Al-Qaeda Assessment Off The Mark


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

The Cipher Brief

Throughout his two terms in office, President Barack Obama faced an array of challenges from both al Qaeda and ISIS.  In an interview with The Cipher Brief, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense, explained that the Obama Administration’s evaluation of al Qaeda was “not correct.”

The Cipher Brief: How has U.S. counterterrorism policy developed in the eight years under President Obama?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: I would divide it into domestic and foreign counterterrorism policy. On a domestic level, the paradigm that the administration has employed can be described as countering violent extremism (CVE), a term that’s used frequently. CVE emphasizes what are often dubbed softer approaches, ranging from community engagement to engagement with such partners as the tech industry, to try to forge creative solutions to such problems as ISIS recruitment. Engagement aside, many of the law-enforcement tactics that have been used under Obama were also part of the Bush administration playbook – sting operations, for example, in the case of people who are radicalizing and thought to be a danger.

On the foreign side, much can be said. The most visible policy has been a significant escalation in drone strikes, which are part of a broader paradigmatic consideration. The Obama administration has looked to keep itself out of another major commitment of ground forces, thus using drones, or targeted killings, and Special Operations Forces to arrest or kill top jihadist leaders. The Osama bin Laden raid is an example of this paradigm.

One important view that persisted throughout the administration was that of al Qaeda core’s defeat. Former CIA Director Leon Panetta, for example, had said on multiple occasions that al Qaeda was within reach of being strategically defeated. The administration consistently spoke about the weakening of al Qaeda’s core, and it goes out of office maintaining the same assumption.

TCB: How has the scope of the AUMF evolved since Obama first took office?

DGR: The AUMF included al Qaeda and “associated forces.” When ISIS broke off from al Qaeda, the AUMF was still employed by the administration to justify strikes against ISIS, even though there was only an extremely weak case that ISIS was “associated” with al Qaeda at that point. There’s not much debate that there really should be a renewed set of authorizations from a legal perspective, but at the same time, no one is really pushing a new AUMF forward politically. There hasn’t been much push from Congress that the policy of going after various militant groups is wrong.  The political will just hasn’t existed. At one point, the administration talked about their desire for a specific authorization of force against ISIS, but they didn’t really push it forward. The legal footing for much of the fight against militant groups has been treated rather flippantly.

TCB: What were some of the strongest elements of President Obama’s counterterrorism policies?

DGR: There were a few. One is that looking at domestic issues through a CVE lens is positive. Not that there’s a great deal of proof of the efficacy of these efforts — the monitoring and evaluation of CVE has been lacking, though I believe it can and will be improved. But I don’t think there’s a real alternative to important parts of the paradigm that the administration has worked to advance on the CVE front.

Second, the Obama administration’s focus on greater collaboration with allies and trying to ensure that the U.S. was not the only one bearing the share of the cost was positive. That approach was discernable very early on. Under President Obama, the U.S. was focused on doing things in ways that the rest of the world could understand as rooted in principle and rooted in a set of ethics that they could identify with.

TCB: What were some of the weakest?

DGR: On the negative side of the ledger, if one looks at the number of countries that violent, non-state actors have brought to ruin or have cleaved apart, it’s rather alarming. This ranges from Mali to Libya to Yemen, to Iraq and Syria, none of which were on fire in this way at the beginning of President Obama’s watch.

So what went wrong? Obviously, not all of this can be attributed to the President’s policies. In places like Yemen, there were so many different factors that were working against stability in that country. We’d be far from an ideal place there regardless of who’s in office.

But we can reasonably criticize the decision to intervene in Libya. That’s where things really went off the rails. The Libya intervention ended up creating more regional chaos, at a time when there were already governments being overthrown in Egypt and Tunisia. Libya has remained a jihadist hotbed since Muammar Qaddafi’s fall, and the war there directly led to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) takeover of northern Mali, which is of course connected to the jihadist insurgency that today exists in northern Mali. Libya’s instability threatens Tunisia and Egypt.

A second thing I would point to is that the Obama Administration’s evaluation of the decline of al Qaeda’s core was, in my judgment, not correct. Therefore, I believe that counterterrorism policy has often proceeded from a mistaken set of assumptions.

That leads to a third major problem: there seems to be a great deal of the politicization of intelligence under President Obama. If you look at the great reporting done in the Daily Beast by Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef on the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) intelligence scandal, in which certain CENTCOM leaders seem to have altered analysis or to have heavily pushed it in favor of an optimistic conclusion on ISIS, there is a notable lack of alarm in the administration, given how many CENTCOM analysts signed onto the Inspector General complaint. In a well-functioning system, when you have dozens of analysts raising their hands and screaming about the politicization of intelligence, the administration should really be concerned. This is particularly true when those analysts are directly working on efforts to defeat a foreign adversary. Instead, you had leaders in the intelligence community, such as Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper himself, criticizing the whistleblowers. That’s a powerful signal that intelligence is being politicized.

Overall, the Obama Administration was given a hard task. I don’t think they did a great job, but the community of experts outside of government have been under-critical these past few years. That’s unfortunate.

TCB: Were there any counterterrorism issues that President Obama failed to address, or dealt with inadequately?

DGR: The big issue that the Obama Administration didn’t address is al Qaeda’s rebranding. This is something that I have written about a lot, but al Qaeda played itself off of ISIS’ rise and brutality, and also off of the Iran-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) competition, to frame itself as a more palatable alternative to ISIS.

In this way, al Qaeda has been able to gain operating room in countries where it didn’t have it before. In Jordan, Abu Qatada and Abu Mohammad al Maqdisi are out of prison. So too is Abu Hafs al-Mauritani. Al Qaeda in Syria is receiving state support. In Libya, you have al Qaeda operating very openly. Al Qaeda loyalists are heavily involved in the political process, control territory on the ground, and there is not much alarm. Organizations that have sponsored al Qaeda are able to operate openly after so much effort was put into shutting them down in the years after 9/11.

At some point people will wake up to this rebranding as being big news and a big strategic problem.

TCB: Is President Obama’s CT legacy defined by executive actions such as drone strikes?

DGR: Yes, it has definitely been defined by executive actions. Obviously, President George W. Bush’s policy was as well. Generally speaking, counterterrorism issues are going to be defined by executive actions, regardless of who is in office, because that’s where foreign policy primacy lies.

TCB: Under President Obama, we’ve seen an initial weakening of al Qaeda, the rise of ISIS, and more recently the decline of ISIS, and the rebranding of al Qaeda. What should we expect moving forward in the next year?

DGR: I don’t agree about the weakening of al Qaeda’s core. It clearly has been damaged, but the broader question is how much did this damage weaken it overall? Al Qaeda’s core leadership is meant to be resilient in the face of attrition. Obviously, whenever senior leaders are taken out and someone like bin Laden is killed, there is a degree weakening. But I’m skeptical that it was weakened as much as popular conception holds.

That caveat aside, in terms of what’s coming, we’ll see ISIS’ continued decline in Syria and Iraq as a territorial entity. ISIS is going to attempt to sustain itself through probably becoming an insurgent/terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria, and trying to build on some of its infrastructure in Africa, particularly in North and West Africa, to sustain itself as a transnational organization.

It’s not clear that al Qaeda wants ISIS to go away. In some ways they benefit by the fact that ISIS is out there and seen as worse than al Qaeda. But they will certainly try to ensure that ISIS isn’t a threat to lure away al Qaeda’s affiliates, which ISIS has dedicated a lot of effort to trying to do in recent years. It’s likely that al Qaeda will make a push to try to get the main branch of Boko Haram, headed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, to dissociate itself from ISIS. That would be a powerful symbol to other jihadist groups that they shouldn’t join ISIS, which is a failing brand.

The answers to the following questions might give us a better idea of what to expect:

  • As Internet penetration rises, what’s going to be the impact on stability and jihadist mobilization in places like Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East?
  • At what point will al Qaeda try to carry out another major terrorist attack against Western targets?
  • Will ISIS succeed in maintaining itself as a viable organization? In other words, will they be a jihadist group that continues to have some pull, as opposed to a cautionary tale of a group that overplayed its hand?
  • Will militant organizations be able to score a knockout blow to another country in the coming years? A major attack that devastates the Tunisian or Egyptian tourist industry could pose an existential challenge to one of those states. Will we see an attack like that?
  • In other states that have been torn apart – Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia – will we see some glimmers of hope emerge suggesting that governance by internationally-recognized governments can out-compete the chaos and death that these militant groups bring?

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