Horrific events in Libya and Denmark in recent days demonstrate the two sorts of dangers posed by the fundamentalists who call themselves Islamic State: atrocities carried out in areas under its control and acts of violence committed in the West by individuals radicalized by the group’s message. A strategy to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State must address both threats.
On Sunday the group released a video of the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christian men by a Libyan affiliate, another example of the savagery visited by Islamic State on those it considers enemies or apostates. A day earlier, a man identified as Omar Abdel Hamid Hussein fired shots at a Copenhagen center hosting a debate on free speech, killing a film director, then moved on to a synagogue, where he killed a security guard. The attacks were reminiscent of the shootings in Paris last month at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket. The head of the Danish security service said that Hussein, a former gang member who was born in Denmark, may have been “inspired by militant Islamist propaganda.”
The U.S. has carried out airstrikes against Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq, a campaign for which President Obama belatedly has requested authorization from Congress.
As for neutralizing Islamic State’s propaganda, the U.S. has been engaged in a campaign to counter the suggestion that the group’s interpretation of Islam is a valid one. How that response is framed is crucial. Critics accuse Obama of excessive delicacy and political correctness because he doesn’t refer to “Islamic terrorism.” But the president’s diplomatic language doesn’t mean he’s in denial about either the existence or the popular appeal of radical interpretations of Islam.
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Portraying the campaign against Islamic State as a war on Islam wouldn’t just be inaccurate; it would be incendiary and self-defeating.