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See No Evil

President Obama may think that the threat from al Qaeda is receding. It isn’t.

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Obama mentioned Syria only in passing, saying that “we must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements,” and that “unrest in the Arab world has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria.” These “extremists” include al Qaeda’s Al Nusrah Front. In December 2012, the Treasury and State Departments announced that Al Nusrah was merely an “alias” for al Qaeda in Iraq. The threat from al Qaeda’s rise has already been felt throughout the region, as Al Nusrah is pulling in recruits from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. And these recruits can return to their home countries to carry out acts of terror, as Jordan learned late last year when Al Nusrah veterans were caught planning a complex attack against the U.S. embassy there.

In Arabia, al Qaeda has aggressively expanded the scope of its operations since early 2009, when the Saudi and Yemeni branches of the terrorist network merged to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On December 25, 2009, an AQAP suicide bomber tried to destroy a Detroit-bound plane. The group has attempted other attacks against the U.S. homeland since then. It is striking that as AQAP was ramping up its international plotting, the organization also significantly increased its capacity to seize and hold territory. AQAP even launched a new brand, Ansar al Sharia, for its local governance efforts. By 2011, AQAP had seized much of southern Yemen, only to relinquish territory as U.S.-backed Yemeni government forces expelled al Qaeda’s operatives from their strongholds. AQAP retreated, ensuring that most of its forces would live to fight another day. In May, there were fresh reports that AQAP has once again captured villages in eastern Yemen.

Across the Gulf of Aden, in Somalia, Shabaab continues to wage an insurgency against African forces and has executed attacks inside neighboring Kenya and Uganda. Shabaab formally merged with al Qaeda in February 2012.

In Mali, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb made such stunning advances that France was forced to intervene in January. France’s socialist president, François Hollande, repeatedly insisted in late 2012 that his country would not join the fighting inside Mali. But after AQIM and its allies seized much of northern Mali and threatened to sweep through the south, Hollande decided to put French boots on the ground. AQIM’s forces relinquished control of key towns, but melted into neighboring countries.

Elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East, al Qaeda-linked groups continue to operate and expand. And in Arab Spring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, al Qaeda-associated jihadists have adapted to the new climate, seeking to exploit a permissive operating environment that allows them to recruit a new generation for their cause.

The Affiliates Are as Deadly as the Core

When Obama looks at the map of al Qaeda’s operations, however, he does not see a growing threat. The president often argues that the “tide of war is receding.” His reasoning is as follows: If al Qaeda’s affiliates, or allied groups, are not directly plotting mass casualty attacks on American soil today, then they are not a major threat to the United States and its interests.

What is remarkable about this logic is that the threats to the U.S. homeland have multiplied since Obama assumed office. AQAP, the Pakistani Taliban, and al Qaeda leaders inside Iran have all had a hand in targeting the United States since 2009. Vigilance and Lady Luck have cooperated to spare American lives.

There is a widespread assumption held throughout the counterterrorism and intelligence communities that al Qaeda’s “core” is a distinct enterprise from the terror network’s affiliates. The “core” of al Qaeda is not well-defined beyond some hazy Western notion of al Qaeda’s overall leader, now Ayman al Zawahiri, and the advisers and lieutenants immediately surrounding him. Nonetheless, Obama has seized on this distinction, making it the linchpin of his counterterrorism strategy.

From Obama’s perspective, geographic proximity seems to be the characteristic that matters most when defining the core. “Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat,” Obama claimed at the National Defense University. And because, in Obama’s thinking, it was this “core” that attacked America on September 11, 2001, and that has suffered leadership losses with the raid in Abbottabad and drone strikes elsewhere, the threat from al Qaeda has dissipated.

Obama concedes “we’ve seen .  .  . the emergence of various al Qaeda affiliates” and that they are “lethal,” but he is reassured because they are “less capable” than the crew that attacked America more than a decade ago. For Obama, the “future of terrorism” consists primarily of “threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad,” as well as “homegrown extremists.” The United States must “take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them,” but the president sees the possibility of another 9/11-style attack as remote.

We “have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11,” Obama says. We should therefore “shape our response” to deal with it “smartly and proportionally,” because “these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.”

But the distinction between “core” al Qaeda and the affiliates has always been an empty one. All of the official al Qaeda affiliates​—​Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Shabaab in Somalia​—​have sworn an oath of loyalty (bayah) to Ayman al Zawahiri. Earlier this year, the head of the Al Nusrah Front in Syria reaffirmed his oath of loyalty as well. This is no small matter. It means that these groups are committed to following Zawahiri’s orders and pursuing al Qaeda’s strategic vision, which goes far beyond attacking America.

In practice, it is of course impossible for Zawahiri to manage the day-to-day operations of the affiliates. But he does not need to​—​decentralization is a source of organizational strength, not weakness. If one head of the jihadist hydra is cut off, others live to fight another day. Still, there is abundant evidence that al Qaeda’s senior leadership communicates with, and sets the agenda for, the affiliates. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders also rely upon loyal followers who will advance the organization’s cause even absent day-to-day guidance.

Consider just some of the terrorists who run al Qaeda’s operations outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Headquartered in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is led by Nasir al Wuhayshi, a terrorist who served as Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp for several years prior to 9/11. Wuhayshi was bin Laden’s protégé and remained loyal to the al Qaeda master even through the darkest times, including the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, when all could have been lost. Bin Laden later returned the favor, rejecting a plea by some AQAP members to replace Wuhayshi as their leader with Anwar al Awlaki, the charismatic al Qaeda ideologue who has since been killed in a drone strike. Some of Wuhayshi’s lieutenants also served al Qaeda in Afghanistan well before the 9/11 attacks. And together they are advancing al Qaeda’s global jihadist agenda, simultaneously fighting for territory inside Yemen while overseeing plots against the United States.

By what standard is Wuhayshi today not a core member of al Qaeda? Is the reason simply that he lives in Yemen, and not Afghanistan or Pakistan?

According to the Obama administration, the terrorist who leads al Qaeda’s network inside Iran today is a Kuwaiti named Muhsin al Fadhli. Few al Qaeda terrorists were trusted with foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks; al Fadhli was one of them. The network that al Fadhli oversees is the result of an agreement with the Iranian regime that was brokered by Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man.

A Defense Department report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile”) published by the Library of Congress in August 2012 identified at least two senior operatives who were dispatched to Libya to oversee al Qaeda’s efforts there. The first is known as Abu Anas al Libi, who was long ago convicted of terrorism charges for his role in al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Abu Anas is coordinating his efforts with al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The second terrorist identified in the report, Abd al Baset Azzouz, was sent to Libya by Ayman al Zawahiri. 

In March, the State Department offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of an American known as Jehad Mostafa, who is believed to be Ayman al Zawahiri’s emissary to Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia.

There are credible reports that senior al Qaeda operatives, including a member of the group’s Shura council, have gone to Syria. And other core al Qaeda members have returned to their home countries in the wake of the Arab Spring. One declassified Abbottabad document, not cited by the president, shows that Osama bin Laden recommended that a terrorist named Mohammed Islambouli leave northern Pakistan for Kunar, Afghanistan. Mohammed’s brother, Khaled Islambouli, was the assassin who killed Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. While bin Laden was willing to lose some al Qaeda leaders, he was not willing to lose Mohammed Islambouli, who is the equivalent of royalty in jihadist circles and is today a free man inside Egypt.

These are just some of the men who can be counted on to advance al Qaeda’s agenda outside Afghanistan and Pakistan. It does not make sense to consider them anything but core al Qaeda members. 

 Al Qaeda is fighting for control of territory from South Asia, through the Middle East, and into North Africa. In some locales, al Qaeda has established safe havens. In others, it has had its gains reversed or been forced into a stalemate. The right course for combating al Qaeda’s aggression, including the appropriate uses of American military force, should be a matter of debate. However, President Obama seeks to “define” the al Qaeda threat in such a way that this debate can be avoided.


Obama is not interested in the bigger picture. Thus, the president celebrates the “end” of the Iraq war, even as al Qaeda has redoubled its efforts in the country and expanded into neighboring Syria. He tells us that the war in Afghanistan will come to an end, even as al Qaeda holds onto territory and its allies vie for supremacy in the country. Obama says that others should lead the fight against al Qaeda in Mali, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. In no theater of war, except homeland security, does Obama think that America should lead the way. The president simply chooses not to see that each of these conflicts is part of a cohesive international challenge to the United States and its allies.

That is, however, the way Osama bin Laden saw it and the way his successors in al Qaeda see it. The bin Laden document cited by Obama during his speech at the National Defense University also contains the following passage:

“Praise be to God, the jihad war is ongoing, and on several fronts. The Mujahidin work and may God give them the strength to endure on the jihad path will continue to target the guardian of universal apostates, America, until it becomes weak. Once America is weak, we can build our Muslim state.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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