President Obama has assured Americans for years that the core of al Qaeda is “decimated,” but the group’s claimed role in last week’s massacres in France, the spread of splinter terrorist groups throughout the Middle East and rise of the Islamic State underscore how the terrorist threat is expanding as the administration tries to prevent such commando-style attacks in the U.S.
From Afghanistan and borderlands of Pakistan to Iraq and North Africa, radical Islamists eager to spread their strict interpretation of the Muslim faith and topple Western values have bombed, beheaded and slaughtered — undermining the White House narrative and raising questions about its strategy.
In recent years, Mr. Obama and his advisers increasingly have placed their focus on “lone wolf” actors inspired by radical Islamist ideology but working outside known terrorist networks, and on “foreign fighters” holding Western passports who could carry out commando-style attacks in the U.S. after returning from Syria or Iraq. The White House’s evolving outlook of decentralized terrorism also reached the point this week where White House press secretary Josh Earnest said officials will no longer use the phrase “radical Islam” because it doesn’t accurately describe terrorists’ motivations.
Some security analysts, and Republicans, said that attitude appears to be a confused attempt to whitewash reality.
“I would call them jihadists, which is a distinct ideology within the Islamic world,” said Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “It trivializes the whole situation to pretend that you can avoid the discussion altogether. There’s a civil war within the Islamic world, and we’re a party to that, whether we want to be or not.”
The Obama administration has expanded its counterterrorism efforts in recent years to prevent attacks by loners that are potentially harder to detect in the plotting stage, because such attacks are carried out by individuals operating outside known terrorist networks.
“The most likely scenario that we have to guard against right now ends up being more of a lone wolf operation than a large, well-coordinated terrorist attack,” Mr. Obama said in 2011, after a lone gunman slaughtered 77 people at a youth camp in Norway. “When you’ve got one person who is deranged or driven by a hateful ideology, they can do a lot of damage, and it’s a lot harder to trace those lone wolf operators.”
As part of the effort to prevent such attacks, national security agencies under Mr. Obama have expanded outreach efforts to communities where such homegrown terrorists might arise.
“They’ve done a really good job of reaching out to influencers, Muslim-American community leaders and others who are aware of the individuals and the influences of radicalization on the local level,” said Dafna Rand, deputy director at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “There’s also been an incredible amount of intelligence-sharing with other countries that’s really useful here. There’s been a lot of progress. You can never assure all Americans that it would never happen, but there has been a lot of progress, to the credit of this administration.”
In addition to the more traditional counterterrorism efforts, the Obama administration has undertaken some more creative efforts to fight back, including a propaganda war run by the State Department. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications was created in 2011 to target al Qaeda and other extremist groups in Arabic in the digital world, using the Twitter handle @ThinkAgain_DOS.
With the rise of the Islamic State, the center has ramped up its efforts on YouTube and other forums to include other languages.
On Wednesday, the center’s Twitter posts included “French imam tried unsuccessfully to de-radicalize brothers; told 1 that going to Iraq wasn’t ‘a solution.’” Also this week, the center tweeted: “Interesting Fact: 5 Nobel Peace Prize winners since 2003 were Muslim — living testimony to true principles of Islam.”
“There’s a lot of effort on the public communications, public diplomacy,” Ms. Rand said. “A lot of this is getting on social media and trying to change the narrative.”
The budget for this propaganda war is about $6 million per year, and it’s been criticized as far behind the slick digital recruiting efforts of the Islamic State. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, has called the effort “fundamentally unserious.”
In autumn, Mr. Obama laid out a nine-point strategy for combating and defeating the Islamic State terrorist group, including airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, denying the group funding, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters and “exposing” the “true nature” of the group.
“We are working with our partners throughout the Muslim world to highlight [the Islamic State’s] hypocrisy and counter its false claims of acting in the name of religion,” the White House said at the time.
Although administration officials haven’t confirmed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s claim of responsibility for the attacks in France last week, security analysts say the potential development is even more ominous than the “lone wolf” attacks that have U.S. officials on guard.
“If this was an orchestrated attack by AQAP, that means the indications were missed by the intelligence communities, both in Europe and in the U.S.,” Mr. Joscelyn said. “AQAP is under a lot of scrutiny. If AQAP did direct this attack, that means even with all the monitoring and intelligence, they still managed to get one through.”
Mr. Earnest said the AQAP video claiming responsibility “appears to be authentic,” and he called it “another clear indication of the wanton brutality of that organization.”
Mr. Earnest also noted that the “majority of the victims” of AQAP attacks have been Muslim. He said recent attacks by the organization, including one that targeted schoolchildren and another that targeted a hospital, are “an indication of the warped ideology of this organization.”
The administration has worked with the international community to mitigate the threat of AQAP and is trying to work with the Yemeni government and security forces, Mr. Earnest said.
The AQAP leadership, he said, continues “to feel the pressure” of the international community.
Mr. Joscelyn said al-Ansi and other top commanders of AQAP in Yemen are “core al Qaeda” with direct links to the successors of Osama bin Laden.
“The idea that ‘core al Qaeda’ is this small group that can be droned to death, and everybody else is something else, is just wrong,” said Mr. Joscelyn, who has testified before Congress about evolving jihadi threats. “Not everything else is full-fledged al Qaeda, but some of it is. The threats have spread out over the last several years. That’s not a sign of weakness on their part; it’s a sign of growing strength.”
AQAP has been tied to several attempted attacks in recent years, including the failed bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009 by the so-called “underwear bomber.”
In December, U.S. special operations forces raided an AQAP stronghold in an effort to free two hostages. But the hostages, American photojournalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie, were killed in the operation.
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.