For five years, the Obama administration has touted its success in the war against al Qaeda. In formal addresses, daily press briefings, and campaign speeches top administration officials have celebrated the “decimation” of al Qaeda and predicted its imminent extinction.
John Brennan, the president’s top adviser on these matters, even took the bold step of putting a timeframe on the end of al Qaeda. “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,” he said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the spring of 2012, not long before he was named CIA director.
We were skeptical of Brennan’s claims at the time. Almost nobody believes them now. The growth of the al Qaeda network and the persistence of the threat it presents is no longer in serious dispute. Experts disagree about the precise shape of al Qaeda and its capabilities. But even those who not long ago were echoing the administration’s line are now worried that al Qaeda currently controls “more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history,” in the words of CNN’s Peter Bergen.
This puts the Obama administration in a difficult position. Despite its many hopeful claims, al Qaeda is nowhere near defeat. And with Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, his drawdown in Afghanistan, and his eagerness to end even wars that are not won, the prospect of the demise of al Qaeda grows more distant every day.
In response to this grim reality, or at least in a tacit acknowledgment of it, the rhetoric of the Obama administration has increasingly focused on redefining al Qaeda. No longer is it the vast network described by the Bush administration prosecuting a “global war on terror.” Instead, al Qaeda in the Obama administration’s public descriptions is like a Russian matryoshka doll, growing ever smaller with each iteration.
And now we’ve reached the end. We’ve gone from a global network, to something called “core al Qaeda,” to one man incapable even of effective propaganda. Last week, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf claimed that Ayman al Zawahiri is “the only one left” of “core al Qaeda.”
It’s an absurd claim. And the context makes it worse.
At a State Department briefing on January 23, reporters asked Harf about a new message from Zawahiri to his followers. Her initial response? “I haven’t seen it.” But moments later, after promising to “take a look or a listen,” she claimed to know enough about its contents to dismiss their significance, saying “this is not new rhetoric we’ve heard from Zawahiri.”
How can you offer assurances about the substance and meaning of a message if you have not heard it? You can’t.
This was the context for her claim that Zawahiri is the only core al Qaeda member still standing. “Look, this is not new rhetoric we’ve heard from Zawahiri. He’s—core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, besides Zawahiri, has essentially the entire leadership been decimated by the U.S. counterterrorism efforts. He’s the only one left. I think he spends, at this point, probably more time worrying about his own personal security than propaganda, but still is interested in putting out this kind of propaganda to remain relevant.”
A day after the briefing, Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, the indispensable team from the Long War Journal, highlighted Harf’s claims and debunked them. The story might have ended there, but in a decision she probably now regrets, Harf responded. Here is the relevant section of her argument:
I was making the point that of the high-value core al-Qaeda leadership targets the United States has had in our sights, Zawahiri is the only senior AQ leader left from the group that planned 9/11—from core al-Qaeda as we’ve known it. Of course, al-Qaeda core does replace leaders that get taken off the battlefield, but they are replaced in general with younger, less experienced fighters who don’t have the same kind of operational background and who don’t have the same ability to plan external attacks. They are obviously still very dangerous—especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and when they partner with other local terrorist groups—but they are by any definition a shadow of what the group used to be. You would be hard-pressed to name another senior AQ leader in the Af-Pak region at -Zawahiri’s, or Abu Yayha al Libi’s, or Atiyah Abdul Rahman’s level (I could go on and on . . . ).
And when you read my full statement there, it’s clear that I’m talking about the core al-Qaeda leadership being decimated, not the entire group. It defies logic to argue that I think Zawahiri is literally the only core AQ fighter left.
If Harf believes it defies logic to argue that she thinks Zawahiri is the only core al Qaeda fighter left, she might have done more to explain why she said that Zawahiri is the only core Al Qaeda fighter left.
As the Long War Journal points out, in trying to explain what she meant by her claim that Zawahiri was the “only one left” of “core al Qaeda,” Harf offers several different definitions of that group. There’s senior leadership from “the group that planned 9/11” and “core al Qaeda as we’ve known it” and even new “al Qaeda core leadership” that includes those who replace the ones who have died.
It may seem unfair to pick on Harf. Perhaps she just misspoke in making her claim about Zawahiri. But she’s hardly unqualified to speak on these issues, and there’s no question that her views are representative of Barack Obama’s national security leadership. As Harf pointed out herself, she has “spent six years at the CIA—including three as our spokesperson talking about exactly these issues.” And indeed, the problem isn’t the messenger, it’s the message.
From the earliest days of the Obama presidency, the administration has downplayed threats posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates. On his first day in office, Obama pledged again to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Three days after the attempted bombing of an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, the president claimed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was an “isolated extremist,” despite the fact that the bomber had already detailed for authorities his ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate an SUV packed with explosives in Times Square six months later, Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, dismissed it as a “one-off” attempt and prematurely dismissed suggestions that the bomber, who was trained and funded by the Pakistani Taliban, had ties to international terrorists. And for two weeks, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, the fatal attacks in Benghazi were misleadingly portrayed as the result of an angry mob spun up by a YouTube video. When the New York Times tried unsuccessfully to resurrect that discredited line last month, Obama administration officials quietly whispered their approval to reporters who asked about the story.
If they’re just trying to deceive us, that’s offensive. If they’re deceiving themselves, it’s dangerous.