Al-Qaeda’s Presence Has Not Been Diminished

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s February 4, 2014 blog post.

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In the 1980’s the U.S. supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets. Our ally was Osama bin Laden who organized his Arab fighters to help defeat the Soviets. When the dictator, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 Osama bin Laden offered to bring his Afghan-Arab fighters, known as al-Qaeda (the base), to help drive the Iraqis from Kuwait. Bin Laden’s offer was rejected by the Saudi Arabian government, who instead invited the U.S. to use their military bases as a staging area. Bin Laden considered our troops “infidels”, occupying the land of Islam’s two holiest sites–Mecca and Medina. Soon thereafter bin Laden issued his fatwa–declaring war on the United States.

In previous articles I noted that killing Osama bin Laden, in May 2011, would not change al-Qaeda’s quest to destroy Western interests. “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it” was a second fatwa Osama bin Laden issued in February 1998, seven months before the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. The U.S. should have increased security everywhere, yet we were unprepared to avoid the disastrous attacks by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001.

Osama bin Laden’s death has not seen a decline in terrorist attacks in Africa and the Middle East. Subsequent to the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa, the U.S.-led incursion into Libya unleashed Islamist militias that killed Col. Muammar Gaddafi. He had warned that al-Qaeda would take control of Libya if he were overthrown. Islamists have since taken over several eastern towns and ports used for oil exports. Many of Gaddafi’s Warfalla tribal members have also been slaughtered by Islamists. Large caches of unprotected weapons have fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda linked Islamists across Africa’s Maghreb and Sahel regions, and the Middle East.

A dozen countries have been infiltrated by Islamists linked to al-Qaeda. The growing terrorist groups include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Sharia, Libyan Islamic Fighters, Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), al-Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and others. These Islamist militants are dangerous and well-armed. Several were involved in the U.S. diplomatic compound attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012, in which four Americans were killed. In January 2013 in Amenas, Algeria, Islamists overran a natural gas plant, where thirty-nine foreign workers held as hostages were killed.

In 2013 countless attacks by Islamists have taken place in Africa and the Middle East. The al-Qaeda linked Islamists will continue to be a security threat in the region. A goal of the Islamists is to take control of the governing process in these countries, and rule under Sharia law. With Osama bin Laden’s fatwas still in place, jihadists will continue to attack U.S. interests every chance they get. U.S. decision makers have a myopic view of this part of the world, believing that regime change will lead to democratic institutions in the ethnically polarized Muslim societies.

The U.S. aided the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt, which turned out to be a chaotic disaster. In the instability that has ensued, Islamists infiltrated the Sinai Peninsula and now threaten Israel’s security. Libya has fared no better with Islamists gaining influence in the new government, where several leaders have been killed. Across the Maghreb, Salafi Islamists are gaining influence in the political process. In the Sahel, Mali had been overrun by AQIM and Ansar Dine Islamists. By March 2013, when I visited the war-torn northern part of the country including the town of Timbuktu, the French military had driven the Islamists out, dispersing them into the vast desert region—the concern is that they will return.

President Barrack Obama, in the 2012 re-election campaign, stated “Today Al-Qaeda is on the run and Osama bin Laden is dead”.  “Four years ago I told you we’d end the war in Iraq…. I said we’d end the war in Afghanistan…. I said we’d focus on the terrorists, who actually attacked us on 9/11, and we have….” he further noted. National Security Advisor Susan Rice echoed the Obama Administration’s mantra, “Al- Qaeda is on the path to defeat. We got bin Laden, and al-Qaeda’s been dismantled”. In a CBS interview she stated, “We’ve decimated Al-Qaeda”. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 said the death of Osama bin Laden dealt a major blow to al-Qaeda: “His ideology of hatred and violence is thankfully being rejected in what we see going on in the Middle East and Africa. His death will make our country and the world safer”.

The Obama Administration has stated that the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) is over. Recent jihadist attacks prove otherwise. As the U.S. has moved out of Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda operatives have moved-in. There has been a resurgence of terrorist attacks in both countries. Syria’s chaotic civil war gave al-Qaeda linked Islamists the opportunity to join in the fight, recently taking control of several towns. In Yemen and Lebanon al-Qaeda linked Islamists have increased their attacks daily, killing many innocent people. Islamist recruits today may not remember Osama bin Laden, but are well trained and eager to undertake jihadist attacks. These Islamists are as brutal as their al-Qaeda predecessors.

Last week Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that “He can’t say the threat from the terror network is any less than it was a decade ago”. He further noted “Al-Qaeda probably poses an even bigger challenge today, because its franchises are much more globally dispersed”. Mr. Clapper stated that sub-Saharan Africa has turned into a haven for terrorists, where we can expect more attacks. The Sahel region–Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Chad–could see more terrorist attacks in 2014. In Nigeria, Somalia and Kenya terrorist attacks have already increased.

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently criticized President Obama on national security, after the Iraqi town of Fallujah was overrun by Islamists. “We could have kept a residual force—we didn’t, and now it’s back into the hands of al-Qaeda” he noted. General David Petraeus stated, “We won the war but lost the peace in Iraq…and the same thing is happening in Afghanistan”. The U.S. plan of selective military engagements to capture or kill Islamist leaders, using Special Operations Forces and Predator drones, will not make a dent in the growing ranks of the Islamist militants. This strategy will not diminish al-Qaeda’s presence in Africa and the Middle East, in the foreseeable future.

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