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Misjudging al Qaeda

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Anyone following the news even casually last week surely noticed the long parade of Obama administration officials trotted out before the cameras to insist their boss, the president, has always understood the serious and ongoing threat presented by al Qaeda and its affiliates—emphasis on affiliates. The assurances came after intelligence about imminent and possibly large-scale attacks on U.S. and Western interests led the administration to shutter nearly two dozen U.S. embassies in the Middle East and South Asia for several days. These assurances were necessary because the president and those who speak for him have spent the better part of the last year—the better part of his time in office, really—telling the American people that the threat from al Qaeda, like its leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, would soon be gone.

In his many campaign mentions of al Qaeda, the president noted that its leader, Osama bin Laden, had been killed and that the rest of the terror group was, in his favorite formulation, “on the path to defeat.” Here’s how he made that argument in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, on September 6, 2012:

Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have. We’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014, our longest war will be over. A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead. 

He used nearly identical wording during a presidential debate a month later, and it continued to appear in his stump speeches through his reelection on November 6.

Obama never claimed that al Qaeda had been vanquished. Indeed, his convention speech allowed that the terror group was still the top threat facing the country. But even top threats were not as scary as they’d once seemed, and there was no mistaking his broader message: Al Qaeda is on the verge of defeat.

This was not, apparently, just campaign season bluster. The president’s top national security advisers were making similarly bold claims. In a speech on April 30, 2012, John Brennan made much the same argument. Brennan, then a top White House homeland security adviser and now the director of the CIA, told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington that the end of al Qaeda was imminent. “If the decade before 9/11 was the time of al Qaeda’s rise and the decade after 9/11 was the time of its decline, then I believe this decade will be the one that sees its demise.” 

No one is talking about the demise of al Qaeda today. But having made such arguments in the past the administration is struggling to explain why a group nearing elimination has caused the world’s greatest power to shutter and evacuate so many of its overseas facilities. 

This dissonance has been a common feature of Obama’s counterterror strategy. (It might be more accurate to say that it’s been a defining characteristic of his actions in the absence of a strategy.) In late May, the president went to the National Defense University to announce the effective end of the war on terror. Within weeks, after the leaks of National Security Agency secrets by Edward Snowden, the president was explaining—hesitantly, grudgingly—why the U.S. government would continue to collect massive amounts of data on the electronic communications of Americans to help protect against a threat he had downplayed. 

So it is with these latest revelations. In their public statements and background comments Obama administration officials are now insisting that their claims about an enfeebled al Qaeda applied only to “al Qaeda core,” the senior leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that they had always warned about the rising threat from al Qaeda affiliates. 

“Our view is that the core of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is on the path to defeat,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, explaining the closures of diplomatic facilities. “We remain concerned about affiliates.” Here’s how White House press secretary Jay Carney put it on August 5:

I think as most people who cover these issues understand, al Qaeda core is the Afghanistan/Pakistan-based central organizational core of al Qaeda, once headed by Osama bin Laden. And there is no question over the past several years al Qaeda core has been greatly diminished, not least because of the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

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