Obama: Rise of ISIS caught me by surprise

Why did Barack Obama fail to stop the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq? It was “not on my intelligence radar screen,” he told Fareed Zakaria in an interview aired last night on CNN:

ISIS’ march across Iraq and Syria — a campaign that’s forced President Barack Obama to return small numbers of US troops to the region, even after touting an end to the decade-long ground offensives there — came as a surprise to US intelligence, the President told CNN in a new special report.

The terror organization’s rise in a tumultuous Middle East has provided Obama some of the toughest decisions of his presidency, choices that CNN’s Fareed Zakaria explores in “The Legacy of Barack Obama” airing Wednesday.

“The ability of ISIL to not just mass inside of Syria, but then to initiate major land offensives that took Mosul, for example, that was not on my intelligence radar screen,” Obama told Zakaria, using the administration’s term for the Islamic State terror group.

Obama has made this claim before. In fact, he’s been making it ever since the ISIS sweep into Mosul exposed his estimation of the terror army as “jayvees” exposed his lack of engagement in Iraq after abandoning it in 2011. Obama made that comment in January 2014, just before then-Defense Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn briefed Congress on the potential for ISIS to start holding territory in western Iraq. His prepared testimony for a February 11, 2014 appearance included explicit warnings about ISIS’ ability to seize and hold territory — especially because they had already seized Ramadi as well as Fallujah:


When Obama claimed seven months later that US intelligence agencies did not have this on their radar, Eli Lake reported on the jaws dropping in those organizations:

Reached by The Daily Beast after Obama’s interview aired, one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq was flabbergasted. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting,” the former official said. …

Flynn was not alone. Clapper himself in that hearing warned that the three most effective jihadist groups in Syria—one of which he said was ISIS—presented a threat as a magnet for attracting foreign fighters. John Brennan, Obama’s CIA director, said he thought both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s formal franchise in Syria, presented a threat to launch external operations against the West.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said February 4 that because of areas of Syria that are “beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition,” a “major concern” was “the establishment of a safe haven, and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations.”

As it was then, this excuse from Obama is nothing more than blame-throwing. Flynn left DIA because of the clash over counterterrorist policies, and will return as national-security adviser to Donald Trump in January. This is just another shabby attempt to excuse Obama’s decision to abandon Iraq and the leverage we promised to use on behalf of Sunni leaders in the majority-Shi’ite government in Baghdad, a decision which led directly to the revitalization of al-Qaeda in Iraq in its new title of ISIS.

The intelligence radar worked just fine. Obama didn’t act because it would have called into question that decision, and forced him to do what ended up happening anyway — return American troops to Iraq. He’s still dodging responsibility for that failure.

Jazz Shaw Aug 07, 2022 2:31 PM ET