Obama’s Counterterrorism Policy: Wishful Thinking

POTUS claims al-Qaeda is a ‘shadow of its former self'

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 4: President Barack Obama speaks during a ceremony for the 2016 Kennedy Center honorees December 4, 2016 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. The honorees include Eagles band members, actor Al Pacino and singer James Taylor.
President Barack Obama. Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

The commander in chief decided to wrap up the fight against the world’s most notorious terrorist organization in a two-term bow, declaring in his final national security address that al-Qaeda is “a shadow of its former self.”

As has been par for the course during President Obama’s administration, al-Qaeda was referred to as a footnote in history, “the most dangerous threat to the United States at the time” of the 2001 attacks but no longer, just a “decimated,” hollowed-out, whimpering terrorist group.

Has there ever been such sustained wishful thinking as a counterterrorism policy?

On the morning of Obama’s confident address to service members at MacDill Air Force Base, a George Washington University study tallying the affiliation of all terrorism charges brought in the United States from March 2011 to the end of July this year reported that 44 percent of cases had connections to terrorist groups other than ISIS.

That falls largely to al-Qaeda and its family of direct relatives and close friends: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Shabaab, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban, and more jihad outlets in places as diverse as Mali and Uzbekistan. They had people on American soil—in most cases, U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents—planning attacks, fundraising and recruiting.

So much for “ISIS” beginning every sentence about homegrown jihadists.

The administration’s long-running PR effort to relegate al-Qaeda’s current and future global influence and capabilities to an afterthought is nothing new, but escalated as a devastating misinformation campaign as the long-term future of terror became more apparent.

At the Pentagon memorial on September 11, Obama declared America has “dealt devastating blows to al-Qaeda.”

“Al-Qaeda’s top ranks have been hammered,” he told Marines at Camp Pendleton in 2013. “The core of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the way to defeat.”

If “devastating” means killing Osama bin Laden, which Obama has frequently touted, the head of that snake grew back—and not just in terms of inspiration, like we’ve seen with the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki that still drive Americans to jihad years after his drone death. Ayman al-Zawahiri may not have the charisma of bin Laden—his addresses are like sitting through the calculus class of jihad—but he’s shown a willingness to evolve and take the long-term sustainable growth route around the more impetuous ISIS.

Obama adds the qualifier that he means physical devastation for the “core” group, but it’s a distinction without difference. That core has been building a global network, coordinating with powerful franchises, opening new chapters, and training old allies like the Taliban. In the first six months of this year, al-Qaeda’s active West African affiliates had unleashed more than 100 attacks. And on the propaganda front, this year AQAP took up the task of analyzing attacks, even ones claimed by ISIS, in English-language guides that helped lone jihadists see what was done well and what could have been done better.

And then, of course, there are the Iran links that Obama might rather forget.

In July, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on three senior al-Qaeda members located in Iran in an effort to “disrupt the operations, fundraising, and support networks that help al-Qaeda move money and operatives from South Asia and across the Middle East.” In their 30s and 40s, the terrorists were dubbed “part of a new generation of al-Qaeda” by Treasury. The cooperation between Iran and al-Qaeda is like the war on terror’s dirtiest little secret: cited in the 9/11 Commission report, target of 2009 Treasury sanctions that included bin Laden’s son Sa’ad, conveniently ignored in favor of other policy objectives save for oblique references to Iran’s non-nuclear bad behavior.

Zawahiri warned on this year’s anniversary that “the events of Sept. 11 will be repeated a thousand times.” As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told CBS on 9/11, “what al-Qaeda started on Sept. 11, 2001, continues to metastasize” as “al-Qaeda’s very, very good at seeding people and waiting.”

“They’re very patient,” Nunes said. “They’re spreading… globally, very, very slowly.”

That means growing a new generation of jihadists. An English-language magazine issued by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Al-Balagh, appeared shortly before 9/11. The target throughout its pages? Young people.

“The grown men who spend their times playing like kids in the fields of cricket are not your role models,” declared the magazine’s foreword. “Rather, your role models are men, firm in speech and action. Men who lived with their head held high and with their AK aimed at the enemy.”

Millennial mujahidin recruiting is also getting a boost from the messages of Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s twenty-something son who has the shot of charisma Zawahiri lacks and who’s eager to inherit the family business. Declaring “we are all Osama” in a July video, Hamza vowed holy war and revenge for his dad’s assassination: “If you think that your sinful crime … has passed without punishment, then you thought wrong.”

Any assertion that al-Qaeda has been devastated into an aged, decrepit shell of its jihadi self is simply wrong. Any policy that leans on this conclusion is deadly.

Obama’s Counterterrorism Policy: Wishful Thinking