President Obama details strategy to fight Islamic State

Working to ease public jitters ahead of the holidays, President Barack Obama opened a rare meeting of his National Security Council at the Pentagon on Monday, part of a weeklong push to explain his strategy for stopping the Islamic State group abroad and its sympathizers at home.

Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and the top national security team gathered for a private meeting to be followed by a public update from the president about the fight against IS. Yet White House officials cautioned that the session didn't signal a major change in approach.

"If there's an opportunity for us to intensify efforts behind one aspect of our strategy, then that is something that he wants his team to be prepared to do," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The president is also slated for a briefing at the National Counterterrorism Center later in the week.

The high-profile visits to agencies charged with keeping the U.S. safe follow an Oval Office address Dec. 6 that aimed to reassure the public but that critics said failed to do the job. Obama is also hoping to draw a contrast with Donald Trump and his inflammatory remarks about Muslims, which Obama's administration has said endangers U.S. national security.

"Terrorists like ISIL are trying to divide us along lines of religion and background," Obama said in his weekly address, using an acronym for the extremist group. "That's how they stoke fear. That's how they recruit."

This week, he said, "we'll move forward on all fronts."

After a series of setbacks, the U.S. and its coalition partners have claimed progress recently in wresting back territory from IS and eliminating some of its key leaders in Syria and Iraq. The military has said hundreds of U.S airstrikes in recent days dealt a major blow to IS ranks in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi, which IS seized in May.

But progress in Ramadi, as elsewhere, has been slow, leading to calls in the U.S. and abroad for a tougher U.S. response. Obama has authorized sending small numbers of U.S. special forces to Iraq and Syria, but has insisted he won't budget from his determination not to send in major U.S. ground forces.

The public relations campaign, one week before Christmas, comes as the public is jittery about the specter of extremism after deadly attacks in California and Paris. Seven in 10 Americans rate the risk of an attack in the U.S. as at least somewhat high, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll - a sharp increase from the 5 in 10 who said that in January.

U.S. officials have insisted there are no specific, credible threats to the United States. But the apparent lack of warning before San Bernardino has raised concerns about whether the U.S. has a handle on potential attacks, especially during high-profile times such as the end-of-year holidays.

At the National Counterterrorism Center, which analyzes intelligence at its facility in suburban Virginia, Obama planned to address reporters Thursday after a briefing by intelligence and security agencies on threat assessments. Obama receives a similar briefing each year before the holidays.

Concerns about extremism emanating from the Middle East have taken center stage in the presidential race. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, planned a speech in Minnesota on Tuesday to present a plan for protecting the U.S. homeland.

Obama has tried to use his bully pulpit as a counterpoint to Trump and his widely condemned proposal to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. The White House scheduled a conference call Monday with religious leaders about ways to fight discrimination and promote religious tolerance.

Aiming to put a human face on the Syrian refugee issue, Obama is to speak Tuesday at the National Archives Museum, where 31 immigrants from Iraq, Ethiopia, Uganda and 23 other nations will be sworn in as U.S. citizens. Obama planned to use that occasion to reframe the national conversation about immigrants around the country's founding values of tolerance and freedom.

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