What the successful counterterrorism operations tells us about the war on terror.
On Monday it was revealed that the CIA had thwarted a new al-Qaeda-sponsored terror plot hatched in Yemen. The scheme was brought down by a man said to have been a mole for the CIA and Saudi intelligence. After infiltrating the Yemeni cell, the agent enlisted in a suicide mission designed to bring down a U.S.-bound airliner, but turned over his equipment and intelligence once the plan was set in motion. The success of the counterterrorism mission -- a story full of intrigue, double agents and high-stakes deception -- is a testament to the prowess of U.S. defense capabilities, to be sure. Yet, the event also serves as a grim reminder that recent declarations by Obama surrogates suggesting that the war on terror is "over" have been overstated, to say the least.
On Tuesday, John Brennan, President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser, contended that the discovery of the plot indicates that al-Qaeda remains a threat to the United States a year after Bin Laden's death. Keep in mind, however, that Mr. Brennan himself revealed in 2009 that the terms “war on terrorism," “jihadists” and “global war” were no longer acceptable within the Obama White House. At the time, he did concede that we were still "at war with al-Qaida," yet he insisted that using the three above terms gave the terrorist organization unwarranted legitimacy, and further implied that America is at war with all of Islam.
The "we're only at war with al-Qaeda" motif was amplified by an unnamed "senior State Department official" in a National Journal article written by Michael Hirsh in April 2012. "The war on terror is over," said the official. "Now that we have killed most of al Qaida, now that people have come to see legitimate means of expression, people who once might have gone into al Qaida see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism."
Despite the ridiculous assertion by Hirsh that, if Osama bin Laden were still alive, he "would see a U.S. administration that, having killed most of bin Laden’s confederates, is now ready to move into a post-al-Qaeda era and engage with Islamist politicians as long as they renounce violence and terrorism," al-Qaeda remains a potent force. Yemen, Pakistan Nigeria and Somalia represent relatively new and fertile feeding grounds for the terrorist organization -- unless one wishes to engage in another round of semantic obscurantism. Such obscurantism attempts to ignore the reality that groups such as Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Taiba, Nigeria's Boko Haram, and Somalia's al Shabaab espouse the very same jihadist ambitions as al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Furthermore, leaders of these affiliates have sworn "bayat," or loyalty, to current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, even as they offer him funding and fighters. The Wall Street Journal's Seth Jones offers the ultimate reality check: "None of these organizations existed a decade ago," he writes.
Hirsh's other contention, that the so-called Arab Spring "opened up new channels of expression, supplying for the first time in decades an alternative to violent jihad" is also undone. Documents taken from Bin Laden's compound and reviewed by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reveal that Bin Laden was seeking a way to "reattach al-Qaeda to the Muslim mainstream." Ignatius re-iterates the success al-Qaeda has enjoyed in Yemen, but he notes that Egypt's Salafist party, "which like al-Qaeda traces its roots to the Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb, has 13 seats in the new Egyptian parliament." He refers to such political successes as "electoral bin Ladenism."
There are other notable al-Qaeda success stories as well. It planted its flag on a Benghazi courthouse in post-Gaddafi Libya last November, and has made inroads into the Syrian opposition attempting to overthrow butcher Bashar Assad, a reality revealed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in February. Thus, it appears the demise of the organization responsible for 9/11 has been greatly exaggerated.
Despite these sobering assessments, one of the reasons the administration likes the focus to remain on al-Qaeda is that it takes the focus off other inconvenient truths. For example, instead of pursuing victory in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has not only been negotiating with the Taliban, but secretly releasing high-level Taliban detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan -- with the warning that if they are caught attacking American troops, they will be detained once again. Measured against the Taliban's long record of savagery, such a warning amounts to delusional thinking.
Delusional thinking, seemingly the essence of the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts, also appears to be the prime mover with respect to Iran. That nation continues to move inexorably towards a nuclear weapon, based on its own apocalyptic-generated vision aimed at realizing a worldwide Muslim Caliphate that is every bit as radical (if not more so) as the one al-Qaeda continues to pursue.
It is a vision, despite all current claims to the contrary, shared by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (MB), representatives of whom were invited to the White House in April, despite their the Supreme Guide's call for jihadism against the United States in October of 2010. Let us also not forget $1.5 billion commitment to the new Egyptian government whose parliament is controlled by the MB, ruled the day. “We believe that it is in the interest of the United States to engage with all parties that are committed to democratic principles, especially nonviolence,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “In all our conversations with these groups, we emphasize the importance of respect for minority rights, the full inclusion of women, and our regional security concerns,” he added. One suspects a written agreement specifically tied to the $1.5 billion in foreign aid would be more effective.
Yet measured against these disturbing realities, the disruption of another plot by al-Qaeda to blow up a jetliner is welcome news, and all ideological differences notwithstanding, credit must be given to the administration for disrupting another plot aimed at killing hundreds of innocents. Yet that success hardly buttresses the characterization of al-Qaeda as a dying organization. The CIA uncovered the plot last month in Yemen, which, as mentioned above, is one of al-Qaeda's breeding grounds. They retain de facto control in part of that nation, illuminated by their ability to successfully engage Yemeni government troops only 25 hours after a CIA-operation drone took out Fahd al-Quso, who was wanted in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors. Al-Qaeda attacked a Yemeni army base in the southern part of that nation, killing 22 soldiers and capturing 25.
As for the bomb itself, currently being examined by the FBI, the new detonating device demonstrates the terror organization's ability to further modernize its bomb-making capabilities. Capabilities thought to be the handiwork of Saudi-born Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the 28-year-old explosives expert who constructed the first "underwear bomb" and two others that al-Qaeda built into printer cartridges and shipped to the U.S. on cargo planes in 2010. And if al-Asiri is not responsible? As the AP more ominously puts it, the bomb may be the work of "one of his students."
Al-Qaeda's ability to find new countries to use as recruitment and terror bases, attach itself to similar ideological movements, and insert itself into power vacuums emanating from the Arab Spring, even as it upgrades its weapon-making capabilities, hardly indicates an organization on the wane. Yet president Obama remains sanguine. "This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end," he contended near the end of speech to the troops during his recent visit.
Every trip through security in an American airport says otherwise.
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