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.
What is also true is that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations represent a continued threat to the United States, to our allies, to Americans stationed abroad, as well as Americans here at home. And for that reason we have focused a great deal of attention on those affiliated organizations.
There are two problems with this new argument. First, it’s a bit of revisionism that seeks to obscure the almost cavalier way the administration spoke about the coming death of al Qaeda. Second, and more important, the latest revelations make clear that the administration’s understanding of al Qaeda was almost completely wrong.
It’s certainly true that the administration made distinctions between al Qaeda core and its affiliates. They did so, however, not in order to emphasize the new, growing threat from the affiliates but because separating the core from the affiliates allowed them to argue that the weakening of al Qaeda core meant a weakening of al Qaeda more broadly. Thus, the elimination of many core al Qaeda leaders meant the coming demise of al Qaeda. Far from sounding alarms about the strengthening of the affiliates, administration officials frequently noted that the affiliates’ ambitions were regional and their resources were minimal. Brennan made this case in his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “As the al Qaeda core falters, it continues to look to its affiliates and adherents to carry on its murderous cause. Yet these affiliates continue to lose key commanders and capabilities as well.” The al Qaeda brand was so badly tainted that bin Laden considered abandoning the name, Brennan argued. The ability of al Qaeda and its affiliates to rebuild, he said, had been badly damaged by their willingness to kill fellow Muslims.
One day after Brennan’s speech, the administration authorized the release of 17 documents captured during the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden. In interviews, speeches, and background briefings, administration officials portrayed the al Qaeda leader as impotent and isolated, cut off from other core al Qaeda leaders and powerless over the group’s affiliates. They emphasized parts of the released documents—themselves a tiny fraction of the several hundred thousand documents recovered—that seemed to bolster its case. The future for al Qaeda was bleak.
Eighteen months later, it’s clear that this judgment was wrong. The al Qaeda affiliate in Syria—the al Nusra front—is taking over vast swaths of the country and adding new members at an alarming rate. Al Qaeda in Iraq is sending reinforcements into the Syrian battle and still managing to increase carnage in Iraq. Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia is operating more or less freely in its native country. Ansar al Sharia in Libya helped carry out the deadly attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi. In recent weeks, radicals affiliated with al Qaeda freed hundreds of jihadists imprisoned in Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya.
Obama administration officials badly misjudged the future trajectory of al Qaeda because they badly misunderstood its past. The president and his advisers believed the fate of “al Qaeda core” was ipso facto the fate of al Qaeda broadly. So the ability of the U.S. government to kill members of that core—the one in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the one Obama was briefed about before he took office—meant we were succeeding in our efforts to eliminate al Qaeda. We were succeeding, that is, in Obama’s non-war on terror. But such assessments never reflected reality.
This latest series of threat warnings makes that clear. According to early reports attributed to U.S. intelligence officials, the warnings came as a result of intercepted communications between the leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda’s most effective affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Daily Beast later reported that the communications were actually broader than that and included leaders of both core al Qaeda and its franchises. The communications included discussions of the structure of the organization and future operations. In the course
of these communications, Zawahiri elevated Wuhayshi to the position of “general manager” of al Qaeda, a position whose responsibilities include managing the affiliates.
This was not a new job, and these were not new responsibilities. As reported by Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio at Long War Journal, a letter from bin Laden to one of Wuhayshi’s predecessors in May 2010 laid out those duties, making clear that al Qaeda core would continue to be deeply involved in the management and leadership of its affiliates. The letter described a reporting structure for affiliate activities and emphasized the role al Qaeda core leadership would play in selecting and approving lines of succession for affiliate leadership. Even the appointment of deputy affiliate leaders, bin Laden wrote, “should be done in consultation with the central group.”
The recent activities of bin Laden’s successor—whether coordinating leadership and operations with affiliates, intervening to settle disputes among affiliates in Iraq and Syria, communicating with regional commanders before attacks, or elevating Wuhayshi—make clear that Zawahiri, too, is playing an active role in keeping the affiliates close.
In his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center last year, the current CIA director waxed optimistic about the future. “For the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which al Qaeda core is no longer relevant,” said Brennan.
Better for him—and for the country—if he sticks to the world as it is, not as he’d like it to be. And in this world, al Qaeda core remains all too relevant, al Qaeda’s affiliates are growing, and threats to the United States and our interests persist.