The Cable

Obama Says San Bernardino Attackers Like Mass Shooters: Hard to Stop

President Obama likened the search for lone-wolf terrorists to finding mass shooters.

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President Barack Obama said Friday that stopping assailants like those responsible for the San Bernardino, California, terror attack that left 14 dead earlier this month is as difficult a task as preventing the mass shootings that routinely bring carnage to the nation’s movie theaters and schools.

Speaking during his end-of-year press conference from the White House, Obama said the United States was doing all it could to prevent individuals from becoming radicalized and to track those who had adopted those ideologies before they could strike. But he admitted there are gaps in what law enforcement and intelligence can collect on individuals.

“It is very difficult for us to detect lone-wolf plots or plots involving a husband and wife, in this case,” Obama said, referring to the married San Bernardino shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. “It’s not that different from us trying to detect the next mass shooter.”

Obama’s acknowledgement that the country is vulnerable to continued attack is unlikely to settle an American public spooked by the prospect of fresh strikes by radical Islamists. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll shows that roughly three in five Americans are very worried about the prospect of new acts of violence inside the United States carried out by either terrorists coming from abroad or homegrown radicals.

Obama’s presidency has been marked by a series of mass shootings conducted by lone-wolf actors not on the radar of law enforcement. Dylann Roof, who allegedly downed nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston earlier this year, wasn’t known to police before the June shooting. Nor was Adam Lanza, who in 2012 massacred 20 schoolchildren and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Farook and Malik also weren’t known to be involved in terror plots before they opened fire on an office holiday party.

Earlier this week, FBI Director James Comey said the couple had expressed support for “jihad and martyrdom” in private online messages that the government did not have access to when they allowed Malik to enter the country on a so-called fiancée visa in 2014; Farook was an American citizen.

“You don’t always see it,” the president added Friday. “They’re not always communicating publicly, and if you’re not catching what they say publicly, then it becomes a challenge.”

Comey also said Wednesday that there is no indication that the couple was radicalized by the Islamic State. On Friday, the president said one key to stopping future attacks is to defeat the group in Iraq and Syria. Obama also said the recent terror attacks in Paris heighten the need for international cooperation to defeat the terror group.

“Here, essentially, you have ISIL trying to encourage or induce somebody who may be prey to this kind of propaganda, and it becomes more difficult to — to see,” Obama said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State.

“We are going to defeat ISIS,” the president later added.

The president dodged a question about how he views his authority to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Speculation has swirled in recent months that Obama plans to bypass Congress in order to shut the prison. He stressed that his first goal is to convince lawmakers to support his closure plan, despite widespread expectations that the proposal is dead-on-arrival.

“I’m not going to be forward-leaning on what I can do without Congress before I’ve tested what I can do with Congress,” he said. “Every once in a while, they’ll surprise you, and this may be one of those places, because we can make a really strong argument Guantanamo continues to be one of the key magnets for jihadi recruitment.”

The president said he expects the number of detainees in Guantanamo to fall below 100 by early next year.

FP Senior Reporter John Hudson contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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