Republican reaction to President Barack Obamaʼs National Defense University speech on counterterrorism ran the gamut, as the old quip goes, from A to B. To some, Obamaʼs argument that almost 12 years after 9/11, the time had come to refine and refocus our tactics was a declaration of retreat. Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss summed it up by saying, "The president's speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory." Newt Gingrich, life master of adverbial overreach, called it “stunningly, breathtakingly naive.” Representative Michael T. McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, complained that "the rhetoric sort of defies the reality on the threat level weʼve been briefed on,” and added, “He actually said that the threat now is what it was before 9/11. I couldn’t disagree with him more on that.”
On the substance, at least, the sentiments seemed a tad overheated given that Obama had vowed to “finish the work of defeating Al Qaeda and its associated forces,” grounded no drones and stood behind the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. No one contests the president's claim that core Al Qaeda in Pakistan has suffered shattering losses, and, as he noted, there have been no genuinely catastrophic plots against America at home. So if his critics are motivated by more than an emotional need to be at war against terrorism, the crux of their argument must be that the overall threat is greater—and more centered on the United States—than Obama described.
I canʼt speak to the briefings that McCaul has received. But in my view, as someone who until a few months ago did his share of briefing Congress and the public while serving as the State Departmentʼs coordinator for counterterrorism, Obamaʼs assessment is very much on target and comports with what I and many of my colleagues have been saying. Yes, I sounded the alarm about the spread of extremist violence across a patchwork of sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb, and Western Asia. There are innumerable groups out there prepared to slaughter innocents. But not all threats are equal, and most of those out there today are neither forbidding nor focused on us. If anything, Obama understated the progress that has been made over the last four years.
It is worth considering how far we have come. To take the measure of the terrorist threat, look at some of the biggest worries of the last decade. When Obama entered office, he faced three major counterterrorism challenges: Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. The advances in Pakistan are well-known, and, despite the criticism of Obamaʼs speech, none of the extremists in Waziristan is emerging from his bolt-hole to restart open-air training. (If any were about to, the reported strike on May 29 that killed four militants probably persuaded them otherwise.) In the other countries as well, there have been dramatic and largely unsung strides.
In 2009, Yemen was the scariest surprise to greet the new administration. U.S.-Yemeni cooperation had broken down in the first Bush term. In the intervening years, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as it would name itself, had developed into an outsized threat. In December of 2009, after months of working on the countryʼs wily strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Washington won its first measure of noteworthy cooperation just as the U.S. embassy was targeted for a massive attack and Anwar al-Awlaki helped orchestrate the effort of the young Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight headed for Detroit. Still, progress came haltingly, if at all, as Saleh, a compulsive manipulator, sought to wheedle one concession after another from Washington without taking any hard steps himself. As the country was roiled by Arab Spring demonstrations, AQAP took advantage, capturing large swaths of territory and threatening the southern port of Aden.
That crisis—and Salehʼs near-death in a bombing—marked a turning point. Deft diplomacy led by the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, pushed Saleh into stepping aside, and Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi took over as acting president. The new leader turned out to be a better counterterrorism partner than anyone could have hoped. Though bedeviled by a military that is divided and often unresponsive, Hadi has outmaneuvered many of Salehʼs remaining minions and distinguished himself as a determined opponent of AQAP. The group has now lost most of the territory it conquered, and Yemeni authorities are pushing forward with U.S. assistance to train up their forces for more effective operations. Yemen remains one of the worldʼs most troubled states, but AQAPʼs operations are under greater pressure than in many years.
In Somalia, the militant group Al Shabab ruled all but a few blocks of Mogadishu, was closely associated with East Africa Al Qaeda and dominated the southern and central parts of a country that had been unable to pull itself out of state failure for decades. Al Shabaab sheltered and nurtured a cadre of foreign fighters, and the prospect of angry young Somali-Americans training in East Africa and then returning the U.S. to carry out attacks was a nightmare that haunted the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
That possibility can not be eliminated, but it is more remote today as Somalia edges back toward being a functioning state. In a little-heralded foreign policy success, Al Shabaab has been put to flight by AMISOM, the African Unionʼs Mission in Somalia, whose Ugandan and Burundian forces were trained with State Department funds. Bombs still go off in Mogadishu, but embassies are opening again and the Transitional Federal Government went out of business last August, replaced by a federal government that has no term limit. East Africa Al Qaeda, by the way, suffered loss after loss and essentially ceased to exist when Harun Fazil, its leader and an architect of the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, was pulled over at a checkpoint by Somali forces, drew his gun, and was shot dead.
The perception that the jihadist threat is metastasizing comes above all from Africa. The litany of incidents is familiar: Maliʼs loss of control of its vast northern lands to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its Tuareg allies; the attack on the Algerian gas works in Amenas; the murder of Ambassador Chris Stephens and two other Americans in Benghazi. From Nigeria to eastern Libya, extremists have seized the headlines with a variety of violent acts. At the same time, no region better illustrates the need to look beyond those headlines to understand the real nature of the threat.
Start by considering the Al Qaeda franchise in the region. Most experts agree that of the groups affiliated with the core Al Qaeda in Pakistan—setting aside the defunct East African one—AQIM is the weakest of the bunch. A descendant of the Armed Islamic Group that wreaked havoc in Algeria in the 1990s, AQIM has a leadership corps in the Kabylia region of northeastern Algeria, but most of its fighters have been driven across that country’s southern border into Sahel, and particularly into the wastelands of northern Mali. For much of the last decade, their operations were limited and often incompetent. Their flair was for more mundane criminal activity—above all kidnapping. Supported by fat ransoms paid by European governments and corporations, they have become perhaps the wealthiest of jihadist groups.
With the rout of the minimally staffed and poorly supplied Malian military in 2012, AQIM achieved its moment of terrorist glory. It would be a mistake, though, to credit the group with a real military breakthrough. The Malian collapse came at least as much because of a non-jihadist chain reaction sparked by the Libyan revolution as anything AQIM did. In short, the return to northern Mali of armed Tuareg tribesmen who had served in Muammar Qaddafi’s forces upset the security equilibrium in the region and triggered a broader Tuareg rebellion, the third episode in little more than two decades in which these northern Malian inhabitants have taken up arms to protest their lack of autonomy and poor treatment by the Bamako government. Obama, understandably, swept by this complicated story by mentioning only “unrest from the Arab world,” but the reality is that AQIM is a limited threat, with little ability to project power or carry out complex operations over distance. The attack on the BP plant at Amenas, which was carried out by a unit that declared it had split off from the larger group, appears to have marked the upper limit of AQIM capability, and since the French military’s operations that began in January, AQIM has suffered serious losses.
As for the terrorist violence elsewhere in northern and western Africa, the facts aren’t pleasant but they also should not arouse excessive fears. Eastern Libya has been a hotspot for jihadists since long before Qaddafi fell—Benghazi and Darna were major providers of foreign fighters in Iraq—and no matter how fortified our next diplomatic facility is there, it will be a dangerous place. But while members of Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist militia group, may be all too happy to attack an American envoy if they get the chance, their energies are focused on Libya. The same is true at the other end of this African arc of troubles: The Nigerian Boko Haram—the self-styled Nigerian Taliban—sees Nigeria and its neighborhood as its theater of operations. Someday it may wish to go global, but that is not the case now.
This short tour of the terrorist horizon is not Whig history. We are on the verge of being done with the most dangerous set of terrorists of the era, but that does not suggest that terrorism is a diminishing phenomenon or one we can be complacent about. On the contrary, as long as dangerous technologies become more widely available—which is to say, for as far into the future at the eye can see—terrorism is going to be a persistent and possibly growing problem. That’s why it is vital to prevent the emergence of safe havens where terrorists can master new technologies and plan complex operations. War zones, curiously, often provide the best safe havens for terrorists, allowing them to innovate, practice, and radicalize others. That’s why the biggest looming terrorist challenge is one that Obama’s critics seldom raise: the Sunni-Shia conflict in Syria that seems bound to stretch on for years, eventually spilling over into terrorist provocations against Israel, Turkey, Europe and beyond.
None of that vitiates Obama’s key argument that it is time to move beyond the tools of warfare to deal with terrorism. He’s right that about the current threat: “lethal yet less capable Al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists.” That’s why we need to divert some of the funds from military operations and devote them to help transition countries in the Arab world and Africa improve their police, judicial systems, and borders. Indeed, assisting countries that want to move past the mukhabarat repression that nourished so much of today’s extremism and build institutions based on the rule of law may be the most important task ahead.
Obama opponents looking for something more substantive to criticize ought to turn here. While campaigning in 2007, Obama pledged to create the Shared Security Partnership Program, which would provide $5 billion to counter-terrorism efforts in cooperating countries. Yet for all the talk of how much good could be achieved with the money—the same amount it took to fund one month of the war in Iraq—the administration spent much of the first term bickering internally over how to provide security-sector assistance and failed to come up with much of anything. And yet, the White House still insists on its website that it intends to spend this $5 billion. If the administration is really serious about retooling its counterterrorism programs, that is the place to start.
Daniel Benjamin is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. He served as coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 2009-2012.