In a January 2014 interview with the New Yorker's David Remnick, President Obama was asked about the gains that ISIS — which was then under al Qaeda's banner — was making in Syria. His response, comparing ISIS to a jayvee basketball team that was pretending to be Kobe Bryant, shows just how badly the US government underestimated the group:
"The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant," Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. "I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.
"Let's just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn't lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into."
Obama's larger point was that just because a group called itself al Qaeda, that didn't mean it has the reach, resources and planning ability of the group Americans think of when they hear "al Qaeda." It was an argument for why America didn't need to intervene against ISIS; at the time, Obama was defending his decision not to step up US involvement in Syria's war.
Since then, though, ISIS has made huge gains in Syria and especially Iraq, having seized territory about equivalent to the size of Belgium. They've created a humanitarian and political crisis so bad that Obama, after having worked so hard to pull the US out of Iraq, is threatening to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. They turned out to be a lot less jayvee — and even more brutal — than the Obama administration thought.