Spinning Al-Qaeda
Flawed analyses lead to bad policy. And bad policy leads to advances for the Jihadists.

An al-Qaeda fighter trains in Syria.


Clifford D. May

Since June 2012, Peter Bergen, the swashbuckling reporter who serves as CNN’s national-security analyst and a director of the liberal New America Foundation, has been among those in the foreign-policy establishment confidently declaring that “al-Qaeda is defeated.”

The terrorist organization responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks, he has been arguing, developed “myriad weaknesses that make the group’s offensive capabilities rather puny.” Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, proved to be “a black hole of charisma” who inherited from Osama bin Laden “the Blockbuster Video of global jihad and has done nothing to resuscitate it.” Al-Qaeda, Bergen added for good measure, is “more or less out of business.”


As recently as last August, in a debate with me on Wolf Blitzer’s CNN program, Bergen defended this thesis, noting that in 2006 al-Qaeda controlled two-thirds of Iraq and that “now it controls nothing” there.

Last week, however, we learned that al-Qaeda now controls “more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history.” As for the charisma-challenged Zawahiri, he “is closer to his goal than he has ever been.”

Who wrote that solid report so thoroughly demolishing the Bergen narrative on al-Qaeda’s demise? Why, Peter Bergen did! And good for him — though my praise would be more effusive had he acknowledged to his readers and viewers that (how can I say this gently?) his thinking has evolved.

Bergen is hardly the only high-visibility expert not owning up to what might be considered fairly egregious analytical errors in regard to al-Qaeda. On December 28, The New York Times published the results of its investigation into the September 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi. Its conclusion: Al-Qaeda was not involved. Only “local” Libyan actors were responsible — not global terrorists. “The investigation by the Times,” reporter David Kirkpatrick pronounced, finds that “Benghazi was not infiltrated by al-Qaeda but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests.” Many in the media treated this as the last word on the issue.

Thomas Joscelyn, my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies — who, not just incidentally, has for the past few years conducted the most persuasive research refuting the “al-Qaeda is dead” spin — immediately noticed that that the Times report “specifically ruled out any meaningful involvement of an ex-Guantánamo detainee named Sufian ben Qumu — a terrorist with longstanding ties to al-Qaeda and the leader of Ansar al Sharia in Darnah, Libya.”

That’s significant because, last Friday, the U.S. State Department formally named ben Qumu a “apecially designated global terrorist” and “the leader of Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah” — which on Friday was designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) along with Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi.

According to State, both these groups were indeed “involved” in the September 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. mission and annex in Benghazi. Surely, the notion that the leader of one of them had no idea what his fighters were up to strains credulity. What’s more, back in November, and based on confidential conversations with U.S. intelligence officials, Joscelyn and The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes reported that ben Qumu trained some of the jihadists who carried out the attacks in Benghazi.

As Joscelyn also has reported, ben Qumu was one of the “Afghan Arabs” who “fought alongside al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and maintained ties to several other well-known al-Qaeda leaders.” An alias he used was found on the laptop of an al-Qaeda operative responsible for overseeing the finances for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Information on that laptop also indicated that ben Qumu was an al-Qaeda “member receiving family support.”

That’s not all the Times missed: An August 2012 report published by the Library of Congress in conjunction with the Defense Department, titled “Al-Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” reveals that ben Qumu and his Ansar al-Sharia fighters were “believed to be close to the al-Qaeda clandestine network” in Libya — a network “headed by al-Qaeda operatives who report to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al Zawahiri.”