During his speech at the National Defense University on May 23, President Obama sought to reassure Americans that they are “safer” because of the administration’s “efforts” to fight terrorism. The controversy over the administration’s handling of the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, had been swirling for months. And on April 15, two jihadists set off bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 250 others.
“Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists,” Obama conceded. “From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth.” Nonetheless, the president continued, “we have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions—about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them.”
The rest of his speech was devoted to trumpeting the Obama administration’s handling of the fight against al Qaeda, while arguing that the threat to Americans has receded. Obama also addressed the controversial drone program, saying it was “effective.” As proof, he cited a document written by Osama bin Laden. “Don’t take my word for it,” the president said, listen to bin Laden himself, who wrote: “We could lose the reserves to enemy’s airstrikes. We cannot fight airstrikes with explosives.”
Certainly, the drone strikes have been effective in killing al Qaeda terrorists. But it was a curious citation to say the least. The two lines selected by the president were ripped out of context, and the full passage does not actually support the president’s point. Bin Laden’s words make it clear that, as one might expect, al Qaeda has moved its “reserves” out of the drones’ kill box in northern Pakistan. In the full passage, bin Laden speaks as if he represents the entire Muslim community (the Ummah), which of course he did not:
The Ummah should put forward some, but enough, forces to fight America. The Ummah must keep some of its forces on reserve. This will be in the Ummah’s best interests. The Ummah will use the reserve in the future, but during the appropriate time.
In the meanwhile, we do not want to send the reserves to the front line, especially in areas where the enemy only uses airstrikes to attack our forces. So, the reserves will not, for the most part, be effective in such conflicts. Basically, we could lose the reserves to enemy’s airstrikes. We cannot fight airstrikes with explosives!
The rest of the 27-page document undermines the president’s case. “We still have a powerful force which we can organize and prepare for deployment,” bin Laden wrote. This cuts against the president’s claim that al Qaeda is mostly a spent force. And bin Laden emphasized that al Qaeda needs to “concentrate” its “jihad efforts in areas where the conditions are ideal for us to fight.” Bin Laden surmised that “Iraq and Afghanistan are two good examples.” Yet much of President Obama’s speech was devoted to proclaiming the “end” of the post-9/11 wars in both countries.
The president cited just one of the 17 bin Laden documents declassified and released to the American public. And those 17 documents are just a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of documents and files captured during the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, hardly sufficient for any robust analysis of the al Qaeda network.
Still, the president’s selective citation of bin Laden’s files is illustrative of a larger point: When it comes to fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates, the president and his advisers see only what they want to see.
Throughout his speech, Obama used the word “define” in its various forms. Why? Because the president seeks to define the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates in such a way that there is no longer any need for America to deploy large numbers of troops abroad.