In the months before President Obama declared al Qaeda was “on a path to defeat,” his aides were telling Congress that the terrorist network was expanding and was capable of inflicting mass casualties in the U.S.
While perhaps not a direct contradiction of the president’s near-claim of victory last week, their testimony painted the picture of a robust collection of al Qaeda franchises causing death and destruction in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Mali, Somalia and Afghanistan.
Terrorism analysts say that as the U.S. conducted a concentrated air war via armed Predators against al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas for more than a decade, the group’s Islamic chieftains decided to diversify.
“I totally disagree with the premise that al Qaeda is on the path to defeat,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who has advised U.S. commanders in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “Quite the contrary, al Qaeda has deliberately decentralized its operations, not because of the relentless attacks we have had on its national leadership in Pakistan, but because its strategic objective is to dominate and control Muslim countries in the region. As such, al Qaeda must extend its geographic reach, which is not only successful but is expanding.”
Three al Qaeda franchises are most notable: al Qaeda in Iraq, which has rebuilt and stepped up attacks since the last American troops left in 2011 and has moved fighters into Syria; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a North Africa-based network aligned with Ansar al Shariah, which carried out the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya; and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based cell that sponsored the failed 2009 airliner attack by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Gen. Keane’s assertions that al Qaeda remains powerful seems to be supported by administration witnesses earlier this year.
“The threat from AQAP, particularly with airliners, has not dissipated over the years,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “There’s still that threat out there. The individuals who were responsible for the previous attempts are still there.”
Matthew Olsen, who heads the National Counterterrorism Center, said al Qaeda is still trying to recruit attackers in the United States.
“We definitely have seen, both from the al Qaeda core in Pakistan as well as AQAP in Yemen, an effort to reach out beyond those regions into the United States to radicalize individuals who are here, who may be susceptible to that kind of a message,” Mr. Olsen testified. “They may be simply wayward knuckleheads, but they may well be inspired by that message and seek to carry out an attack.”
Retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, in his final testimony to the House Armed Services Committee as head of U.S. Central Command, called al Qaeda “a real threat.”
Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, who directs U.S. Special Operations Command, which targets individual terrorists and cells, testified that it is not enough to target a single al Qaeda group because the network establishes alliances with like-minded Islamic extremists. He explained the challenge in just one part of the world: North Africa.
“I certainly think we understand the complexity of the al Qaeda network,” he said in Senate testimony. “And if you look in Africa as an example, you have al Qaeda in the Islamic Lands of the Maghreb, and we know that they are partnered or linked with Boko Haram out of Nigeria. So you certainly cannot isolate a single organization, whether it’s al Qaeda in the Islamic Lands of the Maghreb or Boko Haram, and expect to be able to solve the problem either locally by going after that problem in a particular country or by individual entity. If you deal with AQIM, you probably have to deal with Boko Haram.”
Last week before an audience at the National Defense University, Mr. Obama delivered a speech designed to claim victory, and reset the counterterrorism battle by abandoning the globalist theme of the George W. Bush administration.
“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” the president said.
And he made a significant claim. “Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat,” he said. “Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.”
According to a Heritage Foundation study, Islamists have plotted 54 times to strike American since Sept. 11, 2001, the day al Qaeda operatives flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Three other plots were carried out, the most recent the Boston Marathon bombings.
CIA Director John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s former counterterrorism adviser, seemed to paint a more dangerous picture of al Qaeda during his Senate confirmation hearing than the president did during his recent speech.
“We remain at war with al Qaeda and its associated forces, which despite the substantial progress we have made against them, still seek to carry out deadly strikes against our homeland, our citizens and against our friends and allies,” Mr. Brennan said.
He conceded that, rather than pulling back, al Qaeda is expanding: “I will say that if you look out over the last four years, what happened in a number of places, such as Yemen and other areas, where there was in fact a growth of al Qaeda, quite unfortunately.”
Gen. Keane said that while al Qaeda’s core has been badly damaged by the loss of senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden, it has established itself in other countries where it did not exist on Sept. 11, 2001. He listed the countries — Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Mali, Yemen — where al Qaeda spinoffs are growing.
“Al Qaeda has returned to Iraq after it was defeated in 2009, is the fastest growing rebel group in Syria, has established a bona fide sanctuary in [the West African nation of] Mali and attempted to seize the capital, and established a clear sanctuary in eastern Libya where no actions have been taken against the al Qaeda affiliated group, Ansar al-Shariah,” the retired general said. “In Somalia, we have enjoyed some success, and in Yemen it’s at best a draw.”
“Al Qaeda’s No. 1 objective to be able to control and dominate the region is to drive the U.S. out of the region. The harsh reality is the president of the United States is voluntarily doing just that,” Gen. Keane said.