This article explores US foreign policy discourse surrounding the rise of ISIS, from 2014 to 2016. Specifically, it asks how Obama constructed ISIS as a threatening Other at this time. This research responds to a gap in the literature concerning official Western discourses on ISIS violence, and partially fills this by tracing the formation of US foreign policy narratives and exploring how this drew from existing discourses and older Orientalist tropes. Conducting a discourse analysis of official statements, this paper shows how Obama modified his language to elevate the level of the threat in official discourse. It argues that he achieved this by drawing upon longstanding racialised and Orientalist archives of knowledge, effectively resituating the terrorist Other within a more markedly Orientalist discourse. Finally, the article concludes that by (re)producing the traditional Orientalist character of the barbarian as an existential threat to a Eurocentric idea of Western civilisation, Obama made possible an approach to intervention that prioritised air power, targeted assassinations and international cooperation to defend the “civilised” world. This had the effect of stigmatising Muslim communities who were left occupying a discursive space between the civilised West and the barbaric ISIS.