The Islamic State’s execution of journalist Steven Sotloff was met with immediate condemnation from international leaders including President Barack Obama, who called the event “a horrific act of violence.” But what happens next likely will dissatisfy anyone who fears further attacks and believes this latest act of terror will provoke a harsh U.S. response. The gruesome killings of Sotloff and fellow journalist James Foley – and the threat by the extremists to kill a British aid worker – likely won’t elicit much change in the Obama administration’s approach to fighting the Islamic State group.“We’re not at the point of a major shift in strategy, which I realize is depressing,” says Stephanie Sanok Kostro, a former Defense official and adviser to the U.S. coalition in Iraq. While speaking from Estonia on Wednesday morning, Obama warned those who would harm Americans that the U.S. government and its people would not forget such atrocities.
“That’s going to take some time, but we’re going to get it done. I’m very confident of it,” Obama said, later saying international support could shrink the Islamic State down to a “manageable problem.”
Secretary of State John Kerry took a similar, careful approach in his response, calling the execution of Sotloff “an act of medieval savagery by a coward hiding behind a mask.” He touted the failed U.S. special operations mission in Syria to free the Islamic State’s hostages, which the Pentagon acknowledged in late August after it said news outlets were planning to expose the story.
“We have taken the fight to this kind of savagery before and believe me we will take it again,” Kerry said, while again promising no quick solutions. “Those who have murdered James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria should know that the United States will hold them accountable too, no matter how long it takes.”
Obama was elected in 2008 on a mandate of bringing Americans home from protracted wars in the Middle East. His spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters at the White House earlier this week that the president is not and will not consider putting U.S. combat troops back on the ground in Iraq.
All eyes now turn to the NATO meeting of heads of state this week, where the president might be able to drum up further support for the yet undefined coalition of international forces that will apply a wide range of political, diplomatic and perhaps military pressure to the Islamic State to defeat the group in Iraq and in Syria.
At present, the U.S. will keep to the limited airstrikes it is conducting in Iraq, constrained by the local government’s permission to operate there and the narrow goals of protecting U.S. interests, preventing genocide and assisting Iraqi forces.
The president and his cabinet secretaries must be very careful about what they say publicly, particularly when contrasted against the advanced propaganda machine that the Islamic State has produced, warns Kostro, who is now a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The extremist group’s ability to get out its message has proved highly effective in recruiting fresh volunteers from the region, Europe and the U.S., as well as in striking terror into the minds of those worldwide who the group considers to be nonbelievers.
Any indication the U.S. is stepping up as a response to the taped killings could be dangerous, Kostro says. Going beyond the language Obama and Kerry have used so far could paint the U.S. into a corner, she adds, and cede into the rhetoric of its adversaries.
“The silence has been definitely calculated not to feed into the propaganda machine,” she says.
So far, the threat posed by the Islamic State has been limited to the populations that happen to stand in the way of its establishing a caliphate in and around Iraq and Syria, and those brave enough to travel to those regions, like Foley and Sotloff.
But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has indicated the danger the Islamic State poses could soon extend to the U.S. homeland. At a press briefing late last month, he offered that Americans should compare the imminence of the current threat to the situation in the U.S. before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
When asked specifically if the Islamic State represents a threat on that scale, Hagel said the group “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen.”
“They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded,” he added. “We must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it and get ready.”
His opinion is not shared by all senior national security officials, indicating some differences in the kind of advice Obama may be receiving from his top advisers. Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said on Wednesday that an imminent attack against the U.S. is not likely, for now.
“We certainly aren’t there yet. [The Islamic State] is not al-Qaida pre-9/11,” he said while speaking at the Brookings Institution. “We are not where we were pre-9/11.”
The remarks come just days after the British government elevated its domestic terror alert, indicating a high-profile attack there is likely.
But Olsen, whose prior career was largely based at the Department of Justice, added that the NCTC has not picked up on any indications that foreign fighters connected with the Islamic State are operating within the U.S.
That form of direct threat would likely force Obama to shift his strategy against the extremist forces and ramp up the U.S. military and law enforcement response. For now, the only news of shifting tactics lies in the more than 350 additional troops the Defense Department plans to send to Baghdad, per a State Department request, to further protect U.S. officials and assets there.
A diplomat or senior official kneeling in the place of Foley or Sotloff likely would create a different scenario.