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Know Your Enemy

Al Qaeda’s grand strategy

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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In the summer of 2008, Barack Obama, senator and presidential candidate, toured the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama had endeared himself to the antiwar left by denouncing President Bush’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein and repeatedly claiming that the war in Iraq had diverted resources from defeating al Qaeda and its allies in South Asia. Obama did not tone down this criticism even as he spoke with CBS News from Kabul on July 20, shortly before proceeding to Saddam’s former abode. “We got distracted by Iraq,” Obama said. Afghanistan “has to be the central focus, the central front [in] our battle against terrorism.”

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Al Qaeda on parade in northern Syria, January 2, 2014

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Some top U.S. military commanders, including General David Petraeus, then the face of the American war effort, disagreed with Obama’s assessment. And in Iraq, the general and the senator squared off. The contentious meeting between Petraeus and Obama has been recorded in The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, by New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor. 

Obama repeated that “Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror,” and therefore a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq was necessary. Petraeus disagreed: “Actually, Senator, Iraq is what al Qaeda says is the central front.”

Obama was unpersuaded. “The Al-Qaeda leadership is not here in Iraq. They are there,” Obama said, pointing to Pakistan on a map.

Petraeus, of course, knew this. The general did not need the senator to point out the obvious. And besides, Petraeus argued, Obama was missing the point. Whatever one thought of the decision to invade Saddam’s neo-Stalinist state in the first place, al Qaeda had made the fight for Iraq its main priority.

Obama pressed forward, questioning “whether Al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] presented a threat to the United States,” Gordon and Trainor write. “If AQI has morphed into a kind of mafia then they are not going to be blowing up buildings,” Obama said. Petraeus pointed to a failed terrorist attack in Scotland in 2007 as an example of why Obama’s thinking was wrong. “Well, think about the Glasgow airport,” Petraeus warned. The general, according to Gordon and Trainor, “also noted the potential of AQI to expand its influence to Syria and Lebanon.”

The debate between Obama and Petraeus may seem like ancient history after more than five years have passed. And Obama went on to “end” the war in Iraq, or so he claimed during his reelection campaign and thereafter, by withdrawing all of America’s forces at the end of 2011.

The truth, however, is that the disagreement between Obama and Petraeus still resonates today. Al Qaeda has come roaring back in Iraq, capturing significant territory in Fallujah, Ramadi, and elsewhere. Obama does not believe this is a major concern. And, just as Petraeus warned, AQI has “expanded its influence” in neighboring Syria as a result of the revolution against Bashar al-Assad. Other al Qaeda affiliates have joined AQI in the fight for Syria.

But there is something even more fundamental about the Obama-Petraeus debate. It goes to the heart of how we define al Qaeda itself.

More than a dozen years since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States is still confused about al Qaeda’s goals and even how the group founded by Osama bin Laden is organized. The intellectual confusion is pervasive—and some of it is deliberate.

Political Revolutionaries

Osama bin Laden will always be remembered for his success in attacking the United States within its own borders, thereby shattering Americans’ illusion of security. To this day, if you listen to many commentators, this is al Qaeda’s principal reason for existence. It is widely thought that if al Qaeda is not striking targets in the West, then the group must be close to defeat. This is simply not true.

Terrorizing the United States and its Western allies was always a tactic, a step toward achieving al Qaeda’s real goal—power for its leaders and their ideology in the heart of the Islamic world. Al Qaeda’s jihadists are not just terrorists; they are political revolutionaries. They have sought, since al Qaeda’s founding in 1988, to overturn the existing political order in various Muslim-ruled countries.

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