Are we watching the demise of al Qaeda or its rebirth?
A bracing new piece in the Daily Beast makes a persuasive case that it’s the latter -- that recent developments in Iraq, across the greater Middle East and South Asia point to a resurgence of al Qaeda and a strengthening of its affiliates.
The piece bolsters the compelling arguments made in THE WEEKLY STANDARD last month by Thomas Joscelyn, who wrote that the Obama administration was pursuing a “see no evil” strategy on al Qaeda, willfully choosing to downplay or ignore troubling evidence that contradicts the administration’s claims that al Qaeda is mortally wounded and “on the path to defeat.”
But what makes the new piece in the Daily Beast especially noteworthy is that it comes from Bruce Riedel, who served as a top adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama White House and wrote the administration’s initial strategy review of the region.
Two spectacular al Qaeda prison breaks in Iraq, freeing over 500 of its members in two separate prisons simultaneously this week, demonstrate the group is back with a vengeance. Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch is also the moving force behind the jihadist success in Syria. The resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq has sobering implications for what is likely to follow the drawdown of NATO forces in Afghanistan for the al Qaeda mother ship in Pakistan.
It’s not just Iraq:
At the same time, al Qaeda in Iraq has been the moving force behind the birth and growth of al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria. One of Zarqawi’s protégés, Muhammad al Golani, was sent by al Qaeda in Iraq to set up the al Nusra Front in 2011. By mid-2012 it had become one of the most effective groups in the Syrian opposition movement to Bashar al-Assad’s government. It got considerable support in money, arms, and men from the Iraqi front.
Riedel notes that while the U.S. has made “considerable gains in disrupting and dismantling the al Qaeda core leadership in Pakistan…it too is not defeated.” Pakistan remains a fertile ground for al Qaeda with “virtually no pressure from the Pakistani government” on its operations.
His sobering conclusion:
...if American pressure on al Qaeda in Pakistan diminishes after the NATO withdrawal of combat forces next year from Afghanistan, we can expect a rapid regeneration of al Qaeda in Pakistan. The drones all fly from bases in Afghanistan, without which there is no pressure on al Qaeda next door in Pakistan. Iraq is a sobering lesson in what happens when a battered al Qaeda movement gets a second chance.
Riedel is right. As Joscelyn wrote in June:
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.