said in a prime-time televised address that he would send a further 475 troops to Iraq to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces, bringing the total number of US troops deployed to the country since June to about 1,600.

The president warned that IS, a one-time al-Qaeda affiliate that has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq and recently beheaded two American journalists, poses a threat in the Middle East and further afield.

“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States,” said Mr Obama on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.


“While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies,” he said, using the other acronym that the militant group is known by.

Cautioning against a potential threat from thousands of foreigners, including European and Americans, fighting with IS, the president said: “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

A year after Mr Obama reversed a decision to take military action against Syrian government forces, the president authorised “a systematic campaign of air strikes” against IS, including, for the first time, in Syria, saying that he was willing to escalate US action against IS beyond Iraq where the US has carried out more than 150 air strikes in the past month.

“I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” the president said.

“This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

Mr Obama spoke for almost 15 minutes from the White House against a backdrop of recent opinion polls showing an increased public appetite for greater action against a militant group they see as a greater risk to the US following the beheadings of journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Addressing an American public weary of war after 13 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Obama stressed that the additional 475 troops being sent to Iraq “will not have a combat mission.”

“We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq,” he said.

He sought to offer reassurances that the military action he was planning against IS in Iraq and shortly in Syria would be different from the two earlier wars, saying the US would not be sending Americans into combat.

The US would fight IS by leading a “broad coalition of partners,” Mr Obama said, and increasing assistance to Syrian fighters opposed to the regime of president Bashar al-Assad in the country’s three-year civil war.

“It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” he said. “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.”

The president warned that the military strategy “to degrade and ultimately destroy” IS would not be completed quickly. “It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL,” he said.

He drew parallels with American counter-terrorism efforts against militants in Yemen and Somali where US forces have carried out air strikes supporting foreign fighters with military assistance and intelligence.

The president said that he didn’t need approval from the US Congress to execute his military plan against IS but said he would like its support “to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”

He does, however, require congressional approval to train and equip Syrian opposition forces and called on lawmakers to authorise this.

A senior administration official disclosed, prior to Mr Obama’s speech, that the plan against IS would not involve military troops being sent into Syria and that Saudi Arabia would host US training of anti-IS fighters.

Mr Obama did not say when the US would launch strikes against IS in Syria but a senior Pentagon official said last night that the US military was ready to conduct direct action against IS targets in the country.

Republican leader John Boehner, speaker of the House of the Representatives, welcomed the speech saying that Mr Obama had finally begun to make the case for decisive action against the threat from IS, but he remained cautious on the president's plans.

“A speech is not the same thing as a strategy, however,” he said. “While the president presented a compelling case for action, many questions remain about the way in which the president intends to act.”

In a heated exchange after Mr Obama's speech, the president's former press secretary Jay Carney, a new analyst on the CNN television news channel, was accused on air by Republican senator John McCain of lying.

Mr McCain blamed the rise of IS on the president’s failure to take the advice of his national security advisers who had wanted to arm and train Syrian opponents earlier and on the decision not to leave a residual force of US troops behind in Iraq after the American withdrawal in 2011.

The president’s former press secretary said that the Obama administration knew more now about the “make-up” of the Syrian opposition and that the Iraqi government didn’t want a residual force.

“Mr Carney, you are again saying facts that patently false,” he said, claiming that the Iraqis wanted some American troops to remain behind.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times