Yemeni soldiers control vehicles Aug. 6 near Sanaa International Airport in Yemen. The United States ordered Americans to leave Yemen amid a worldwide alert linked to electronic intercepts from Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Some analysts say the Obama administration has underestimated the terror group. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP)
WASHINGTON — Reports of al-Qaida’s demise have been greatly exaggerated — and the organization’s strategic aims greatly misunderstood, security analysts said Tuesday.
The state of al-Qaida has been a central debate in Washington since the Obama administration recently temporarily closed US embassies across the Middle East due to intelligence suggesting an attack on one or more was coming.
Hawkish lawmakers and analysts say the alleged plot is proof that the Obama administration jumped the gun, beginning last year, when it claimed al-Qaida was on the decline.
These administration critics point to a May speech during which President Barack Obama said al-Qaida’s core group in Afghanistan and Pakistan “is on the path to defeat.”
“Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us,” Obama said in a much-ballyhooed speech at National Defense University in Washington. “They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.”
Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, during an event here Tuesday afternoon, said that is the wrong lens through which to judge al-Qaida.
“To say al-Qaida can’t do another 9/11-style attack, so they’re not a threat is wrong,” Joscelyn said, “and that ignores some of the threat streams we face today.”
An example of those alleged threats is the embassy plot, critics say. And, to them, that begs a question: How did the administration misread the strength of the Islamist group?
“So many got it wrong because we define [its strength] as terrorist threats against us or the West. That’s not their strategic goal,” Joscelyn said, calling al-Qaida’s work to attack US and Western targets a mere “tactic.”
“They define themselves as political revolutionaries who want power for themselves” and are pursuing “political power across the Middle East,” Joscelyn said. “That’s principally what they’re about and what they’re doing.”
The state and future strength of al-Qaida will influence a myriad US defense and national security policies and budget decisions, from force size to what combat hardware to buy to which platforms and troops must stay in the Middle East-North Africa region — making them unavailable for the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to Asia.
FDD President Clifford May said the Obama administration has adopted an “oversimplified narrative” about al-Qaida that, by definition, means its counterterrorism policies “will be flawed.”
May warned that when US and NATO troops mostly leave Afghanistan next year, “there will be a threat there.”
Where Obama sees a weakened al-Qaida core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Joscelyn contends Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri communicates regularly not only with the organization’s most potent cell in Yemen, but also with “dozens” of al-Qaida groups and individuals “across the world.”
Joscelyn ticked off a list of al-Qaida affiliates that did not exist before 9/11, saying while “it’s not the most popular brand in the Muslim world … they’re still capable of coming forward” to plan and carry out attacks.
His list includes al-Qaida cells in Mali, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Somalia.
“We can’t just say this group isn’t al-Qaida but this group is [because] they’re supporting al-Qaida and its strategic goals,” Joscelyn said.
To that end, senior Obama aides have publicly defended their boss, pointing out that Obama’s May speech made clear he views the affiliate groups as a threat.
“What we’ve seen is the emergence of various al-Qaida affiliates. From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse, with al-Qaida’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula — AQAP — the most active in plotting against our homeland,” Obama said in May.
“And while none of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11, they have continued to plot acts of terror, like the attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009,” the president said. “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.”