U.S. needs strategy against worldwide jihadists
By James Colbert
WASHINGTON, D.C. –As the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 passes, the Administration considers al Qaeda all but defeated, and eagerly anticipates a downsized U.S. military and its reorientation to Asia and the Pacific. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quip, reports of al Qaeda’s death are greatly exaggerated.
Despite President Obama’s assertion, made in May of this year in front of hundreds of U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base, that “The goal that I set – to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild – is now within our reach,” overwhelming evidence points to a global terrorist threat composed of al Qaeda and its partners that has not been crippled, but has grown more diverse and decentralized. To a significant extent, this threat is driven by a jihadist ideology and is a strategic challenge to the United States.
Unfortunately, American military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies have been hampered in effectively countering this threat because its ideological underpinnings have been deliberately obfuscated.
The U.S. government is uncomfortable labeling such terrorism as jihadist – a murderous ideology – due to its basis in jihad, an Arabic word associated with the Muslim faith. Denying the jihadist basis of this terrorism muddies the case for countering it via a coherent and unified strategy. Instead, it has been fractured into dozens of small and/or individual causes claimed to be rooted in locality and based upon conflicts related to culture, clan, and criminality.
This is also the case regarding so-called “home grown” terror attacks attempted or carried out in the United States since 9-11, the most prominent of which was U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s murder of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas on November 5, 2009. To date, the U.S. government has yet to declare a motive behind Hasan’s rampage beyond “workplace violence.”
A Defense Department report released in early 2010 placed Hasan’s actions solely in the context of his alleged personal problems. Discussion of jihadist ideology was entirely absent despite significant evidence for it, including a presentation at Walter Reed Medical Center in which he praised suicide bombers and echoed the jihadist martyr’s call to action: ‘We love death more than you love life!’
Prior to his rampage, Hasan had also warned of grave consequences if Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces were not allowed to decline deployment abroad. Later, it was made public that he had been in communication with al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki. While the U.S. government accepted that the correspondence was consistent with a research project Hasan was conducting, an independent commission later concluded that Hasan was seeking advice on committing violence against his fellow soldiers.
Other examples include the case of the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab. Though he was recruited, trained, and dispatched by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and reportedly personally met with the aforementioned Anwar al Awlaki, the Administration rushed to describe Abdulmutallab as an “isolated extremist” after his failed attempt to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009.
The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), Matthew Olson, declared just a few days after the President’s assertion that al Qaeda was nearly defeated that, “al Qaeda’s affiliates and allies are persistent and dangerous. Al Qaeda is determined to carry out attacks against our country. We have to remain vigilant and resolute.” The NCTC, a federal joint operational planning and intelligence center, reports to the Director of National Intelligence.
Since early 2009, al Qaeda and its affiliates have plotted at least five major terrorist attacks to take place inside the United States. All were thwarted due to the vigilance and professionalism of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as operational failures on the part of the terrorist operatives.
Jihadist objectives go beyond striking the United States, however. The NCTC’s Olson also noted that, “the threats facing us have become more diverse. As al Qaeda core struggles to remain relevant, the group has turned to its affiliates and adherents to carry out attacks and to advance its ideology. These groups are from an array of countries, including Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Iran. To varying degrees, these groups coordinate their activities and follow the direction of [al Qaeda] leaders in Pakistan.” Not mentioned in Olson’s listing is al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which recently captured much of northern Mali, including Timbuktu.
The most dangerous of these jihadist groups, by the Administration’s own admission, is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, which only recently came into existence, in early 2009. Despite a U.S.-assisted offensive against the group by the Yemeni military, AQAP still controls significant chunks of Yemen and is bolstered by cooperation with the Somalia-based al Qaeda partner group al Shabaab.
Sinai-based jihadist groups declaring their fealty to al Qaeda have sprouted in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall. One has already attempted to attack Israel. Al Qaeda-affiliates also exist in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Lebanon.
More prominently every day, al Qaeda is playing a role in the war against the Assad regime, chiefly through the resurgent al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Unchecked, the groups’ presence makes western assistance to anti-Assad forces problematic despite the ongoing slaughter of Syrian civilians by the Assad regime. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview on CNN in February, noted that since al Qaeda existed within the anti-Assad forces, it was “premature to talk about arming them.”
In Afghanistan, the late 2009 surge made commendable progress in the south but was purposely not directed to the east, adjacent to Pakistan. Predictably, eastern Afghanistan remains a Taliban/al Qaeda bastion.
While many American leaders wish to claim victory over the jihadist terrorist forces arrayed against America and her allies, the fact is that they are not defeated. In many cases, they are stronger today than at any time in the past. Absent a forthright acknowledgement of the jihadist threat, U.S. forces are at a distinct disadvantage in attempting to thwart al Qaeda and its partners/affiliates’ goals.
This September 11, while America’s eyes were focused upon the November elections, those of our jihadist enemies and their supporters remained firmly fixed on the day when they have defeated those opposing their murderous campaigns.
Colbert is director of policy for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). His column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, who served as a national board member for JINSA.
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