BY MAJ. GEN. JAMES E. LIVINGSTON
and MICHAEL S. SMITH II
During recent months, al-Qaida has demonstrated its global network is far more resilient and capable of killing Americans than incumbent presidential candidate Barack Obama suggested to the country last fall.
If you’re not questioning whether Commander in Chief Obama is up to the task of tackling the myriad threats presented by an operationally resurgent al-Qaida during the post-Arab Spring era, you should be. For how the administration has publicly addressed the tragic events that occurred in eastern Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, suggests little will change during Mr. Obama’s second term, and national security concerns will continue to take a back seat to political interests.
In his first term, President Obama made it abundantly clear that Islamic terrorism is not a national security concern. Rather, for the president, the dynamic portfolio of threats posed by al-Qaida constituted political problems. In this context, terrorism became a matter of convenience, or its converse.
A prominent example of the converse was the Fort Hood massacre of Nov. 5, 2009. Perpetrated by an Army psychiatrist who had recently begun corresponding with a Yemen-based American-born al-Qaida cleric known for insisting that waging jihad in furtherance of al-Qaida’s agenda did not require membership in al-Qaida, the Fort Hood massacre presented a substantial political problem. For the president and his advisors, the Fort Hood massacre was no doubt viewed in these terms: An atrocity inspired by al-Qaida had just occurred inside the U.S. This, as the president’s plans to shutter detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay were being formalized, with U.S. Navy facilities in North Charleston on the short list of transfer destinations for detainees.
It was therefore imperative to minimize public concerns about al-Qaida. Hence the Fort Hood massacre was not labeled an act of terrorism. Instead, it was portrayed as an extreme example of workplace violence; a manifestation of the stresses brought upon the military by Bush era policies, so the president’s pals in the media would argue.
Never mind that an al-Qaida-inspired attack on a military recruiting facility in Little Rock, Ark., had taken place just a few months earlier. The perpetrator of which, an American-born Muslim convert, had recently returned from a 16-month-long trip to Yemen, and would later claim to be an AQAP operative. As far as the president’s political advisors were concerned, the public needed to know only this: Al-Qaida could not threaten the U.S. homeland under Obama’s watch.
Certainly, as “coincidences” go, it’s most intriguing to consider that, on Christmas Day 2009, a Nigerian-born Muslim drawn to al-Qaida’s Yemen-based affiliate by the same cleric who seems to have inspired both the Little Rock military recruiting station attack and the Fort Hood massacre arrived in the U.S. Of course, he landed in America on board a plane he had attempted to blow up over Detroit, wearing the remnants of a bomb designed by AQAP’s chief explosives expert.
Perhaps also coincidentally, as noted in the 9/11 Commission Report, years earlier the same cleric who attracted him to al-Qaida developed close ties with several of the hijackers involved in al-Qaida’s first Sept. 11 plot once those terrorists entered the U.S. Obviously, on the convenient side of the coin was the killing of Osama bin Laden. Regardless of whether this was a choice the president had the luxury to make pursuant to gains achieved by several Bush era policies, politically, this was a big win. Also on the convenient side of the coin was the killing several months later of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based cleric and American citizen whose hand was evident in the June 2009 Little Rock shooting, the November 2009 Fort Hood massacre, and al-Qaida’s failed Christmas Day 2009 attack, and who frequently interacted with several hijackers involved in al-Qaida’s 9/11 plot after they arrived in the U.S. Never mind the inconvenient truth of the matter: The president had just stretched his use of power beyond the liberties taken by his “imperial president” predecessor, and authorized a strike on an American citizen. The president was killing more al-Qaida leaders than George Bush. So the ends justified the means, right?
Meanwhile, despite his experience within the national security space having been notable by its absence prior to his election in 2008, it was the killing of bin Laden that could define the president’s legacy as a stalwart defender of America’s interests against foremost lethal foreign threats. Thus, the press had to be fully informed of all aspects of the matter. Notably the fact that the president had been so “bold” as to “pull the trigger” and invade Pakistani territory to hunt bin Laden, even though the intelligence on bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad was not certain.
To this end, a spigot of leaks was loosed about the most sensitive counterterrorism operation conducted under President Obama’s watch so as to ensure the “full” story could make its way into the public domain. And there we see a marked contrast with the administration’s management of the more recent and politically inconvenient events that transpired in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012: Whereas the president clearly preferred for national security policies regarding classified information to be breached in order to tell the story of bin Laden’s demise, the administration has been anything but generous with information about the Benghazi attacks.
Perhaps because the president had just allayed the country’s concerns about threats posed by al-Qaida. And acknowledging intelligence immediately indicated al-Qaida’s hand was evident in the destruction of a U.S. diplomatic compound, along with the murders of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans on the eleventh anniversary of al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks would have been politically problematic. Further, just before the 2012 election, such an acknowledgement might also raise questions about the prudence of candidate Obama’s foreign policy decisions made during the Arab Spring — decisions that have effectively delivered new growth opportunities for al-Qaida and its affiliates.
Indeed, Mr. Obama’s campaign talking points regarding al-Qaida belied one very inconvenient truth: Just as was the case during Hillary Clinton’s final year in office as first lady of the United States, today, al-Qaida and its global network pose the most immediate threat to U.S. interests the world over. China’s ostensible extraterritorial interest in its neighborhood do not.
Since he proclaimed al-Qaida is on the road to defeat last fall, there has been little indication that one should expect any significant changes in Mr. Obama’s management of threats posed by al-Qaida. Ultimately, it appears political concerns will continue to govern his national security agenda. Given such, it’s likely al-Qaida will continue to receive the breathing room needed to decide just how much America will pay for more of the same.
Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, USMC (Ret.), is a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Michael S. Smith II is a counterterrorism advisor to members of Congress. They are Lowcountry residents.