Our ‘Bar the Door’ Counterterror Strategy

by Clifford D. May
Contra the conventional wisdom, AQ and its affiliates are not “on the path to defeat,” and our responses won’t suffice.

I like bipartisanship as much as the next guy. Still, the Washington Post headline on Monday was disheartening: “Embassy, consulate closures applauded on both sides of the aisle.” I don’t doubt that intelligence analysts had evidence indicating that a terrorist attack was imminent. I don’t dispute that shutting down diplomatic outposts for a few days was prudent. I do worry that, a dozen years after 9/11, America’s response to terrorism, applauded by Republicans and Democrats alike, is to turn out the lights and lock the doors.

And to persist in self-delusion: “Today, the core of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat,” President Obama asserted in what was billed as a major speech at the National Defense University on May 23.


1. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as AQ’s numero uno, is an active manager who appoints commanders on battlefields from South Asia to the Middle East to North Africa. He holds conference calls, orders acts of terrorism, and strategizes for a well-funded global organization.

2. If – despite what I’ve outlined above – core AQ actually is in decline, the fact remains that embassies and consulates in 17 countries were closed because the president and his advisers believe AQ affiliates have the capability to launch serious attacks in all those places. That’s not “the path to defeat” — it’s more like the HOV lane.

One al-Qaeda affiliate was defeated — by American troops in Iraq commanded by General David Petraeus. But, as Thomas Joscelyn, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recently wrote, since those troops departed, “al Qaeda has redoubled its efforts in the country and expanded into neighboring Syria,” where it is widely regarded as the most effective fighting force. In Afghanistan, from which the U.S. also is withdrawing, “al Qaeda holds onto territory and its allies vie for supremacy.” Groups that have pledged allegiance to AQ threaten other countries — the list has not been shrinking.

Nor is that likely until all these conflicts are recognized for what they are — what Joscelyn calls a “cohesive international challenge to the United States and its allies.” Reasonable people can disagree over how best to meet that challenge, but it should be obvious that concrete barriers, metal detectors, and other defensive methods are insufficient.

At a minimum, the administration should delay the fulfillment of its pledge to “end” the use of drones, weapons that remains useful — as the administration demonstrated on Tuesday when it sent a couple of them after AQ combatants in Yemen. 

In his NDU speech, the president also called for the repeal of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), Congress’s declaration of war on al-Qaeda. Current developments make clear why that would be unwise. As Joscelyn also reported, INTERPOL last week issued a “global security alert advising increased vigilance for terrorist activity” based on the fact that in recent days AQ and its affiliates succeeded in springing more than a thousand “mujahedeen” from prisons in Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya.

Those prison breaks should give the president second thoughts about his plans to release additional detainees from Guantanamo. The majority of the individuals being considered for release are from Yemen — and it was from Yemen that U.S. military aircraft evacuated endangered American citizens on Tuesday. If anyone thinks the self-proclaimed jihadists remaining at Gitmo have been rehabilitated, there’s a bridge spanning the Euphrates that might interest you.

Just last month, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) confirmed, in a video posted to jihadist websites, that its deputy leader and co-founder, Saeed al-Shihri, was killed in a drone strike. Al-Shihri, a Saudi, had spent six years at Gitmo. As CNN analyst Peter Bergen reported, that video was delivered by Ibrahim al-Rubaish — another Saudi formerly held at Guantanamo.

Electronic surveillance programs — including some that are controversial — also need to continue, but that, too, is not enough. Members of al-Qaeda and similar groups should never be allowed to plot in comfort. They should worry that they are being hunted — and they should be right about that. Whenever possible, we should capture them, interrogate them thoroughly (short of torture — the definition of which I will not revisit here), and then detain them until the end of hostilities (when that time arrives is a decision for jihadist leaders to make). If it is not feasible to capture them, we should kill them. That’s not hawkish — that’s what sensible people do to those waging war against them.

On Wolf Blitzer’s program the other night, Bergen and I debated the state of al-Qaeda. He continues to contend that the organization is “on life support.” He noted that it has been years since AQ launched a successful attack against the American homeland.

True — but dumb luck played a major role in the foiling of the AQAP plot to bomb a passenger jet bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, as well as the plot in 2010 to blow up cargo planes with bombs hidden in printer cartridges. Also in 2010, the Times Square bomber, trained by an AQ affiliate in Pakistan, failed to successfully complete his mission.

It’s worth recalling that the first attack on the World Trade Center was in 1993. Over the eight years that followed, there were attacks on U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and elsewhere — but not a single assault on American soil. The U.S. response was not robust. The catastrophic attacks of September 11, 2001, were, in large measure, the consequence of bipartisan complacency and self-delusion. History is a great teacher — but she requires attentive learners.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.


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