Saul Loeb / AP Photo

Obama calls Calif. shooting ‘an act of terrorism,’ vows to ‘destroy’ ISIL

In rare Oval Office speech, president seeks to reassure nation shaken by recent attacks in San Bernardino and Paris

President Barack Obama addressed the nation on Sunday night as recent attacks in Paris and California have raised concerns that the U.S. and other countries aren't doing enough to prevent terror attacks.

"I know that after so much war, many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure," he said, speaking from a lectern in his West Wing office.

The president's speech followed Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people and wounded 21. Authorities say a couple carried out the attack and the wife pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its leader in a Facebook post.

Obama said that while there was no evidence that the shooters were directed by a terror network overseas or part of a broader plot, "the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalization."

The president said "Over the last few years, however, the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase. As we've become better at preventing complex multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turn to less complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society."

He added that "the threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won't depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values or giving into fear. That's what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless. And by drawing upon every aspect of American power."

Obama's speech was likely to leave his critics unsatisfied. He announced no significant shift in U.S. strategy and offered no new policy prescriptions for defeating ISIL, underscoring both his confidence in his current approach and the lack of easy options for countering the group.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., dismissed the president's address as "a half-hearted attempt to defend and distract from a failing policy."

Obama called for  for cooperation between private companies and law enforcement to ensure potential attackers can't use technology to evade detection. He also called for a review of the visa waiver program for people seeking to come to the U.S. and said he would urge private companies and law enforcement leaders to work together to ensure potential attackers can't use technology to evade detection.

Obama also called on Congress to pass new authorization for military actions underway against ISIL in Iraq and Syria and to approve legislation to keep people on the "no-fly list" from buying guns.

The president also reiterated his call for tightening gun laws, saying no matter how effective law enforcement and intelligence are, they can't identify every would-be shooter. He called it a matter of national security to prevent potential killers from getting guns.

"What we can do, and must do, is make it harder for them to kill," he said.

Obama stands little chance of getting the Republican-led Congress to agree to any gun control measures. On Thursday, the Senate rejected legislation barring people suspected by the government of being terrorists from purchasing firearms. Gun rights advocates say such a ban would violate the rights of people who haven't been convicted of crimes.

In speaking from the Oval Office, Obama turned to a tool of the presidency that he has used infrequently. He's made televised statements from the Oval Office just twice, the last in 2010 when he announced the end of combat missions in Iraq.

While Obama has spoken frequently about ISIL in recent news conferences and other events, the decision to speak in prime-time reflected concern among his advisers that his message isn't breaking through. The White House has been particularly concerned about the heated rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates about Muslims.

The president implored Americans to not turn against Muslims at home, saying ISIL was driven by a desire to spark a war between the West and Islam. Still, he called on Muslims in the U.S. and around the world to take up the cause of fighting the group and others like it.

"We welcome President Obama's strong statement calling for national unity and rejecting anti-Muslim 'suspicion and hate,'" said Nihad Awad, executive director of The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) after the speech. "The president was clear in disassociating Islam from the thugs of ISIS, who are the common enemy of all Americans and of all Muslims worldwide."

Obama repeated his long-standing opposition to an American-led ground war in the Middle East and made no mention of the more aggressive action others have suggested, including a enforcing a no-fly zone and safe corridors in Syria.

The president's critics — and increasingly, some members of his own party — have questioned his strategy. Hours before he spoke, Hillary Clinton — his former secretary of state and the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination — said the U.S. is "not winning" the fight against ISIL.

The Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus released a statement immediately after Obama's speech saying "The path laid out by President Obama and supported by Hillary Clinton has not worked, and ISIS has only gained in strength.  The attacks in San Bernardino should serve as a wake-up call for Obama and Clinton that the way to victory is not through the status quo but refocusing our efforts to defeat ISIS.”

Obama has insisted that ISIL is contained in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has set its sights elsewhere in the world, launching attacks in Lebanon and Turkey, and downing a Russia airliner over Egypt.

The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris marked the group's most aggressive actions in Europe, a coordinated effort that left 130 people dead and wounded hundreds more. 


'Unspeakable violence'

Last week, the terror threat drew even closer for Americans when a couple launched an attack in San Bernardino.

Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook were killed in a shootout with police after the Wednesday attack during a holiday party at a social services agency in San Bernardino, California.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the massacre as an "act of terrorism" after Malik was believed to have pledged allegiance to ISIL.

Obama misspoke when he said Malik, the female assailant in the San Bernardino shootings, came to the United States under the visa waiver program. He said he has "ordered the departments of State and Homeland Security to review the visa waiver program under which the female terrorist in San Bernardino originally came to this country."

Malik came to the U.S. on a K-1 visa, known as a "fiancée visa," when she moved to the United States to marry Syed Farook, her husband and accomplice in the massacre in the Southern California city last week. The White House has acknowledged the error.

"I think I can't say definitively right now what led either of these two to pick up guns and become murderers. I consider that is the focus of our investigation," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday before Obama made his address.

"We're looking at everything we can find out about these two killers' lives — how they grew up, where they grew up, how they met. All of those things will provide us guidance," she said.

One U.S. official said there appears to be nothing in Farook's history that would implicate him as the driver of the attack.

In an email sent after the Oval Office address, Obama said he was "confident America will succeed in this mission" adding that "no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law."

The nation has been transfixed by coverage of the San Bernardino attacks. Obama, already facing scrutiny for his strategy in Syria, has been criticized by Republicans for initially focusing on the issue of gun control after the attacks.

Obama has been frustrated by his failure to convince Congress to pass tougher gun laws despite a series of horrific mass shootings during his time in office.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to own guns, making the subject of reforms — opposed by the powerful gun lobby — politically fraught.

Obama met on Friday with Gabby Giffords, a former Democratic representative from Arizona who survived a mass shooting in 2011 and has since become an advocate for tougher laws.

In October, after another shooting, Obama tasked White House lawyers to find new ways he could use his executive powers to address the issue. That review is ongoing.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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