Obama’s Inheritance: Al-Qaeda in Retreat

In a widely noted speech at the National Archives in May, President Barack Obama said of George W. Bush’s national security policies: “We are cleaning up something that is quite simply a mess.” The president is wrong. Far from a mess, when it comes to national security, President Obama actually inherited a very strong hand from his predecessor. When Bush left office in January, America had marked 2,688 days without suffering another terrorist attack on its soil, an outcome that seemed all but impossible when the smoke cleared on September 12, 2001. Despite repeated attempts, al-Qaeda failed in its efforts to strike the U.S. again—because Bush kept its leaders on their heels and left them increasingly defeated and discredited on battlefronts across the globe.

To understand exactly how strong Obama’s hand is on national security, one needs only to compare the situation today to the one Bush inherited when he arrived at the White House. In 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, and had turned that country over to al-Qaeda to train terrorists and plan attacks. Pakistan was one of the only countries in the world that recognized the Taliban regime, but the United States was not actively working with that country’s leaders or its military to shut down al-Qaeda’s operations. Saudi Arabia had turned a blind eye to facilitators within its own borders who were providing recruits, money, religious justification, and logistical support to al-Qaeda. In Southeast Asia, a terrorist network called Jemaah Islamiyah was growing in strength and collaborating with al-Qaeda on attacks planned for the American homeland.

The terrorists were engaged in a virtually unimpeded offensive. They had launched a string of attacks against America: the first effort to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993; the murder of nineteen American airmen at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three years later; the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, causing the deaths of 17 American sailors. In none of these cases was there a forceful United States response.

Within weeks after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. special operations forces were on the ground in Afghanistan; and in less than a month they had destroyed the Taliban regime, and driven al-Qaeda from its sanctuary there. Following Afghanistan’s liberation, America and its coalition partners captured or killed hundreds of al-Qaeda leaders, managers, and operatives in more than two dozen countries. Among them were most of al-Qaeda’s top operational commanders—the senior leaders responsible for day-to-day planning of the terror group’s activities across the globe:

• In November 2001, coalition forces killed al-Qaeda’s number three leader, Muhammad Atif, with an air strike in Afghanistan;
• In March 2003, his replacement, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed(KSM)—the mastermind of 9/11—was captured in Pakistan;
• In May 2005, the man who took over for KSM as external operations chief, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, was captured in South Asia;
• In December 2005, al-Qaeda’s next external operations chief, Hamza Rabia, was killed;
• In April 2006, another top external operations leader, Abd al-Rahman al-Muhajir, was killed;
• In June 2006, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi was killed;
• In October 2006, another senior operational leader, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, was captured;
• And in Bush’s final year in office, a string of at least six top al-Qaeda operational leaders reportedly met their end: Abu Layth al-Libi, killed in January 2008; Abu Sulayman al-Jaziri, killed in May 2008; Abu Khabab al-Masri, killed in July 2008; Khalid Habib, killed in October 2008; and Usama al-Kini, al-Qaeda’s chief of operations in Pakistan, and his lieutenant, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, killed in January 2009.

These may not be household names—but that is only because they were eliminated before they could launch attacks that would have won them a place alongside Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the pantheon of mass murder. The killing or capture of many of these operational leaders prevented new terrorist attacks. Period.

In the past seven years, America and its coalition partners also struck at terrorists on other fronts across the globe. Indonesia crippled Jemaah Islamiyah—a terrorist group that had partnered with al-Qaeda in a plan in which 17 Southeast Asian terrorists were to hijack a plane and fly it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles. The Philippines killed the top leader of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group—an al-Qaeda affiliate responsible for a campaign of kidnappings, bombings, and beheadings that claimed the lives of several Americans. In 2007, Algerian forces killed the deputy commander of al-Qaeda’s North Africa wing. Since the Riyadh bombings in 2003, Saudi Arabia has launched a crackdown on terrorists operating within its borders, detaining hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives and other extremists. And in Europe, security services broke up al-Qaeda cells in Germany, Denmark, and Turkey in 2007 that were planning new attacks.

Al-Qaeda also suffered serious setbacks in Iraq, the country it had repeatedly described as the main front in its war against the West. During Bush’s surge, al-Qaeda was driven from the strongholds it had established in Anbar and other provinces, as American and Iraqi forces killed and captured hundreds of its fighters and operatives. As a result of the decline in violence, and the political progress it created, the Bush administration was able to begin bringing American forces home under a policy the president called a “return on success.”

Over the last two years of the Bush presidency, the number of American troops in Afghanistan increased from less than 21,000 to more than 31,000. While the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated since 2001, conditions in that country are in no way comparable to the dire circumstances in Iraq before the surge. When Bush left the White House, the Taliban and al-Qaeda controlled no province or major city in Afghanistan, and the terrorist training camps remained shut. According to an April 2009 Brookings Institution study, “Violence levels [in Afghanistan] remain far less severe than in Iraq of 2004–2007 . . . [S]tatistically speaking, the level of violence in a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan’s war related violence today is roughly comparable to the situation in improved Iraq . . . [and] overall levels of violence are rather modest by the standards of war-torn lands.” In a 2008 Asia Society poll, only 14 percent of Afghans said security was the biggest problem in their local area, and only 4 percent expressed support for the Taliban. The extremists in Afghanistan enjoy no popular support, and the country is nowhere near collapse—and poses nowhere near the threat it did before Bush took office.

Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have also come under pressure in the tribal regions of Pakistan. They do not have the freedom of movement and operation there that they once enjoyed in Afghanistan. Their leaders are under constant assault from Predator strikes, and focused daily on avoiding death or capture. And the government of Pakistan, which turned a blind eye to the Taliban and al-Qaeda before Bush took office, now counts as a strong ally in the fight against these extremists —as evidenced by the current Pakistani assault on Taliban forces in the Swat Valley.

To keep the pressure on the enemy in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other fronts, Bush created new tools to prosecute the war on terror. He signed the Patriot Act—which broke down walls between the intelligence and law enforcement communities, allowing them to share information as they were unable to in the Clinton years. He established a program at the National Security Agency to monitor terrorist communications. He built new programs at the Treasury Department to deny extremists state-of-the-art banking and financial tools, thus making it more difficult for them to raise funds, move money, pay operatives, bribe officials, and finance new attacks. And he established the CIA program to detain and question top terror leaders—an effort that doubled our intelligence on al-Qaeda.

As the Bush administration ratcheted up pressure on the enemy, terrorist violence across the world plummeted. According to data from the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), as of September 2007 the global death toll from terror attacks was down by 40 percent compared to 2001. A separate study by the IntelCenter examined the 63 “most significant” attacks launched by al-Qaeda and its affiliates over a period of nearly 10 years. It found that by mid-2007 the number of Islamist attacks across the world had declined by 65 percent from a high point in 2004—and fatalities were down by more than 90 percent. The bottom line: The Bush administration’s strategy of staying on offense worked.

Increasingly defeated on the battlefield, al-Qaeda has also suffered significant setbacks in the other front of this war: the battle of ideas. The first came in Iraq. The popular rejection of al-Qaeda began in Anbar, where it had moved in and attempted to impose a Taliban-like rule. It banned men from shaving, cut off the fingers of people who smoked, tried to force the daughters of local tribesmen to marry al-Qaeda leaders, and killed anyone who dared to question these demands. With their actions, they turned the population against them and sparked what has become known as the “Anbar Awakening”—the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden and his network. As American and Iraqi forces supported the resistance, this popular rejection quickly spread to other parts of Iraq.

The importance of these developments cannot be overstated. As President Bush put it in a 2008 speech: “For the terrorists, Iraq was supposed to be a place where al-Qaeda rallied Arab masses to drive America out. Instead, Iraq has become the place where Arabs joined with Americans to drive al-Qaeda out.” As a result, al-Qaeda suffered more than a military defeat in Iraq—it suffered a massive ideological defeat as well.

It also suffered rejection in the broader Muslim world. Since 9/11, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have launched attacks in places such as Jordan, Indonesia, Morocco, Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Kenya. Most of the victims of these attacks have been Muslims. According to the U.S. intelligence community, in 2007 alone, al-Qaeda and its allies killed an estimated 9,500 Muslim civilians—this in a year when terrorist attacks were reportedly down compared to previous years.

This violence has triggered a wave of anger and revulsion. Today, support for suicide bombings has plummeted in Muslim nations from the Middle East to South Asia, and Osama bin Laden’s popularity is at its lowest point since the 9/11 attacks. According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, support for suicide attacks has dropped by more than half from 2002 to 2007 in key Islamic countries: In Lebanon, from 74 percent in 2002 to 34 percent; in Bangladesh from 44 percent to 20 percent; in Indonesia from 26 percent to 10 percent; and in Pakistan from 33 percent to just 9 percent.

In Saudi Arabia—the nation that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 terrorist attacks—a December 2007 poll by Terror Free Tomorrow found that Osama bin Laden’s countrymen have turned “dramatically against him, his organization . . . and terrorism itself.” Less than 10 percent of Saudis retain a favorable opinion of al-Qaeda, and 88 percent approve the Saudi military and police pursuit of al-Qaeda fighters. Support for bin Laden has dropped from 49 percent in 2003 to 15 percent today. And 69 percent of Saudis said they favored their government working with the United States to defeat the insurgency in Iraq.

In Pakistan, a Terror Free Tomorrow poll found that support for bin Laden in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province—one of al-Qaeda’s principal bases of operations—plummeted from 70 percent in August 2007 to just 4 percent in January 2008. In the 2008 national elections, Islamist parties in Pakistan received just 2 percent of the vote—a five-fold decline from 2002. And polls show that just 1 percent of Pakistanis said they would vote for al-Qaeda if given the chance. A recent Washington Post story described how the recent Taliban drive in the Swat Valley has produced a flood of refugees fleeing “the indignities and horrors inflicted by occupying Taliban forces—locking women inside their homes, setting donkeys on fire—as they tried to force residents to accept a radical version of Islam.” One refugee told the paper: “We all said to each other, what sort of people have come here? And what kind of sharia is this? Cutting off people’s heads has nothing to do with Islam.”

A third area where al-Qaeda has lost ground is within the jihadist ranks themselves. Reacting both to al-Qaeda’s brutal tactics and the humiliations it has suffered in the crosshairs of the U.S., militant leaders and Islamic religious scholars have begun to publicly criticize Osama bin Laden. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Sheikh Salman al-Oadah—a cleric respected in jihadist circles and credited by bin Laden as an important ideological influence—has publicly condemned al-Qaeda’s campaign of violence. In 2007, he appeared on Arabic television and challenged bin Laden, declaring: “Brother Osama, how much blood has been spilled? How many innocent children, women, and old people have been killed, maimed, and expelled from their homes in the name of al-Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God Almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions on your back?”

Recently, al-Qaeda suffered its most damning repudiation to date, when the chief architect of its extremist ideology—an Egyptian physician named Sayyid Imam Abd al-Aziz al-Sharif (known by his pseudonym Dr. Fadl)—publicly withdrew his support for al-Qaeda. Dr. Fadl was mentor to al-Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman Zawahiri, and was so close to bin Laden that he once operated on the al-Qaeda leader after an assassination attempt in Sudan. Dr. Fadl was eventually captured and jailed by Egyptian authorities. In 2007, he published a book from prison—Right Guidance for Jihad Activity—in which he declared, “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood,” and issued this warning to young Muslims: “Oh, you young people, do not be deceived by the heroes of the Internet . . . who are launching statements inciting the youth while living . . . in a distant cave. They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves, and prisons.”

These ideological challenges from within have caused a serious internal crisis for al-Qaeda, forcing its members to explain themselves to the Muslim masses they had once been so confident of being able to rally. According to Ted Gistaro, U.S. national intelligence officer for transnational threats, al-Qaeda senior leaders spent nearly half their airtime in 2008 defending their legitimacy and responding to charges they had violated Islamic laws of war. Zawahiri published a 200-page book responding to Dr. Fadl called The Exoneration—a sign both of how seriously he took his former mentor’s attack, and how devastating it could be to al-Qaeda’s cause. When terrorists spend their time answering to their fellow Muslims for their conduct, instead of rallying them against America, it is a clear sign indeed.

This does not mean the threat has dissipated. To the contrary, if the past seven years offer any indication, the enemy is planning new attacks on the American homeland—on a scale to equal, or even dwarf, the attacks of 9/11. After failing to carry out another spectacular attack in the United States after 9/11, al-Qaeda is increasingly desperate to prove that it is still a force and a threat. But the terrorists are weaker, less popular, and under greater pressure than they were before 9/11 as a result of the Bush policies. And the federal government has institutions in place to protect the American people that were not available to President Bush when he took office eight years ago.

What has Barack Obama done with this inheritance? Just six months into his administration, the new president has a mixed record.
In Iraq, Obama has announced only a modest acceleration of the drawdown already set in motion by his predecessor—continuing, in effect, the Bush policy of “return on success.” Obama also declared that while all American combat forces will withdraw by August 2010, a residual force of up to 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future—drawing praise from John McCain and other supporters of the surge, and consternation on the left.

At a town hall in Turkey, Obama was asked why his plan in Iraq seems so similar to Bush’s plan. He replied: “I opposed the war in Iraq . . . [But] it doesn’t mean that I don’t have now responsibilities to make sure that we do things in a responsible fashion.” In remarks before the Turkish Parliament he went further, declaring that “the future of Iraq is inseparable from the future of the broader region”—words that could just as easily have been spoken by his predecessor. And in the biggest surprise of his young presidency, Obama chose Iraq—not Afghanistan—for his first visit to a combat zone. Speaking to U.S. troops at Camp Victory, he declared: “From getting rid of Saddam, to reducing violence, to stabilizing the country, to facilitating elections, you have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement, and for that you have the thanks of the American people.” While directed to our troops, those words also served as an unintended tribute to the commander in chief who led them in those actions—George W. Bush.

Obama also paid tribute to his inheritance from Bush in his early actions in Afghanistan—by applying the principles of the surge in Iraq to the battle there. News reports indicate that, as the Afghan strategy was reviewed, a debate raged within the administration between two factions: those (led by Vice President Biden) who argued for a limited counterterrorism mission; and military commanders (led by General David Petraeus) who argued for a robust counterinsurgency plan like the one that worked in Iraq. In the end, Obama sided with his military commanders, sending 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan with a new mission to secure the population and train the Afghan army and police. This was fewer than the 30,000 troops his commanders had asked for, but the overall strategy seems to be largely what General Petraeus requested—and remains strikingly similar to the recommendation made in the Bush administration’s end-of-term Afghanistan strategy review. Moreover, in Pakistan news reports indicate that Obama has continued the policy of aggressive Predator strikes against terrorist leaders—and is reportedly considering expanding them to other parts of the country.

But the truest national security threats for Obama still lie ahead. In April, America's top commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, announced that the U.S. withdrawal in some Iraqi cities would have to be delayed, and that he may need to temporarily increase U.S. forces in some areas to root out al Qaeda from its last Iraqi strongholds. Yet by the June 30 deadline set for the withdrawal, press reports indicated that the pullout of U.S. combat forces had proceeded without delay. It is unclear whether Odierno's request was denied, or he changed his mind. But in the months ahead, he may ask for additional pauses that could postpone our ultimate departure date. Will the president approve such requests? And while President Obama enjoys a respite in Iraq today, what will he do if al-Qaeda attempts a comeback? Terrorist attacks have increased since he took office, though overall violence still remains at the lowest point since the summer of 2003. But if this violence escalates and al-Qaeda attempts to take back the safe havens it forfeited over the past two years, will Obama stand by idly?

Obama’s Afghanistan strategy has received broad support from conservatives, but deep skepticism from his fellow liberals. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey recently said of the “surge” there: “The president feels obligated to give it a shot, and we’ll help him give it a shot for a year” (emphasis added). But after that, Obey warned, he wants a “fish or cut bait” assessment of the situation in Afghanistan—an ominous warning from the man who holds the purse strings for America’s armed forces.

Afghanistan was useful to the left when its spokesmen could hold it up as proof that Bush had taken his eye off the “real war” with his misadventure in Iraq. But now that the combat mission in Iraq is drawing to a successful conclusion, and as fighting escalates and casualties mount in Afghanistan, voices on the left may increasingly declare it a quagmire, and calls for retreat might grow—both from within and without the administration. Will Obama show the same fortitude in the face of these calls for retreat that President Bush showed in Iraq?

Here at home, Obama has dismantled one of the most important tools our nation has to prevent terrorists from striking America—the CIA program to detain and question senior al-Qaeda leaders captured in the war on terror. He not only ordered this program shut down, he released—over the protestations of five CIA directors, including his own—a series of Justice Department memos that described in detail the techniques used to interrogate KSM and other high-value detainees. By making public the details of how we interrogate captured terrorists—and the legal limits of our interrogation techniques—Obama gave critical intelligence to the enemy. Al-Qaeda will now use this information to train its operatives to resist interrogation about planned attacks.

Obama himself has allowed that his actions have escalated the risk to our country. Speaking at the CIA—before the very intelligence officers he had publicly accused of engaging in “torture”—Obama made the stunning admission that his actions had made their job more difficult. “I’m sure that sometimes it seems as if that means we’re operating with one hand tied behind our back, or that those who would argue for a higher standard are naïve. I understand that . . . So yes, you’ve got a harder job. And so do I. And that’s okay.” These words will come back to haunt him if America is attacked again.

Other intelligence tools may still come under assault. For example, in the Senate Obama was a vocal critic of the National Security Agency’s program to monitor foreign terrorist communications. He voted against confirming then-NSA Director Michael Hayden to lead the CIA because Hayden was “the architect and chief defender of a program of wiretapping and collection of phone records outside of FISA oversight.” In 2007, Obama voted against the Protect America Act, which temporarily authorized the NSA program. Last year, he promised to filibuster a long-term authorization but at the last minute switched his vote. He explained that he still wanted to make changes to the law, including stripping out immunity for telecommunications companies for their cooperation with the NSA—which would effectively kill the program.

Will Obama allow the program to continue through 2012 as Congress authorized—breaking his pledge to his liberal base? Or will he move forward with his promised review and impose new constraints on the NSA’s ability to learn what the enemy intends? If he does, and we fail to connect the dots before the next attack, he will bear responsibility for the consequences.

Another target may be the Patriot Act. Certain elements of this act—such as the provisions regarding the government authority to conduct “roving wiretaps” of targets with multiple phones or e-mail devices, and the government’s powers to seize business records with the FISA court’s approval—will expire at the end of 2009. Will Obama ask Congress to pass legislation reauthorizing these provisions? And if he does, will he insist that Congress refrain from making other changes that weaken the legalization—even to provisions that he himself criticized as a senator? If the president lets Congress dilute this vital law, he will put our nation at greater risk of attack.

Finally, Obama has to decide whether he wants to continue the battle of ideas that Bush began. In his inaugural address, in stark contrast to his predecessor, he did not mention the word “democracy” once. And in announcing his new Afghan strategy, Obama omitted any mention of supporting democracy in Afghanistan—prompting the Afghan foreign minister to complain to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This lack of attention to democracy prompted 140 politicians, scholars, and democracy activists from across the Muslim world to sign an open letter urging Obama to “elevate democratic reform and respect for human rights as key considerations in your engagement with both Arab regimes and Arab publics.” He had a golden opportunity to do so in his recent speech in Cairo. But instead of making clear that America’s commitment to advancing freedom in the region is unwavering, all he offered were a few brief platitudes about democracy—failing to mention it once in his discussion of Afghanistan, Iraq, or the nation where he was speaking, Egypt.

In the seven years before Obama took office, America’s foes suffered serious blows in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a defeat in Iraq. They have been increasingly rejected by their fellow Muslims and even by their fellow jihadists. The president ought to realize that his own legacy depends on what he does with this inheritance. On his one-hundredth day in office, he declared at a White House press conference: “Ultimately I will be judged as commander-in-chief on how safe I’m keeping the American people.” This is one statement with which no one, whatever their party or political persuasion, can disagree.

This article has been revised from the print version.

Marc A. Thiessen is a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served in senior positions in the Pentagon and the White House from 2001–09, most recently as Chief Speechwriter to President George W. Bush.

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