The Magazine

Defining al Qaeda Down

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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The fallout continues from the New York Times’s failed attempt to change the narrative on the Ben-ghazi attacks. The latest hit comes from an unexpected source—the Washington Post:

U.S. officials suspect that a former Guantanamo Bay detainee played a role in the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and are planning to designate the group he leads as a foreign terrorist organization, according to officials familiar with the plans. Militia-men under the command of Abu Sufian bin Qumu, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in the Libyan city of Darnah, participated in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, U.S. officials said.

That’s not great news for the Times or others who trumpeted the findings of its new Benghazi reporting as definitive. That article had claimed that there was “no al Qaeda role” in the Benghazi attacks and that neither Qumu nor anyone else from Darnah had played a significant role in the Benghazi attacks.

But fighters from Darnah, members of Qumu’s Ansar al Sharia, did participate in the Benghazi attacks. And Qumu’s connections to al Qaeda go back decades.

Readers of this magazine will not be surprised by the news of Qumu’s involvement. As we reported in November: “U.S. intelligence officials believe that Sufian Ben Qumu, a Libyan ex-Guantánamo detainee, trained some of the jihadists who carried out the attacks in Benghazi. He, too, has longstanding connections with al Qaeda leadership.”

The U.S. military detailed Qumu’s deep al Qaeda ties in a summary published years ago by WikiLeaks: He trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, he received monthly stipends from al Qaeda, he worked closely with Abu Zubaida, then al Qaeda’s no. 3. If Sufian Ben Qumu doesn’t qualify as “al Qaeda,” then very few people do.

That may be the point.

The Obama administration has devoted considerable time and effort to convincing the American people that al Qaeda is “on the run”—and if not already dead, then at least in the throes of agonal respiration. To make this case first required redefining the Bush administration’s “war on terror” as something more focused and smaller—a war on al Qaeda.

But that wasn’t enough. The common understanding of what our leaders meant by “al Qaeda” had to change, too. No longer would al Qaeda mean the vast, global network targeted by that war on terror. Instead, top Obama officials, including the president himself, would use “al Qaeda” to refer to the small group of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So when Obama boasted repeatedly in the last presidential campaign that “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat,” he was defining al Qaeda down.

But redefining al Qaeda is quite different from killing it.

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