As President Obama ran to election victory last fall with claims that al Qaeda was “decimated” and “on the run,” his intelligence team was privately offering a different assessment that the terrorist movement was shifting resources and capabilities to emerging spinoff groups in Africa that posed fresh threats to American security.
Top U.S. officials, including the president, were told in the summer and fall of 2012 that the African offshoots were gaining money, lethal knowledge and a mounting determination to strike U.S. and Western interests while keeping in some contact with al Qaeda’s central leadership, said several people directly familiar with the intelligence.
The gulf between the classified briefings and Mr. Obama’s pronouncements on the campaign trail touched off a closed-door debate inside the intelligence community about whether the terrorist group’s demise was being overstated for political reasons, officials told The Washington Times.
Many Americans believed when they voted in November that the president was justifiably touting a major national security success of his first term. After all, U.S. special operations forces succeeded in May 2011 in capturing and killing the al Qaeda founder and original leader, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan.
But key players in the intelligence community and in Congress were actually worried that Mr. Obama was leaving out a major new chapter in al Qaeda’s evolving story in order to bend the reality of how successful his administration had been during its first four years in the fight against terrorism.
“I completely believe that the candidate Obama was understating the threat,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “To say the core is decimated and therefore we have al Qaeda on the run was not consistent with the overall intelligence assessment at the time.”
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told The Times that “we need to evaluate statements, by the administration or anyone else, in the context of when they were made” during an election.
Like the intelligence community last year, Mr. Ruppersberger draws a distinction between al Qaeda central in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the offshoots gaining strength in Africa.
“It is important to define what we mean when we are talking about al Qaeda,” Mr. Ruppersberger told The Times. “Core al Qaeda is the original organization, headed then by Osama bin Laden and now by [Ayman] al-Zawahri, that orchestrated 9/11 and has a safe haven in the FATA in Pakistan.
“That group has been weakened, but is adaptive and resilient,” he said. “Thus, its strength level fluctuates.”
Obama administration officials declined to comment on the record for this article, though many described privately the nature of the intelligence that the president was receiving last fall.
With America approaching the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the one-year anniversary of the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, Mr. Obama will try Tuesday night to rally war-wary Americans to support military action by asking them to trust his description of the intelligence that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons.
Mr. Rogers, the House intelligence committee chairman, told The Times that there was “more than enough info at the time to understand the changes that were occurring in al Qaeda” and that two possible scenarios were at play behind the narrative Mr. Obama pushed on the campaign trail.
“One, he wasn’t getting the information that the rest of us were getting, or two, he got the information and decided to disregard it for political purposes. Either of those is a problem for a commander in chief,” he said.