When it comes to characterizing ISIS, it doesn’t usually take long for events to force Barack Obama to eat his words. He called them “jayvees” in January 2014, just a few months before seizing vast sections of Iraq and Syria to set up a terrorist quasi-state. He admitted that he didn’t have a strategy in place to deal with them in August of the same year, and got forced into developing one by the public reaction a month later. Last month Obama declared ISIS “contained” a day before the attacks in Paris, and just a couple of weeks before ISIS began expanding its presence in Libya and establishing a regional capital in Sirte.
So it was almost certain that events would eclipse this statement in one way or another:
“If you’ve been watching television for the last month, all you have been seeing, all you have been hearing about is these guys with masks or black flags who are potentially coming to get you,” he said in the NPR interview. “So I understand why people are concerned about it.”
“Look, the media is pursuing ratings,” he added later. “This is a legitimate news story. I think that, you know, it’s up to the media to make a determination about how they want to cover things.”
Funny he should mention that. The Associated Press polled their editors about the top news stories of 2015, and it turns out that they think the rise of a terrorist state in the Middle East is actually big news. In fact, the ISIS conflict accounts for both the #1 and #3 slots:
Here are 2015’s top 10 stories, in order:
1: ISLAMIC STATE: A multinational coalition intensified ground and air attacks against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, including expanded roles for Western European countries worried about IS-backed terrorism. For its part, IS sought to demonstrate an expansive reach by its operatives and supporters, claiming to have carried out or inspired the bombing of a Russian airliner, attacks in Beirut and Paris, and the deadly shooting in San Bernardino, California.
2: GAY MARRIAGE: Fifteen years after Vermont pioneered civil unions for same-sex couples, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in June enabling them to marry in all 50 states. Gay-rights activists heralded it as their movement’s biggest breakthrough, but there were flashes of disapproval. A county clerk in Kentucky, Kim Davis, spent a few days in jail after refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in her jurisdiction.
3: PARIS ATTACKS: The first attack came just a week into the new year. Two brothers who called themselves members of al-Qaida barged into the offices of the satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and later attacked a Jewish market, gunning down 17 people in all. Nov. 13 brought a far deadlier onslaught: Eight Islamic State militants killed 130 people in coordinated assaults around Paris. Targets included restaurants, bars and an indoor rock concert.
Don’t forget that the Paris attacks got quarterbacked by a known ISIS commander who traveled between Syria and France at whim. Killed in the post-attack raid, he transited through the Greek island of Leros a few weeks prior to the attack. Another ringleader, escaped the French dragnet and is widely believed to be back in ISIS-controlled territory. So yes, the third-ranked top story also relates directly to ISIS.
In that sense, we can add in top story #6 too:
6: TERRORISM WORRIES: Fears about terrorism in the U.S. surged after a married couple in California — described by investigators as radicalized Muslims — carried out the attack in San Bernardino that killed 14 people. The rampage inflamed an already intense debate over whether to accommodate refugees from Syria, and prompted Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump to call for a ban on Muslims coming to the U.S.
The issue isn’t that the media pays too much attention to ISIS. It’s that Obama hasn’t paid enough attention to it — and that he’s still using it as a platform for his gun-control hobby horse rather than producing an effective strategy to destroy ISIS as he promised 15 months ago.