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'Their Military Defeat Will Not Be Enough': Obama Discusses Efforts To Counter ISIS

President Obama speaks to reporters after meeting his National Security Council at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
President Obama speaks to reporters after meeting his National Security Council at the Pentagon on Thursday.

"ISIL has not had a major successful offensive operation in either Syria or Iraq in a full year," President Obama said Thursday in comments assessing U.S. efforts against the extremist group.

Two years ago, "to many observers, ISIL looked invincible," he said. But now: "ISIL turns out not to be invincible. They're, in fact, inevitably going to be defeated."

Still, Obama said, "their military defeat will not be enough. ... That's why we're working to counter violent extremism more broadly, including the social, economic and political factors that help fuel groups like ISIL and al-Qaida in the first place."

He made the comments at a Pentagon press briefing, after meeting with his National Security Council.

As ISIS has lost territory within Syria and Iraq, Obama said, this has caused the group to shift toward "encouraging high-profile terrorist attacks, including in the United States." He spells out the challenge:

"What ISIL has figured out is if they can convince a handful of people, or even one person, to carry out an attack on a subway, or a parade, or some other public venue and kill scores of people as opposed to thousands of people, it still creates the kinds of fear and concern that elevates their profile.

"So in some ways, rooting out these networks for smaller, less complicated attacks is tougher because it doesn't require as many resources on their part or preparation, but it does mean we have to do even more to generate the intelligence and to work with our partners in order to degrade those networks."

And as the group launches lower-level attacks, "that points to the need for us to not just have a military strategy, not just have a traditional counterterrorism strategy that's designed to bust up networks and catch folks before they carry out their attacks ... it points to the fact that we're going to have to do a better job in draining the ideology that is behind these attacks," Obama said.

Earlier this week, the U.S began an airstrike campaign in Libya, hitting targets in the Islamic State-held city of Sirte. The coastal city — the hometown of Libya's ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi — has been under ISIS control since last August. It's a major expansion of U.S. involvement in Libya.

As the Washington Post's Missy Ryan told Morning Edition, it means that "for the first time, ... the United States is supporting forces on the ground that are battling the Islamic State." The Pentagon has not specified an end point to the strikes.

As we have reported, ISIS has taken advantage of the chaos that has racked Libya and found footholds at multiple points in the country. Libya has several governments vying for power. The Pentagon said the airstrikes came at the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord, known as the GNA.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.