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Obama reassures nation faced with an evolving terror threat

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US President Barack Obama speaks about counter-terrorism and the United States fight against Islamic State during an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Dec 6, 2015.

[WASHINGTON] President Barack Obama sought to soothe a nation shaken by the terrorist attack in a California town with assurances the US is hardening its defenses that were tempered by an acknowledgment that the threat has evolved into a new phase.

Delivering an address from the Oval Office for only the third time in his presidency, Mr Obama said on Sunday the shooting rampage in San Bernardino was an act of terrorism carried out by a Muslim couple radicalised by extremist ideology though not necessarily directed by a foreign group. He warned against discriminating against Muslim-Americans, saying that would play into the hands of terrorist organizations like Islamic State.

"The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it," Mr Obama said. "We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us." The president decided on Friday to give the address after the FBI said it was treating the killing of 14 people and wounding of 21 others as a terrorist attack. Following on the heels of the deadly strike by Islamic State terrorists in Paris three weeks ago, the mass shooting in California raised public alarm and revived criticism of Mr Obama from political opponents and even some allies that he hasn't clearly articulated a strategy to combat the extremist group.

"We constantly examine the strategy to determine when additional steps are needed to get the job done," Mr Obama said. He offered no new plans either for the fight on Islamic State territory or at home and instead reviewed what the US has done so far and repeated proposals to make it more difficult for a would-be terrorist to get firearms.

Mr Obama laid out actions being taken to intensify the military campaign against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, including stepped-up airstrikes against oil infrastructure that the group partially relies on for funding. He also cited the addition of France and UK to the coalition conducting bombing raids on Islamic State in Syria and greater intelligence cooperation with European governments.

"This is our strategy to destroy ISIL," Mr Obama said. "It is designed and supported by our military commanders and counterterrorism experts, together with 65 countries that have joined an American-led coalition."

To his critics, Mr Obama's 13-minute address was too little and too late.

"President Obama offered no changes to his reactive, indirect, and incremental strategy," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in a statement.

"He continues to assume that time is on our side. It is not."

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus used a statement to criticize both Mr Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

"The attacks in San Bernardino should serve as a wake-up call for Obama and Clinton that the way to victory is not through the status quo but refocusing our efforts to defeat ISIS," Mr Priebus said.

Mr Obama touched on two areas that have generated much debate in the presidential campaign: gun control and treatment of Muslim-Americans.

He repeated calls to deny gun purchases to anyone on the government's no-fly list, which the Republican-controlled Congress has rejected. And he also said the US should make it harder for anyone to buy military-style assault weapons, which Congress previously has defeated.

Mr Obama also said that the battle against terrorism cannot be fought by targeting law-abiding Muslims in the US At home,Mr Obama called on the Muslim-American community to work with law enforcement to prevent and identify radicalisation as he warned against xenophobia that targets Muslims broadly.

"Muslim Americans are our friends, neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes, and yes, they are our men and women in uniform," Mr Obama said. "We have to remember that."

Law enforcement officials said the San Bernardino killers, Syed Rizwan Farook, a US citizen, and Tashfeen Malik, his Pakistani wife, appear to have become radicalised in recent months or years, though the exact evolution of their extremist views remains a mystery. Agents are combing through the couple's phone records, computers and phones seeking clues as to what happened and who else they may have been working with.

Malik posted a pledge of allegiance to the leader of Islamic State on a Facebook page she controlled under an alias at about the time of the attack, law enforcement authorities said.

The White House was forced to correct Mr Obama's statement that Malik, the female shooter, entered the country through the visa waiver program that has been targeted by the administration as a security vulnerability. Pakistan, where Malik is from, does not participate in the waiver program, which Obama has ordered the Department of Homeland Security and Department of State to review. Malik entered the US on a so-called "fiancee visa." Mr Obama said investigators to date have not found evidence that the couple was working with a broader network in the US or that they coordinated their efforts with Islamic State overseas.

James McJunkin, a former top counter-terrorism agent at the FBI, said homegrown extremists are difficult to uncover and pose a unique challenge for law enforcement and intelligence officials.

"They are living inside the community and they are doing this in the privacy of their homes and who, despite popular belief, are not being monitored by the government," Mr McJunkin said in an interview.

"Detection becomes the issue then," Mr McJunkin said. "In traditional terrorism, you are also relying on at third party to provide the training and flashpoint. You have a greater likelihood of more frequent communications with people who are organizing the activity and therefore you have higher likelihood of the FBI detecting them before they go active."

BLOOMBERG