Commentary Magazine


The U.S. and Al-Qaeda: Mission Still Not Accomplished

News is still filtering out of Algeria as we wait to see just how many people were killed when government forces stormed a gas facility where Islamist terrorists were holding dozens of workers, including some Americans, hostage. While initial reports speak of many hostages being killed, we can only hope that the casualties turn out to be fewer than feared and that none of the terrorists involved have escaped. But the attack, like the 9/11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, highlights the fact that contrary to the tone of much of President Obama’s re-election campaign, al-Qaeda and its network of affiliated terrorist groups is very much alive, especially in North Africa.

At the Washington Post, Max Fisher writes to emphasize what he says are the “sketchy” links between al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of which appears to be behind the Algerian operation, and the al-Qaeda that is fighting the United States in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is true. The fact is, as he points out, Islamists have been fighting in Algeria since the 1990s. Moreover, the notion that al-Qaeda was a centralized group with a unitary command was always something of a myth. However, these different national branches always cooperated and were part of the jihadi pipeline across North Africa and the Middle East. All of which is to say that the claim that the terrorists in Algeria are unrelated to the Islamist terror war on the West is not true. That leads to the inevitable conclusion that the administration’s attempt to portray the conflict with Islamists as having essentially been ended by the death of Osama bin Laden is also a myth.

The large scale of the Algeria attack, which was reportedly carried out by terrorists based in the new Islamist stronghold of Mali, points to the scope of the problem that is still posed by al-Qaeda affiliates. It also makes it clear that the triumphalist tone that has been the keynote of the administration’s representation of its counter-terrorism effort is not justified.

At the very least this ought to complicate John Brennan’s confirmation as the new director of the CIA. Brennan has largely flown under the radar of the national press in his role deputy national security advisor and the White House’s point man on counter-terrorism. Brennan has yet to be grilled about what he knew and when he knew it about the Benghazi fiasco, and who it was that circulated talking points claiming the terror attack was an out-of-control gathering of film critics. Now we may have more dead Americans to account for and just as few answers about what is being done to deal with this threat.

With most of the focus on the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, the rumblings of discontent about Brennan have been muted. But this new outrage ought to wake up even those senators who have been inclined to take it easy on him in order to concentrate their fire elsewhere.

But whatever happens to Brennan, Americans should be even more aware than they were in September that the idea that America’s mission to fight al-Qaeda was accomplished with bin Laden’s death is a terrible mistake. Let’s hope that even more Americans won’t have to die before this fight once again becomes a foreign policy priority.