During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama repeatedly claimed that al-Qaeda had been “decimated” and “on the path to defeat.” That makes it a little curious that the State Department is now forced to close temporarily its diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa and to issue a global travel alert to U.S. citizens warning of a potential attack by al-Qaeda.
News of al-Qaeda’s imminent demise was, it seems, greatly exaggerated. In fact, while the terrorist network has suffered substantial losses, including of course the loss of its co-founder, Osama bin Laden, it has displayed dismaying resilience. Far from going out of business, al-Qaeda has spread, via its regional affiliates, to North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the Persian Gulf region (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and Iraq and Syria (al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
The North African affiliate was behind the temporary takeover of northern Mali and, in all likelihood, the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya; the Arabian affiliate has plotted attacks on the American homeland and American interests abroad and made substantial inroads in Yemen; and the Iraq/Syria branch has set off more bombs in Iraq than at any time since 2008 and freed hundreds of its confederates from Abu Ghraib prison, while also emerging as the strongest single force within the Syrian rebel movement.
This is not a threat that is going away; it is actually growing. The turbulence of the Arab Spring is creating fresh opportunities for al-Qaeda to make mischief and, as the travel advisory makes clear, the U.S. and its citizens remain in its crosshairs. That makes it all the more imperative to continue the kind of surveillance programs that Edward Snowden has exposed and many in Congress have turned against.
The latest terror warning about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appears to have been prompted by NSA intercepts of communications among al-Qaeda leaders. The fact that these intercepts leaked is disturbing, but the fact that the intercepts are taking place is heartening. The NSA is not a Big Brother in waiting. It is our first line of defense against a threat that is not going away. Unfortunately, the president’s own happy talk about al-Qaeda’s supposed demise undermines his standing to make the case for continued efforts to fight this menace.