For Barack Obama, the danger posed by the Islamic State was “underestimated” in the United States, although the Secret Service did raise the alarm. Top-secret reports written last year by the Secret Service already described an alarming situation, but the White house “didn’t pay attention.” This was the recent response that the infuriated intelligence community anonymously gave The New York Times after Obama seemingly offloaded the blame for underestimating the situation in Syria onto them. In an interview about the Islamic State group’s military advances, Obama stated, “I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” A senior intelligence official rebutted Obama’s statement, telling The New York Times, “Some of us were pushing the reporting,” but that at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, “they were preoccupied with other crises.” For them, the matter “just wasn’t a big priority.”
In an interview with the Washington Post a few weeks ago, Clapper actually admitted to having underestimated the threat when he stated, “What we didn’t do is predict the [Islamic State’s] ‘will to fight.’” However, the same newspaper pointed out that there were clear signs that the Islamic State group was becoming more powerful. Senior officials had even expressed their concerns publicly, but at the beginning of the year Obama still defined the Islamic State group’s jihadi as “the J.V. team.”
On Nov. 13, 2013, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran Brett McGurk stated at a Congress hearing that the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had “early this year announced a campaign of terror against Iraq” and that “since then, we have seen upwards of 40 suicide bombers per month.” He also stated that the U.S. had a real problem on its hands and that there was no doubt that the Islamic State group was putting down strong roots in Syria and Iraq.
Three months later, on Feb. 11, 2014, General Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated during a hearing in Congress that al-Qaida and the Islamic State group “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah.” These two Iraqi cities were the scene of long and bloody battles for American forces after the capture of Saddam Hussein.
On May 11, Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister at that time, officially asked the United States for help in dealing with the Islamic State group but the White House hesitated, as did Congress. At this time, the matter was more of a political issue than a military or intelligence concern. The administration wanted to put pressure on al-Maliki so that he would steer his government toward a more “inclusive” model, giving more voice to the Sunni minority. A senior administration official anonymously told The New York Times, “It was frustrating because we recognized that there was a need to do more and do it more quickly, but the Iraqi go-slow approach made that a challenge.”
A turning point came on June 10, when the Islamic State group captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. From this point on, Obama started to actually consider direct military action in order to prevent Baghdad from suffering the same fate. The bombings started at the beginning of August. Then, on Sept. 18, even Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, stated, “In hindsight, I wish we had been a little — I’ll only speak for me and for NSA — I wish we’d been a little stronger.”