A growing clutch of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle is publicly countering the Obama administration’s portrayal of al Qaeda as an organization on the run, saying that an evolving network of the terrorist group’s affiliates now may pose as grave a threat to the U.S. as its predecessor did a decade ago.
While some have outright accused President Obama of pushing a “false narrative” to protect his reputation as the man who got Osama bin Laden, others focus on fears that a new breed of decentralized al Qaeda-style groups may control more safe haven territories in the Middle East and North Africa than the original did in Afghanistan prior to 9/11.
Growing evidence, meanwhile, that Syria’s civil war has emerged as what some officials now describe as a “magnet” for al Qaeda-linked fighters from as far away as Russia, Western Europe and the United States, seems only to be fueling an increasingly heated debate in Washington about just how successful the Obama administration has been at fighting terrorism.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, became the latest to sound alarms about the state of al Qaeda on Sunday, when he told CNN that the terrorist network’s overall ideology is “spreading like a spider web, like a wildfire through Northern Africa and the Middle East” and that the threat to the U.S. “has become greater, not lesser” in recent years.
Mr. McCaul went on to accuse Mr. Obama of having attempted to paint a rosier picture than the reality of America’s successes against al Qaeda — particularly during speeches the president made while campaigning for re-election last year.
At the time, Mr. Obama told audiences across the nation that al Qaeda’s original core was “decimated” and that the organization as a whole was “on the run” — two sloganlike phrases that, according to Mr. McCaul, amounted to “a false narrative” promoted by the president.
Several members of Congress and various intelligence community sources, during interviews over the past several months with The Washington Times, have noted that Mr. Obama publicly corrected his pre-election assessment of al Qaeda during a major speech on terrorism in May.
In the speech at the National Defense University, Mr. Obama went into more detail to say that while “the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat,” the U.S. is indeed facing an “emergence of various al Qaeda affiliates.”
“From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse, with al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula — AQAP — the most active in plotting against our homeland,” Mr. Obama said, adding that “while none of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11, they have continued to plot acts of terror, like the attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009.”
As debate over the issue has increased, some Democrats have defended the president by saying that while the overarching narrative surrounding al Qaeda has changed, the threat now facing the U.S. homeland is considerably lower than it was a decade ago.
“I think vis-a-vis the kind of attack we had on 9/11, we are much safer than we were,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and a senior member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “We have seriously degraded the core of al Qaeda, their ability to organize that kind of a massive attack.”
Mr. Schiff, appearing opposite Mr. McCaul on CNN, said that while there may be “a proliferation of these spinoffs,” as well as “very threatening” lone-wolf-style terrorists on the horizon, the U.S. is “safer from the big attacks.”
It is, however, clear that not all Democrats agree with the way the Obama administration has characterized the evolving threat.
Mr. Schiff and Mr. McCaul, for instance, engaged in a back-and-forth just one week after the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees appeared together to claim that — despite the killing of bin Laden in May 2011 and a relentless cascade of U.S. drone strikes aimed at al Qaeda’s leaders — the Obama administration has lost ground in the global war on terrorism that began under President George W. Bush.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, told CNN that Islamist terrorism has been particularly resurgent in the past two years.
“I see more groups; more fundamentalist, more jihadist, more determined to kill to get to where they want to get,” said Mrs. Feinstein, who cited concerns that terrorist groups may have access to increasingly powerful bombs.
Mrs. Feinstein told CNN that on four occasions, terrorists had attempted to introduce a new generation of powerful bombs to the U.S. “There are new bombs, very big bombs, trucks being reinforced for those bombs,” she said. “There are bombs that go through [metal-detecting] magnetometers.”
Mr. Rogers said a surge in the number of al Qaeda affiliates worldwide has exposed the inaccuracy of Mr. Obama’s claims last year that the terrorist network was decimated and on the run.
“Al Qaeda as we knew it before is metastasizing to something different,” Mr. Rogers said, adding that while the group may no longer be focused on executing an attack like 9/11, its newly decentralized nature is likely to make it more difficult for U.S. authorities to counter whatever plots may be in the making.
Mr. Rogers for months has maintained that Mr. Obama understated that threat posed by al Qaeda while running for re-election last year. During an interview with The Times in September, he said that assertions made by the president on the campaign trail last year were “not consistent” with the overall counterterrorism assessment being provided by the U.S. intelligence community at the time.
Asked about the apparent discrepancy, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told The Times in September that “we need to evaluate statements, by the administration or anyone else, in the context of when they were made” during an election.
Other sources familiar with the U.S. intelligence assessments of global terrorist activity have suggested that American politicians are scrambling to understand the increasingly complicated and rapidly evolving story of al Qaeda.
“You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Is al Qaeda closer today to getting a safe haven as they had in Afghanistan before 9/11?’” said one source, who spoke with The Times in September. “That’s a difficult question for the administration to answer.”