White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed questions Monday about whether the Obama administration had taken its eye off the threat of terrorism since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Carney said that the “president has been clear that the threat from Al Qaeda very much remains,” and said officials were particularly concerned about affiliates of the terror group outside its main “core” in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“As Al Qaeda’s core has been diminished through the efforts of the United States and our allies, affiliate organizations, including in particular, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have strengthened. We have here in Washington have identified AQAP in particular as the dangerous threat,” Carney said.
The rise in prominence of Nasir al Wuhayshi, the Yemeni head of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, underscores the transformation of al Qaida from a relatively small group led by one charismatic man into a diffuse global organization with many branches that pursue local objectives but follow a single ideology, according to counterterrorism analysts and officials.
The change has undermined the Obama administration’s boast that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have “decimated” what’s been called core al Qaida, according to veteran al Qaida watchers. Instead, the organization, no longer dependent on the leadership of a single personality, is growing, with authority now spread among leaders not just in Yemen but also in Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Egypt’s Sinai. The branches that operate in those regions aren’t affiliates, the experts say, they’re al Qaida…
“There’s all this pontification about whether al Qaida core is trying to get back to what they were,” said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was on the team that hunted bin Laden for years. “Of course they aren’t. They’ve evolved.”
Obama’s aggressive campaign of drone strikes against al-Qaeda’s senior leaders in Pakistan meant increasingly long spans before new leaders emerged and for the core organization to recover, “but I think we overestimated how well it was working,” Mneimneh said.
While focused on “core al-Qaeda” leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. officials failed to address the threat inherent in al-Qaeda’s quasi-independent operations in North Africa, East Africa, Sinai, Yemen and Iraq — and they lost sight of how al-Qaeda would evolve in reaction to U.S. pressure and the Arab Spring, Mneimneh said.
“What we had succeeded in doing was defeating one model of operation of al Qaeda but we did not defeat the organization itself,” he said.
The president’s thinking is that it is this “core” that leads the charge against the U.S. homeland and the affiliates are less capable and less committed to attacking the homeland today. The group’s leadership losses in Afghanistan and Pakistan, therefore, have substantially reduced the terrorist threat even if new al Qaeda affiliates are expanding. As I’ve written, it is a shortsighted argument for many reasons.
Here is the first example I gave for why this distinction between the al Qaeda “core” and the affiliates is, at best, imprecise:
“Consider just some of the terrorists who run al Qaeda’s operations outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Headquartered in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is led by Nasir al Wuhayshi, a terrorist who served as Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp for several years prior to 9/11. Wuhayshi was bin Laden’s protégé and remained loyal to the al Qaeda master even through the darkest times, including the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, when all could have been lost. Bin Laden later returned the favor, rejecting a plea by some AQAP members to replace Wuhayshi as their leader with Anwar al Awlaki, the charismatic al Qaeda ideologue who has since been killed in a drone strike. Some of Wuhayshi’s lieutenants also served al Qaeda in Afghanistan well before the 9/11 attacks. And together they are advancing al Qaeda’s global jihadist agenda, simultaneously fighting for territory inside Yemen while overseeing plots against the United States.
“By what standard is Wuhayshi today not a core member of al Qaeda? Is the reason simply that he lives in Yemen, and not Afghanistan or Pakistan?”
Nasir al Wuhayshi, the emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has recently been appointed to also serve as al Qaeda’s general manager, an important position that has been held by some of the group’s top leaders. The appointment of al Wuhayshi as general manager discredits the widespread claim that al Qaeda’s “core” is based solely in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area…
Al Wuhayshi is especially well-positioned to coordinate the activities of al Qaeda’s robust affiliates in the heart of the Middle East and Africa. And given AQAP’s plotting against the US homeland, al Wuhayshi is an ideal candidate to make sure that the regional affiliates continue to devote some of their assets to targeting the West — just as bin Laden specified in his letter to Atiyah.
[I]t was a message from al-Zawahiri to the leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch ordering attacks on unknown targets, possibly including the U.S. embassy in Yemen, that triggered alarms within the Obama Administration last week. The response to al-Zawahiri’s message suggests that, for all Obama’s boasts about decimating al-Qaeda’s “core” in Pakistan, Washington considers the group’s leadership there influential and dangerous. There are also signs that al-Zawahiri, 62, is looking to assert his own relevance and control over al-Qaeda’s loosely connected affiliate groups.
“It would make sense that Zawahiri thinks he needs greater connectivity with AQAP,” says Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s top counterterrorism official until last year. “If he’s going to revive the global al-Qaeda brand, he needs to show that these [affiliates] are not different bits that have blown apart, but are part of a unified whole.”
It’s certainly true that the administration made distinctions between al Qaeda core and its affiliates. They did so, however, not in order to emphasize the new, growing threat from the affiliates but because separating the core from the affiliates allowed them to argue that the weakening of al Qaeda core meant a weakening of al Qaeda more broadly. Thus, the elimination of many core al Qaeda leaders meant the coming demise of al Qaeda. Far from sounding alarms about the strengthening of the affiliates, administration officials frequently noted that the affiliates’ ambitions were regional and their resources were minimal. Brennan made this case in his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “As the al Qaeda core falters, it continues to look to its affiliates and adherents to carry on its murderous cause. Yet these affiliates continue to lose key commanders and capabilities as well.” The al Qaeda brand was so badly tainted that bin Laden considered abandoning the name, Brennan argued. The ability of al Qaeda and its affiliates to rebuild, he said, had been badly damaged by their willingness to kill fellow Muslims…
Eighteen months later, it’s clear that this judgment was wrong. The al Qaeda affiliate in Syria—the al Nusra front—is taking over vast swaths of the country and adding new members at an alarming rate. Al Qaeda in Iraq is sending reinforcements into the Syrian battle and still managing to increase carnage in Iraq. Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia is operating more or less freely in its native country. Ansar al Sharia in Libya helped carry out the deadly attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi. In recent weeks, radicals affiliated with al Qaeda freed hundreds of jihadists imprisoned in Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya.
Obama administration officials badly misjudged the future trajectory of al Qaeda because they badly misunderstood its past. The president and his advisers believed the fate of “al Qaeda core” was ipso facto the fate of al Qaeda broadly. So the ability of the U.S. government to kill members of that core—the one in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the one Obama was briefed about before he took office—meant we were succeeding in our efforts to eliminate al Qaeda. We were succeeding, that is, in Obama’s non-war on terror. But such assessments never reflected reality.
What this means is that Obama’s entire meme of having put “core al-Qaeda” on the “path to defeat” is untrue. So why is Obama so determined to make this false distinction between “core al-Qaeda” and AQAP? Because he wants to bring to an end what he dismissed in his National Defense Universityspeech as “a boundless ‘global war on terror’” (his quotation marks). In that address, Obama made his intentions clear: He wants to withdraw from Afghanistan, end drone strikes, repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed after Sept. 11, 2001, and take the United States off of a “perpetual wartime footing.”
But if “core al-Qaeda” is not in fact on a path to defeat — if the affiliate Obama admits is “most active in plotting against our homeland” is in fact “core al-Qaeda” — then he can’t really declare an end to our war against them, can he?
In truth, Obama is just recycling the same tired line of argument used by critics of the surge in Iraq in 2007. Back then, many on the left tried to argue that bin Laden’s Iraqi affiliate, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was not really al-Qaeda — because if it was not really bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, then we could safely pull out before that affiliate was defeated.
The Egyptian military’s crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was al Qaeda’s strongest competitor in the arena of Islamist politics, is also a boon to the jihadist movement. A weaker Brotherhood — which has lost confidence in its own ideas and leaders — will be a much weaker firewall against the more extreme groups. The crude anti-Islamist rhetoric that has seized Egypt since the coup, which equates the Brotherhood and al Qaeda as terrorists, blurs the line between the two groups to al Qaeda’s benefit. These effects could be mitigated by a political deal that allows the Brotherhood to remain invested in public life — but if Egypt’s new regime pushes ahead with efforts to fully crush the Brotherhood, as now seems likely, the effects will be even more profound…
What is less often appreciated, however, is the extent to which the Syrian jihad has helped bring al Qaeda’s ideology into the mainstream of the Arab world. Its struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given it a major role in a cause that is now central to Arab concerns. The anti-Shiite venom in the Gulf media and across so much of Arab social media validates its ideological stances. Saudi Arabia’s increasingly prominent role as the opposition’s foreign sponsor will do nothing to improve these trends: Riyadh will no doubt attempt to use the sectarian and Islamist dimensions of the Syrian jihad to simultaneously intimidate its own Shiite population, wage its unending regional campaign against Iran, and coopt the Islamist networks that might otherwise turn their guns on the kingdom.
Egypt and Syria have therefore helped to galvanize a movement that had been facing profound, nearly existential challenges. The emergence of local movements, such as the Ansar al-Sharia branches across North Africa, attest to the ability of Salafi-jihadists to learn from their mistakes and adapt to new opportunities. Al Qaeda and like-minded movements have not had a better opportunity to appeal to a broader Arab audience since the first years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Via the Weekly Standard.