When ISIS beheaded an American journalist, it meant to intimidate—and provoke—the United States. It should be careful what it wishes for. The gloves just came off.
The Obama administration signaled Thursday that the United States has begun a new war against the so-called Islamic State, and that group’s operatives will not be safe from America’s wrath in Iraq, in Syria, or wherever they can be tracked down.
Since U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed the authenticity of a video that showed the beheading of American journalist James Foley this week, the president and top cabinet officers have employed rhetoric about the jihadists of the Islamic State (also known as the “caliphate,” ISIS, or ISIL) that echoes the Bush administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Secretary of State John Kerry called ISIS “the face of evil” and vowed that America “will continue to confront [it] wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the military’s response is to “take a cold, steely, hard look at” at ISIS and “get ready” for action.
While the Justice Department on Thursday announced that the FBI would be investigating the murder of Foley, Attorney General Eric Holder also left open the possibility that the United States may not wait for the verdict of a jury and judge. “We will not forget what happened and people will be held accountable one way or the other,” Holder said.
The most notable rhetorical tell came from Obama himself.
In the aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Obama vowed to bring the attackers to justice. This week Obama struck a different tone, saying: “When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
The difference between bringing suspects to justice and seeing that justice is done is roughly the same as the difference between treating terrorism as a crime and as an act of war.
Even though special operations teams were dispatched to Libya after Benghazi to target the jihadists suspected of carrying it out, Obama chose to treat the attack, which cost the lives of four Americans, as a crime. It took until June of this year for the FBI in conjunction with U.S. special operations teams to capture one of the ringleaders of the attack and bring him to the United States to face trial.