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.”
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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.
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Some of those who will be listening in Congress say the president’s handling of the al Qaeda intelligence last year might provide a red flag for the coming debate.
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.
The next generation
Most officials interviewed for this article, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, credited Mr. Obama with publicly correcting his assessment of the evolving threat posed by al Qaeda during a major speech this year.
The problem, they said, is that he did so only after winning a second term. Intelligence that the president wove into a May 23 speech at the National Defense University was, in fact, well-known among analysts at America’s major spy agencies nearly a year earlier, the officials said.
While Mr. Obama crowed on the campaign trail about al Qaeda’s demise, the intelligence community was privately providing the president, along with Republican opponent Mitt Romney and several top congressional leaders, a much more complicated view of the terrorist movement, whose name in Arabic means “the base.”
The consensus was that, yes, al Qaeda’s traditional central leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan had suffered serious losses and had less day-to-day influence, but the terrorist group was advancing quickly on a new and dangerous path.
From David H. Petraeus, the CIA director at the time, to Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, there were numerous private warnings during the summer and fall of 2012 that al Qaeda in the post-bin Laden world was “metastasizing” from its original core to much smaller but strong offshoots as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen; al-Shabab in Somalia; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Libya, Algeria and Mali; Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; and less-defined groups with growing operational capabilities in Africa and the Middle East.
Sources familiar with these offshoots said the classified briefings stressed that many of them were driven by local agendas — such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s desire to overthrow the pro-U.S. government in Yemen — but at times remained in contact with al Qaeda’s new central leadership of al-Zawahri. The Egyptian doctor, who succeeded bin Laden, was believed to be hiding in the Wild West-like FATA region.
A central point of the briefings was that the offshoots were gaining money, lethal knowledge and a mounting determination to strike U.S. and Western interests. “The terrorist threat to the West was clearly shifting away from the FATA,” one senior intelligence official told The Times.
“In mid-2012, al Qaeda’s decimated senior leadership in Pakistan could only try to set the strategic direction for the increasingly decentralized global affiliates,” the senior intelligence official said. “At that time, [al Qaeda’s] core was providing overall guidance but wasn’t calling the operational shots outside of South Asia.”
There were also varying views within the intelligence community over the level of influence exerted by al-Zawahri — long understood to be al Qaeda’s operational mastermind.
A second senior intelligence official told The Times that “from intercepts and allies, we knew last year that al Qaeda central was still exerting influence on these offshoots even as political statements came out saying the leadership was on the run and losing control.
“We believed al Qaeda had simply transferred operational capabilities to these affiliates, knowing how much communications were being monitored,” the official said. “But they still were determined to strike us, mostly through these affiliates.”
The whole truth?
Questions about al-Zawahri’s reach quickly became a hallmark of the intelligence community’s attempts to make sense of the deadly September 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post and secret CIA station in Benghazi.
Key attackers were identified early as belonging to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A video message sent via cyberspace from al-Zawahri on the night before the incident explicitly called for attacks on Americans in Libya to avenge a fatal U.S. drone strike on a Libyan-born senior al Qaeda operative in Pakistan.
The message was almost immediately identified as a possible motivation, or trigger, for the Benghazi attack.
Despite being briefed on it privately, Mr. Obama and his surrogates resisted portraying the attack as having been carried out, or even inspired by, al Qaeda. To the contrary, Mr. Obama — then in the throes of daily campaigning for re-election — appeared only to ramp up his narrative that the al Qaeda threat was diminished.
On the day after the Benghazi attack, which occurred on the 11th anniversary of Sept. 11, Mr. Obama told an audience in Las Vegas that “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat and bin Laden is dead” — a talking point the president hammered again the next day in Golden, Colo., and in back-to-back speeches Sept. 17 in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio.
At times, Mr. Obama substituted the word “decimated” to describe al Qaeda in general. “We have gone after the terrorists who actually attacked us 9/11 and decimated al Qaeda,” he said at an Oct. 24 fundraising event at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
A week later, he told an audience in Green Bay, Wis., “Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.”
Politically savvy insiders on the Republican side viewed the president’s declarations with bitter amusement. “It’s not that it was an alternative narrative being pushed,” said one congressional source familiar with the intelligence. “But, kind of like a half-truth.”
“There was a narrative of al Qaeda being ‘defeated’ or ‘decimated,’ but that would only be true in the case of specifying al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan,” said the source, who chastised the campaign for “not specifying that that’s what they were talking about.”
“To the general public, a lot of people don’t know the difference” between al Qaeda central and its African offshoots, the source said.
Inside the intelligence community, officials feared Mr. Obama’s campaign rhetoric might boomerang on American spy agencies if there is a major terrorist attack on the United States.
“Intelligence leaders didn’t want a media story line that they somehow missed this emerging Africa threat if something happened,” the official said.
Two former senior intelligence officials even took to the airwaves last fall to try to combat the political portrait of al Qaeda on its last leg. Former CIA Directors Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden gave pointed interviews disputing the oversimplification of the political rhetoric and insisting that al Qaeda remained a real threat to strike through the African affiliates.
Asked for his own assessment of al Qaeda, Mr. Goss told Fox News in October that “it’s much stronger” and “it’s spreading out.”
“It’s sort of running across the map of northern Africa,” Mr. Goss said. “There are franchise activities springing up with different names and constantly are changing the names. They basically are part of this loosely affiliated network. There’s a lot of money in it. There is a lot of dedication and commitment in it.”
Mr. Hayden openly suggested that the Obama administration may have tried to hide the al Qaeda affiliate’s role in the Benghazi tragedy for political reasons when, in fact, “Benghazi is really a home game for al Qaeda.”
Combing the PDB
Although some sources told The Times that Mr. Obama was definitely receiving briefings from the CIA on the threat posed by al Qaeda affiliates, others said it was not specifically clear how prominently the assessments factored into the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) presented to Mr. Obama last summer and fall.
The PDB is among the most closely guarded classified documents in Washington — particularly because of politically disastrous ramifications if the American public were to find out that a sitting president ignored warnings presented in the document.
In 2004, George W. Bush became the first U.S. president in history to release a PDB to the public. The briefing — detailed in the official 9/11 Commission Report — was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” and was delivered to Mr. Bush roughly five weeks before the horrific terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
With regard to the months leading up to the November election, one source familiar with the process explained how material from various intelligence agencies fed to the White House was ultimately cleared by the office of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper.
“There might be different points of view from different agency heads. At the end of the day, though, the intelligence community view is put forth by the DNI,” the source said.
Mr. Clapper appeared eager to provide a rosy assessment of the threat in February 2012 — roughly eight months before the election. He told the Senate Committee on Armed Services that the “coming two to three years” would bring a situation in which the leadership of the “global jihadist movement” would become “more decentralized, with ‘core’ al Qaeda — the Pakistan-based group formerly led by Osama bin Laden — diminishing in operational importance.”
“There is a better-than-even chance that decentralization will lead to fragmentation of the movement within a few years,” Mr. Clapper said in written testimony. As a result, he said, “core al Qaeda will likely be of largely symbolic importance to the movement; regional groups, and to a lesser extent small cells and individuals, will drive the global jihad agenda both within the United States and abroad.”
The roots of the assessment can be found in a March 2012 report by the DNI’s own National Counterterrorism Center, which portrayed an evolving al Qaeda threat that could be read in multiple ways.
The report said terrorist attacks carried out “by AQ and its affiliates” actually “increased by 8 percent from 2010 to 2011.”
But the spike was not a result of increases in attacks by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Rather, it was because of a sharp jump in the number of attacks carried out in Somalia by the al-Shabab network — an organization that intelligence analysts largely regard to be more localized than the others and, as a result, less threatening overall to the U.S.
An “Overarching Trends” section of the report cited “an 11.5 percent increase” in the number of terrorist attacks carried out across Africa, an increase attributable to the rise of the shadowy Islamist group “Boko Haram” in Nigeria.
The new ‘core’
In light of such assessments, some intelligence sources cautioned against reading too eagerly into Mr. Obama’s sloganeering on the campaign trail. Providing a more accurate depiction of the evolving al Qaeda threat would have required the kind of more detailed explanation that has, in the current era, come to be shunned by candidates running for the highest office.
Mr. Obama did attempt such an explanation on at least one occasion during the campaign.
“We’ve decimated al Qaeda’s top leadership in the border regions around Pakistan,” he told an audience on Sept. 20 at the University of Miami. “But in Yemen, in Libya, in other of these places — increasingly in places like Syria — what you see is these elements that don’t have the same capacity that a bin Laden or core al Qaeda had, but can still cause a lot of damage, and we’ve got to make sure that we remain vigilant and are focused on preventing them from doing us any harm.”
Shown those remarks recently, one intelligence source told The Times that “there’s really not a lot of daylight in that statement and where we were at the time in our assessments.”
Why it did not more regularly make its way into the president’s campaign talking points is unclear — specifically since al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had factored into multiple U.S.-focused terrorist plots foiled during Mr. Obama’s first term.
In his statement to The Times, Mr. Ruppersberger described al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as “the ‘affiliate’ that is the strongest and the consensus assessment is that it is a threat to U.S. interests.”
“We now know that there is contact between AQAP and core AQ,” he said.
The intelligence community’s focus on AQAP shifted as far back as 2009, when the group claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day plot in which a 23-year-old Nigerian attempted to ignite a clutch of plastic explosives sewn to his underwear aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
AQAP’s support for such a plot — with no obvious strategic connection to the group’s localized focus in Yemen — suggested the hidden hand of al Qaeda’s leadership was at play.
Debate on the question was still swirling through Congress after the 2012 election when Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence pressed John O. Brennan, in his confirmation hearing to be CIA director, to opine publicly on the influence exerted over the affiliates by al Qaeda’s core leadership.
“We do see al Qaeda core trying to exert some control over some of these elements,” Mr. Brennan said in response to a question from Sen. Daniel Coats, Indiana Republican.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who was new to the committee, suggested that al Qaeda was not so decimated as Mr. Obama sought to portray it on the campaign trail.
“If you look at a map today, you would see al Qaeda in all sorts of countries,” said Mrs. Collins. “That’s not to say that there weren’t cells in other countries back in 2001, but it raises the question in my mind of whether, even though we’ve been successful in taking out some of the core of al Qaeda and some high-level leaders, whether our strategy is working.”
Mr. Brennan acknowledged that “al Qaeda and this — you know, the forces of Islamic extremists, that have really corrupted and perverted Islam, are making some progress in areas that give me real concern.”
Mrs. Collins told The Times that despite successes against the “core” in Pakistan and Afghanistan, “the fact is that the Islamist extremist threat has metastasized to other countries.”
AQAP in Yemen, Mrs. Collins said, “has become the new ‘core’ al Qaeda in many ways, posing a threat to the region and to Western targets, including the United States.”
“We must be clear-eyed,” she said, “in recognizing that ‘core’ al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not the only location from which attacks can be planned.”
• John Solomon contributed to this report.