President Barack Obama echoed Monday the U.S. military and State Department warnings that mounting battlefield losses for ISIS could lead to "distraction" terror attacks like the mass shooting that occurred in Orlando over the weekend.
The progress made by U.S.-backed local forces in Iraq, Syria and now Libya against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, can motivate sympathizers outside the Mideast "to take actions against people here in the United States and elsewhere in the world that are tragic," Obama said.
He said that "one of the biggest challenges we are going to have is this kind of propaganda and perversions of Islam that you see generated on the internet, and the capacity for that to seep into the minds of troubled individuals or weak individuals."
Obama spoke at the White House after closed-door meetings with FBI Director James Comey, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and others on the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at the Pulse nightclub frequented by the LGBT community, a horrific attack that went on for three hours in Orlando early Sunday morning.
Comey said later that 29-year-old Omar Mateen, a U.S. citizen of Afghan descent and the alleged perpetrator in Orlando, had pledged loyalty to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 911 calls during the attack that killed 49 and wounded at least 53 at the nightclub. Mateen was killed by police who stormed the scene.
Using the term "ISIL," another acronym for ISIS, Comey said that Mateen also "appeared to claim solidarity with the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing and solidarity with a Florida man who died as a suicide bomber in Syria for the Al Nusra Front.
"The bombers at the Boston Marathon and the suicide bomber from Florida were not inspired by ISIL, which adds a little bit to the confusion about his motives," Comey said.
The ISIS-affiliated news agency Amaq News broadcast a claim that Mateen was an "ISIS fighter," but Comey said evidence had yet to emerge of a connection between the terror group and Mateen.
However, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, along with White House and State Department officials, have warned in recent weeks that ISIS-inspired individuals could lash out in response to a rash of defeats for ISIS, and the loss of territory, recruits and funding.
Through its propaganda arms, ISIS has also called for sympathizers around the world to launch terror attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.
In a briefing to the Pentagon last week, Army Col. Chris Garver, the main spokesman for MacFarland and CJTF, noted the progress by the Iraqi security forces in pushing towards Mosul and ousting ISIS from Fallujah but warned that the U.S. expected ISIS "to attempt more high-profile, headline-grabbing attacks to sow terror and to distract from the fact that they keep losing militarily on the battlefield."
In Fallujah, Iraqi forces have seized a foothold in the southern section of the city and managed to open up an exit route for thousands of civilians trapped inside.
Lisa Grande, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said 3,300 refugees fled through the exit corridor Monday and were flooding into already overcrowded refugee camps," the Voice of America reported. "The problem is the camps are full," Grande said.
In a recent appeal, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani called on followers and sympathizers of ISIS in the West who were unable to come to Iraq and Syria to launch suicide attacks at home during Ramadan.
Only a day before the Orlando attack, Brett McGurk, the White House special envoy for Iraq and Syria, warned of the homegrown threat from "lone wolf" sympathizers of ISIS.
"As it's harder for them to get to Syria, what they're trying to do is to recruit local -- to inspire homegrown attacks," McGurk said at a White House news conference.
"So someone who's inspired over the Internet, rather than being recruited to come into Syria, they're trying to recruit them to conduct attacks at home," McGurk said. "They've always done that, but it's what they're increasingly trying to do," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.