Speaking on November 25, one of the biggest days for travel in the United States, President Barack Obama gave assurances from the White House that there is currently “no specific and credible intelligence indicating a plot on the homeland.” This self-assurance comes after he met with high-level advisors, before making the announcement.
Following the deadly attacks in Paris on November 13, Obama said “It’s understandable that people worry something similar could happen here.” Nonetheless, Obama wants his fellow Americans to continue travelling, unabated. “In the event of a specific credible threat, the public will be informed,” Obama said. Speaking from the Roosevelt Room in the White House, Obama said “But otherwise Americans should go about their usual Thanksgiving activities.”
The president said that American officials are doing “everything possible” to prevent domestic terroror attacks, and to keep “foreign terrorist fighters from entering the United States or other nations.” The U.S. military, Obama said, is taking the hurt to the Islamic State “where it lives.”
Here is an excerpt of Obama's remarks:
So the bottom line is this: I want the American people to know, entering the holidays, that the combined resources of our military, our intelligence, and our homeland security agencies are on the case. They’re vigilant, relentless and effective. In the event of a specific, credible threat, the public will be informed. We do think it’s useful for people, as they’re going about their business, to be vigilant. If you see something suspicious, say something. That’s always helpful. But otherwise, Americans should go about their usual Thanksgiving weekend activities -- spending time with family and friends, and celebrating our blessings.
Nonetheless, the State Department – over which John Kerry presides – was not so sanguine about the risks presented to American by travel. Since terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram "continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions,” the State Department issued a worldwide travel alert. The warning said "These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests."
While the State Department did not tell American to avoid all travel, it did encourage them to "exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation." Shopping malls, football games, amusement parks, airports, and church functions run the risk of becoming terrorist targets, warns the alert. "Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds or crowded places. Exercise particular caution during the holiday season and at holiday festivals or events." An event such as Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City is an obvious example.
Residents and citizens of the United States pose a threat at home, too. State warned that "there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis," pointing specifically to large sporting events, theaters, open markets and airlines. A similar “Worldwide Caution” alert it issued in July, State warned that the Islamic State and others continue to plan attack the U.S. and its allies.
A travel "Alert" is often limited to 90 days, at which time it can be reviewed. An alert is not necessarily stronger or weaker than a caution. The most recent worldwide travel alert was issued in December 2014, and prior to that in August 2013, September 2011, and May 2011.
In a recent article he wrote for The National Interest, terror expert Andrew Bowen suggested that comments Obama made just before the Paris attacks that the Islamic State had somehow been "contained." Signals a lack of "a failure in [both] intelligence and strategy."
Bowen, a Senior Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, said that "since the seizure of Mosul over a year and a half ago, President Obama's team has consistently underestimated the potency and resilience of ISIL as a national security threat to the United States." He said that Obama has "previously referred to the nascent organization as a 'junior varsity' team, and a day before Paris remarked that ISIL had been downsized and contained."
Furthermore, "even before the rise of ISIL, the White House has misjudged the potential risks of Syria's civil war on the security of the US homeland and its allies abroad."
Even when Obama finally decided to take action against the Islamic State, his military strategy was "both cumbersome and failing to reap significant progress,” Bowen said. “The anti-ISIL air campaign,” the analyst noted, "has consistently favored restraint and narrowly defined targets at the expense of making an effective and credible push to debilitate ISIL's supply lines and their ability to hold key strategic centers, notably Raqqa and Mosul."
According to Bowen, beneath "these strategic and tactical failings, are the fundamental underpinnings of President Obama's flawed approach to ISIL. ISIL cannot be simply contained."
"The mindset that Washington can remain safe and secure and focus on Asia without having a sustained strategy for combatting global extremism and addressing instability in the Middle East may sound appealing for a President seeking a legacy of ending wars in the Middle East, but it isn't a strategy for security America's future," Bowen noted. "Quite the contrary."
Bowen suggests that instead of focusing on "engaging opponents in the region, Washington needs to reinvest in its partners…and also improve relations with other states facing common challenges." Obama, said Bowen, "should use the tragic events in Paris as an opportunity to reexamine his fundamental assumptions about America's interests and its security globally."