In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has frequently proclaimed success against al Qaeda. Until recently, he also frequently referred to al Qaeda as “on the run,” and in the third presidential debate he touted his administration’s victories, particularly the death of Osama bin Laden, asserting that “al Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated” and that “al Qaeda is much weaker than it was when [he] came into office.”
Have important milestones been achieved in the fight against terrorism? Yes. Is al Qaeda truly a lesser threat than it was four years ago? Maybe, but the facts suggest otherwise.
True, Osama bin Laden is dead, and several al Qaeda core and franchise organization leaders have also been killed on Mr. Obama’s watch. In just the past five months, at least six high-level al Qaeda operatives have been eliminated, including Abu Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, and Saeed al-Shihri, the number two in charge of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Still, current al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri remains at large, as do many newly promoted al Qaeda core and franchise leaders—of whom there seem to be a constant supply.
As for al Qaeda being on the run, it is—but not exactly in the context the Obama administration infers. In fact, al Qaeda and its surrogates are actually running all over the place—in west and north Africa, and in Asia, too.
In west Africa, as Gov. Mitt Romney correctly pointed out in the third debate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has taken over the northern half of Mali, a staunch U.S. ally in the region. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is running amok. On Mr. Obama’s watch—particularly during the past few months—Boko Haram has been elevated from a small, low-impact Islamist terrorist group conducting amateur, machete-wielding attacks on banks, judges and police stations to a robust al Qaeda-affiliated organization capable of carrying out simultaneous, multi-location attacks on high-value targets using sophisticated explosive devices. Recent Boko Haram attacks include police and United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.
Perhaps the timeliest African example, which many believe Mr. Romney should have referenced in the last debate, is Ansar al Sharia, the al Qaeda copycat that overran the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, six weeks ago. While the Benghazi incident is still under investigation, most counter-terrorism experts now believe that the Obama administration was totally surprised by the Ansar al Sharia attack, its motivation and its potency. It is also becoming clear the president’s security team failed to react in time to save four American citizens, including our ambassador, when assets were available to rescue them.
Unfortunately, Africa is not the only continent to see increased al Qaeda-type activity. Just last week, Indonesian security forces arrested a group of 11 Islamist terrorists before they could run terrorist operations against U.S. and other western targets. Indonesian police said the 11 suspects were members of the Sunni Movement for Indonesian Society (HASMI), and they were arrested in several locations across the main Island of Java, with a bomb-making manual and explosives among their possessions. Presently, there is no clear connection between al Qaeda and HASMI. However, al Qaeda has had success in the past working with like-minded Islamist groups in Indonesia, and a link between the two groups would not be surprising if discovered at a later date.
Americans go to the polls on Tuesday, and the economy is clearly the most pressing issue for voters this election cycle. Recent events in Africa and Asia, however, are a reminder that Islamist terrorist groups are still a very real danger to the U.S. While Mr. Obama seems convinced that these groups are on the run, their activity is disturbing, and their objectives and purposes are still in question. Mr. Romney is correct in questioning the Obama administration’s frequent self-congratulatory narrative.
The truth is that there are probably more al Qaeda-like groups targeting U.S. interests today than when Mr. Obama was elected. In fact, the proliferation of such groups is something a non-apologetic Romney should address quickly if he becomes president-elect on Tuesday.
Russell D. Howard, a retired Special Forces Brigadier General, is director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies Terrorism Research and Education Program.
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