The Obama administration’s sweeping response to an alleged al Qaida plot – closing diplomatic posts in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia – suggests a terrorist organization that’s capable of striking virtually anywhere, not the one U.S. officials have depicted as a group that’s near defeat.
Counterterrorism analysts said Monday that the U.S. government’s global response to a threat emanating from Yemen, home to al Qaida’s most active affiliate, was at odds with how dismissive President Barack Obama was in a speech in May, when he said that “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves as al Qaida will pose a credible threat to the United States.”
That was only one of a series of public statements by Obama and his Cabinet members that played down the capabilities of al Qaida-linked groups. For at least the past two years, the administration has sought to reassure Americans that al Qaida is “on the run,” while counterterrorism experts were warning about the semiautonomous affiliates that have wreaked havoc in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
“The actions the administration is taking now are deeply inconsistent with the portrait of al Qaida strength the administration has been painting,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research institute.
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U.S. officials have been secretive about what precise information led to the worldwide travel advisory and embassy closings, but a Yemeni official told McClatchy on Sunday that authorities had intercepted “clear orders” from al Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri to Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of the affiliate in Yemen, to carry out an attack.
On the campaign trail last fall, Obama touted the killing of Osama bin Laden during a covert U.S. raid in 2011 as a sign that, while the U.S. would have to maintain vigilance, “the truth, though, is that al Qaida is much weaker than it was when I came into office.” In his State of the Union address last February, the president called al Qaida “a shadow of its former self” and said the threat posed by its affiliates wouldn’t require large-scale U.S. military deployment.
In July 2011, Obama’s then newly appointed defense secretary, Leon Panetta, said he was “convinced in this capacity that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al Qaida.”
One more nuanced voice at the time was the current CIA director, John Brennan, who while serving as Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser said in April 2012 that “as the al Qaida core falters, it continues to look to its affiliates and adherents to carry on its murderous cause.” Even so, he repeated the line that “these affiliates continue to lose key commanders and capabilities as well.”
Those assessments came as the U.S. military had just pulled out of Iraq and was setting the stage for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan after more than a decade in battle. Critics of such optimistic views say the Obama administration was grasping for a positive spin on bloody wars that many consider unfinished.
“It’s called politics. They know it’s not true,” said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and blogs about them at Jihadology.net. “The movement has grown over the past two years. The ideology is thriving.”
Since the attacks last Sept. 11 on U.S. posts in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the administration has dialed back some of that rhetoric and is now more careful to distinguish between “core al Qaida” – Zawahiri and his inner circle – and the resurgent affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Iraq and Syria.
At the White House on Monday, spokesman Jay Carney repeated that distinction, distancing the administration from some of the rosier language of the recent past. He insisted that the administration had made clear that al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was “of particular concern and has demonstrated both an interest in and a willingness to attempt serious attacks.”
While the administration has offered divergent views on the threat level, analysts say there was no question that al Qaida’s extremist ideology was still flourishing and finding new operational space in the civil war in Syria and in the lawless terrain of Libya and Mali in North Africa and Yemen in the Arabian peninsula.
“There has been a net expansion in the number and geographic scope of al Qaida affiliates and allies over the past decade, indicating that al Qaida and its brand are far from defeated,” according to congressional testimony last month by Seth G. Jones, an associate director of Rand Corp.’s International Security and Defense Policy Center.
Jones advised Congress that “U.S. policymakers should view the al Qaida threat as a decades-long struggle, like the Cold War.”
The State Department list of extended closings comprised embassies and consulates in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, Libya, Djibouti, Sudan, Madagascar, Burundi, Rwanda and Mauritius, the last four of which hadn’t been among the first wave announced Friday. Embassies and consulates in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Iraq and Mauritania reopened Monday.