Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Daniel Benjamin unveiled the State Department’s latest “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report. Benjamin declared that al-Qaeda was “on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse,” and explained:
We saw millions of citizens throughout the Middle East advance peaceful public demands for change without any reference to al-Qaeda’s incendiary world view. This upended the group’s long-standing claim that change in this region would only come through violence… These men and women have underscored in the most powerful fashion the lack of influence al-Qaeda exerts over the central political issues in key Muslim-majority nations.
First, it’s important to give credit where credit is due: President Obama deserves credit for the death of bin Laden, and numerous other terror masters. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to take an aspirin and then claim to have cured the common cold. An election may be coming up, but predicting al-Qaeda to be both down and out is woefully premature.
The hit on bin Laden was bold and wielded an intelligence bonanza. However, the second bin Laden’s death was announced, that intelligence was stamped with an expiration date. In subsequent days and weeks, the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency utilized the bin Laden cache to roll up terrorists globally.
What Benjamin seems to misunderstand though is the idea that al-Qaeda is motivated not by grievance but by ideology. They seek not democratization or government accountability, but rather blind obedience to their own totalitarian belief set. They’d certainly be willing to win that through elections—but no serious candidate advocates such a platform—so they’ll take what they can get by any means necessary. If al- Qaeda is really satisfied with the Egyptian and Libyan elections, then that is a sign of just how bad things have become–Obama’s public statements notwithstanding.
By leading from behind or by standing on the sidelines, Obama has set the conditions for al-Qaeda to resurrect itself. Terrorists love a vacuum, and that is what Obama has done his darnedest to create in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya, not to mention Mali and Somalia. Add into the mix Syria’s chemical weapons and Libya’s surface-to-air missiles, and al-Qaeda may soon have new lethality. The fact that the bin Laden intelligence haul is now more relevant to historians than counter-terrorism action officers means the veil of opacity has once again descended.
The Obama team can celebrate in its 2011 report but, when it comes to al-Qaeda, what we’re seeing may very well be the calm before the storm.