In 2012, President Obama touted America’s defeat of al-Qaeda in his State of the Union in that election year. Two years later, al-Qaeda is still very much alive. On Tuesday night, Obama attempted to make the connection between his desire to end the war on terror and combat the threat posed by al-Qaeda affiliates.
The War on Terror looked very different two years ago. At the time, during an election year and less than a year after the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader and founder Osama bin Laden, Obama said: “The remaining al-Qaeda operatives hustle, knowing they cannot escape the reach of the United States of America.”
The reach of the United States, however, is not what it was in 2012. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has not yet signed an agreement to keep American troops in the country after 2014. In Iraq, the Al-Qaeda affiliates have raised the jihad flag in Fallujah, the city where US forces have fought for the past decade. In June, the Egyptian military ignored public warnings from the United States not to overthrow the elected president.
In a speech that focused primarily on his domestic agenda, President Obama acknowledged that America was still under threat from al-Qaeda affiliates. But he also underlined his desire to limit the war that America has waged against the terrorist network. “America must leave the permanent war footing;” he said. Obama also bragged about the limits he placed on US drone warfare and how he hoped to work with Congress to reform “our surveillance programs.” He said, “We fight terrorism not only through intelligence and military action, but by staying true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.
Policing Obama’s authority to wage his war on terror is a resolution Congress passed three days after the September 11 attacks. It gave the president the power to wage war anywhere in the world where al-Qaeda was suspected of having a presence. For the most part, Obama continued these authorities.
If Obama is to finally relinquish some of the extraordinary powers created after 9/11, he will have to persuade Congress and the American people that the threat posed by al-Qaeda is receding.
On Tuesday, he emphasized the distinction between al-Qaeda affiliates and its “ruling core.” “While we have put key al-Qaeda leaders on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved as al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world.” , Obama said. “In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Mali, we must continue to work with partners to disrupt and disable these networks.
The White House and its allies have taken great care to distinguish between the leadership of al-Qaeda based in Pakistan and the threat posed by its affiliates. Indeed, in a recent New Yorker profile, Obama compared these affiliates to junior college basketball players wearing Kobe Bryant jerseys: that doesn’t make them the Los Angeles Lakers. This distinction allowed the White House to assert that at least the hard core of Al-Qaeda played no role. during the September 11, 2012 assault on the US mission and CIA annex in Benghazi.
Al-Qaeda’s hard core, the group led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, is believed to be based in Pakistan. Most experts agree that the organization was forced into hiding as a result of the CIA’s drone war against the organization. Since the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 by US special operations forces, the White House has publicly emphasized that the organization that attacked the United States on 9/11 is no more than a shadow of herself.
But as the core of al-Qaeda has been forced into hiding, the group’s affiliates have extended their influence. Indeed, renowned terrorism analyst Peter Bergen concluded earlier this month that al-Qaeda affiliates may control more territory today than at any time in history. of al-Qaeda.
The problem is how affiliates connect to the core, if they connect at all. As The Daily Beast reported in August, US intelligence agencies have uncovered an internet conference of leaders of al-Qaeda and their affiliates that suggests more coordination than at least President Obama is implying. During this conference call, Zawahiri announced that a former collaborator close to Bin Laden, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, assumed an operational role throughout the organization.
Michael Allen, who left his post this summer as Majority Staff Director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said: “I think there’s definitely communications between the core and the nodes, the core certainly provides ideological orientations. But affiliates, to some extent, may not be taking as much tactical direction because of the pressure since 9/11 under Bush and Obama.
Clear evidence of this rift can be found last year in an exchange of letters between Zawahiri and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the head of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch. Zawahiri rejected Baghdadi’s request to expand operations in Syria; but Baghdadi still expanded his operations there. This eventually led to clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra, the organization that Zawahiri hoped would be al-Qaeda’s affiliate for Syria’s civil war.
Will McCants, director of the US Relations with the Islamic World project at the Brookings Institution, said, “Core al-Qaeda is not dead until Zawahiri is dead. And even after he is gone, the banner of the global jihadist movement will be taken up by al-Qaeda affiliates and impersonators.
But whether these copycats are as ferocious as al-Qaeda was in 2001 depends on the skill and strength of the affiliated leaders. Seth Jones, associate director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for International Security and Defense Policy, said in congressional testimony (PDF) last week that some al-Qaeda affiliates and Salafist groups pose a direct threat to United States, while others currently do not.
“American policymakers should be concerned about the number, size and activity of al-Qaeda and other Salafist-jihadi groups,” he said. “Some of these groups pose a direct threat to the American homeland, embassies and citizens abroad, while others currently target local regimes. Yet an effective US strategy must begin with an honest assessment of the problem.