Much attention has been focused in recent days, and for understandable reasons, on the emergence of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists as a serious threat in Libya. Indeed Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who led a security assistance team in Libya, testified yesterday that its “presence grows every day. They are certainly more established than we are.”
Libya is hardly alone, however. There is also growing evidence of al-Qaeda’s reemergence in Iraq. The Associated Press reports that “the insurgent group has more than doubled in numbers from a year ago — from about 1,000 to 2,500 fighters. And it is carrying out an average of 140 attacks each week across Iraq, up from 75 attacks each week earlier this year, according to Pentagon data.” There are said to be as many as ten al-Qaeda in Iraq training sites in the western deserts of Iraq.
Meanwhile, other al-Qaeda-associated organizations are gaining strength in Mali and Yemen, among other places. According to one report, Tuareg jihadists in Ansar al Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, both affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now control a region the size of France in Mali. And they are also making fresh inroads in Syria where the al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front for the People of the Levant has claimed responsibility for an attack on Tuesday by suicide bombers on an intelligence compound near Damascus.
This is an obvious election issue since President Obama keeps saying that “al-Qaeda is on its heels.” It is true that “al-Qaeda central”–the organization headquartered in Pakistan and headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri–does appear to be on its heels; certainly it is less of a threat than it was in the days when Osama bin Laden was alive. But al-Qaeda has managed to spread its tentacles to other corners of the greater Middle East, and its franchises and affiliates remain far from being on their heels. These groups are increasingly well-funded through criminal rackets such as hostage-taking for ransom. Daniel Cohen, the Treasury Department’s top official on terrorist-financing, has recently said that “the U.S. government estimates that terrorist organizations have collected approximately $120 million in ransom payments over the past eight years.”
Part of the reason why al-Qaeda has been able to infiltrate Libya is because of the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi–a war that I believe was, on the whole, in our national security interests. But there has been too little follow-up to try to help the nascent, pro-American government in Tripoli establish its authority. In Iraq, AQI’s reemergence is tied directly to Obama’s ill-advised withdrawal of U.S. troops after half-hearted negotiations with the Iraqis to extend their mandate failed. In Syria, al-Qaeda has an opening because the administration refuses to do more to help the non-jihadist rebel groups overthrow Bashar Assad’s regime. And in Somalia and Yemen the group is finding traction because of the breakdown of state authority–conditions that the Obama administration can hardly be blamed for and that it is grappling with just as the Bush administration did. Overall, the resurgence of al-Qaeda shows the limitations of the Obama administration’s preferred response–drone strikes. They are a good idea, but insufficient to prevent extremists from gaining control of territory. That can only be done by bolstering state authority–something that is notoriously hard to do, especially in lands where the U.S. does not deploy large numbers of ground troops.
However this issue plays out in November, the resurgence of al-Qaeda is a worrisome trend that the next president will have to confront through a variety of mechanisms which will draw the U.S. even more closely into the morass of the Middle East. There is simply no other choice. If America retreats, our enemies advance.