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.
“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” the president said. “In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries.” The president then offered four examples intended to illustrate his point. In all four cases—in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Mali—others lead the fight on the ground. American airstrikes buttress the efforts of local partners, but the president made it clear that he wants to limit U.S. involvement: “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbounded powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation-states,” he said.
The president’s solution: “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.” And we must define a strategy based “not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.” All of this defining, the president explained, “begins with understanding the current threat that we face.”
And therein lies a major problem: When it comes to the threat we face, the enemy also gets a vote or, to use Obama’s lexicon, a say in how the fight is defined. Al Qaeda and its affiliates do not think the war has ended. They are fighting in more countries than ever.
Al Qaeda Is Alive
There is much unfinished business in Afghanistan, despite the president’s vow that American “troops will come home” and their “combat mission will come to an end.” Al Qaeda maintains safe havens in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces and operates elsewhere. The Taliban remains closely allied with al Qaeda and associated groups. And the Taliban-led insurgency remains so robust that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stopped publishing statistics on the level of violence late last year. The last ISAF statistics available to the public show that the level of violence remains higher than before the Obama-ordered surge of American forces in 2010.
In Pakistan, al Qaeda and its allies maintain a safe haven in the northern part of the country, despite pressure from American airstrikes. And the Pakistani government continues to be a duplicitous ally, sponsoring and protecting various al Qaeda-allied groups. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, remains a threat after orchestrating the failed May 2010 bombing in Times Square. The State Department announced in September 2010 that the TTP has a “symbiotic relationship” with al Qaeda.
In neighboring Iran, al Qaeda maintains what the Obama administration has called a “core pipeline” for transiting fighters, money, and weapons to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. This network, according to a July 2011 Treasury Department designation, exists under a formerly “secret deal” between al Qaeda and the Iranian regime. In April, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced that they had detained two terrorists who were plotting to derail a train traveling between New York and Canada. The Mounties said the terrorists received “direction and guidance” from “al Qaeda elements located in Iran,” which is probably the same Iran-backed network uncovered by the Obama administration.
To Iran’s west, in Iraq, the situation looks grim. “We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home,” the president said during his speech. In reality, only America’s role in the fight for Iraq came to an end. According to the U.N., April 2013 was the deadliest month in Iraq in nearly five years—that is, since before Obama was even elected. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has played no small role in the latest violence. Declared all but dead in 2010, AQI rebounded. According to Pentagon data cited by the Associated Press, AQI increased its operational capacity from 75 attacks per week in early 2012 to “an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq” by the end of the year. AQI’s ranks have swelled. The group has established new training camps, new safe havens, and a whole new arm in Syria—the Al Nusrah Front.
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.