Not long ago, Barack Obama was all about ending military intervention in the Middle East. Now he’s expanding it. That says less about the president than it does about the rising threat from violent jihadists who’ve been metastasizing in the Islamic world.
Some events – such as 9/11 – bring jumbled, faraway incidents into clear focus. Thirteen years ago, it was the sight of the twin towers collapsing in Lower Manhattan. This time, it was the videotaped beheading of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, by a masked sadist with a British accent.
The beheadings encapsulated the savagery of the Islamic State, the al-Qaida offshoot that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq. Americans have responded to the atrocities with a surge of support for military action against the group. Obama now plans a long-term campaign of air attacks and expanded assistance for the democratic Syrian rebels he had been keeping at arm’s length.
He’s also been stitching together an allied coalition against the Islamic State. More important, he has bipartisan support at home: Polls suggest that a vast majority of the American public backs the air offensive.
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The murders of Foley and Sotloff put a human – and American – face on what had been an abstract struggle involving distant geography and ethnic groups. Yet this latest mutation of jihadism was no less dangerous before the two journalists were tortured to death on camera.
Islamic State forces see themselves as successors to Muhammad’s conquering armies, but they behave more like Attila’s Huns. They slaughter civilians wholesale, behead prisoners, enslave women. Their murderous intolerance of Shiites and religious minorities boils down to genocide.
They have soul mates elsewhere in Sunni regions. Qaida-inspired guerrillas are fighting government forces in in Egypt, across the Arabian Peninsula and in parts of Africa. A particularly loathsome group, Boko Haram, has been spreading in Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger.
These groups all seem fanatically focused on oppressing girls and women. In April, Boko Haram won global infamy by kidnapping at least 276 Nigerian high school girls and announcing that they would be sold as slaves. The abduction has faded as news, but more than 200 of the girls remain missing. They shouldn’t be forgotten.
As Obama and other U.S. leaders have come to recognize, the Islamic State poses a real danger to Americans at home and abroad. The English accent of the journalists’ murderer was a reminder that Westerners – including Americans – have joined the group and share its ideology.
They have passports and can come home. One American suicide bomber was trained by extremists in Syria, then returned to Florida for several months before going back to Syria to drive an explosive-packed truck into a restaurant. He could as easily have carried out some kind of attack in the United States.
These are dangerous people, and they have to be stopped. Obama was slow to acknowledge the threat, but he’s on target now. He deserves the backing of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike.