Obama’s evolution on ISIS threat

The Obama administration says the nation is facing a threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that, in the words of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, is “beyond anything we’ve seen.”

Earlier this year, however, President Obama was dismissing ISIS as a junior varsity al Qaeda. The White House on Friday suggested that assessment is now moot because the group has “gained capacity in the last several months.”

A timeline of remarks this year from Obama and other administration officials show an evolution of thinking on ISIS — a change critics say has not come fast enough:

Jan. 27: Obama calls al Qaeda-inspired groups 'jayvee'

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. ... I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian,” Obama said in an interview with The New Yorker.

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The next day, during the State of the Union address, Obama said that even as the U.S. “aggressively” pursues terrorist networks, “America must move off permanent war footing.”

Feb. 7: Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson calls ISIS a 'matter of homeland security'

"Based on our work and the work of our international partners, we know individuals from the U.S., Canada and Europe are traveling to Syria to fight in the conflict. At the same time, extremists are actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them, and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission. ... Syria has become a matter of homeland security,” Johnson said at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

May 28: Obama says al Qaeda affiliates and extremists are today's 'principal threat'

“As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases,” Obama said at West Point. “And the need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate.”

June 24: Secretary of State John Kerry says officials are 'surprised' by ISIS’s capture of Mosul, Iraq

"We don't have people embedded in those [Iraqi] units, and so obviously nobody knew that. I think everybody in Iraq was surprised. People were surprised everywhere," Kerry said on Fox News.

July 23: State Department's Brett McGurk calls ISIS a 'full-blown army' worse than al Qaeda:

“It is al Qaeda in its doctrine, ambition and, increasingly, in its threat to U.S. interests. ... In fact, it is worse than al Qaeda,” McGurk told the House Armed Services Committee.

“[ISIS] is no longer simply a terrorist organization. It is now a full-blown army seeking to establish a self-governing state through the Tigris and Euphrates valley in what is now Syria and Iraq."

Aug. 8: Obama says US has a 'strategic interest' to push back ISIS

“We do have a strategic interest in pushing back ISIL. We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void,” Obama told The New York Times, using another acronym for the group.

Aug. 20: Obama calls ISIS a 'cancer' after the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley: 

“From governments and peoples across the Middle East there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread. There has to be a clear rejection of these kind of nihilistic ideologies. One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century,” he said.

Aug. 20: Kerry calls ISIS 'evil'

“Make no mistake: we will continue to confront ISIL wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred. The world must know that the United States of America will never back down in the face of such evil. ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable," Kerry said in a statement.

Aug. 21: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says ISIS is 'beyond just a terrorist group'

“ISIL 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. This is beyond anything that we've seen. So 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.” 

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