“Al Qaeda is on the run, Osama bin Laden is dead,” President Obama announced at a rally in Des Moines on the eve of last year’s presidential election.
Less than a year later it is evident that, contrary to Obama’s assurances, Al Qaeda is alive and well, along with other Islamic terrorist networks. The jihadists scored a major propaganda coup with the closing of two-dozen U.S. embassies and consulates in 21 mainly Muslim countries on August 4, and with the simultaneous worldwide travel alert issued to American citizens by the State Department. The United States appeared feeble as diplomats hastily packed their bags before being airlifted out on military aircraft, while the shutdown was extended to a week in most locations.
The closings coincided with greatly intensified U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, which targeted members of Nasir al-Wuhayshi’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the network’s most active and dangerous affiliate. There were 9 such attacks between July 27 and August 10, resulting in dozens of deaths—women and children included, as usual—compared with 77 drone strikes in the country since the campaign began in 2010. Hundreds of Yemenis have been killed since then, but experts who follow the situation in the country warn that Obama’s “mowing the lawn” approach is also spreading new seeds: The number of full-fledged AQAP members has quadrupled from less than 300 four years ago to over 1,000 today. With the expanding pool of volunteers, AQAP is more than able to replace the casualties.
The claim that Al Qaeda was but a shell of its former self was evidently false. The White House may not have lied about Bin Laden’s death, but his creation, its affiliates, and fellow travelers are active from Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, Somalia, and Libya in Africa to the Sinai, Lebanon, Yemen, and Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s activities in Iraq and Afghanistan have been strikingly underreported in the U.S. media. There were close to a thousand incidents involving “violent extremists” in Iraq last summer, including more than 200 lethal car bombings and suicide attacks. In lives and carnage they amounted to 300 times the Tsarnaev brothers’ bombs in Boston. In Syria, Al Qaeda and its fellow jihadists are the rebel movement.
The information leading to the embassy closings allegedly came from intercepted exchanges between al-Wuhayshi and Al Qaeda’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which they discussed plans for attacks on U.S. interests in North Africa and the Middle East.
It seems inconceivable that two seasoned, top-tier Islamic terrorists would discuss such plans knowing full well that they were being listened to. Some experts on terrorism were unimpressed by the Obama administration’s response and suspected that the “chatter” prompting the closures could have been an elaborate game of disinformation planted by Al Qaeda leaders. “It’s crazy pants—you can quote me,” said Will McCants, a former State Department counterterrorism advisor who is currently with the Brookings Institution.
Boston University Prof. Angelo Code villa, a former staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that the intelligence used as a basis for policy “suffers from a lack of quality control—counterintelligence in the language of the trade—so serious as to expose U.S. policy makers to being manipulated by foreign enemies.” Our intelligence community’s aversion to quality control is congenital, he says. Harking back to the 1940’s, it has dealt with the imbalance between the certainties demanded of it and the paucity of the facts it can supply by not asking too many questions about its sources’ reliability. With regard neither to human sources nor to technical ones, such as communications intercepts, is there any independent evaluation of “operational security” that would entail devaluing or discarding compromised sources?
This attitude results not only in bad policy but also in getting people killed. On December 30 2009 seven CIA officers were blown to bits in Afghanistan by a source on whom they had relied for a year and a half for targeting drone strikes. The US government’s assertion that the “threats” emanating from this “chatter” were somehow “specific” belies itself because it is contrary to common sense.
The U.S. government’s response should have been focused on specific people and places, rather than on meaningless general measures and warnings, Codevilla concluded. The effectiveness of such a response would have depended on secret preparations for counterattacks, and not on public displays of fear. In a similar vein, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who heads the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, described the policy of targeting Al Qaeda leaders, while at the same time telling Americans that Al Qaeda is defeated, as “schizophrenic” and indicative of a pre-September 11 attitude.
That very attitude was on display in Obama’s press conference on August 9:
Although they are less likely to be able to carry out spectacular homeland attacks like 9/11, they have the capacity to go after our embassies. They have the capacity to go after our businesses. They have the capacity to be destabilizing and disruptive in countries where the security apparatus is weak.
Having such capacities is hardly the hallmark of a group on the run.
“Quality control” was absent in the embassy-closings case. If the “chatter” was a test of American surveillance capabilities, or a manipulative setup, or both, then the terrorists have scored an impressive operational success—in addition to the p.r. coup—by getting a glimpse of what the United States can learn about their communications, how quickly, and how accurately. “We just showed our hand,” said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was part of the team that hunted Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, if the threat had been real, then the optimal strategy would have been to keep quiet about it; to bring Marine reinforcements to high-risk compounds, such as Sanaa, in agreement with the local authorities; to keep warships with helicopters and more Marines close by; and discreetly to evacuate some nonessential staff and families. (What are they doing in those places anyway?) As the government of Yemen noted in a statement on August 6, “the evacuation of embassy staff serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism.”
With President Obama and his team it is always advisable to look for a domestic political angle. Revealing the existence of an “imminent threat” and hysterically overreacting to it smacks of an attempt to atone for the blunders in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, and the subsequent massive cover-up operation by the State Department and the White House. Almost a year after the Libyan debacle the administration is exercising “an abundance of caution”—after engaging in systematic distortion and disinformation—as a response, one suspects, to the continuing probing into the Benghazi affair. The media remained pliant. As U.S. News & World Report put it,
it is a very public action to close some two dozen embassies, and someone had to put their reputation on the line and make a tough call. But if there’s a real-life, credible threat, then shuttering embassies was the correct decision.
That was the exact line the President wanted them to take.
The system does not work, and incompetence, lies, and willful self-delusion should never be excluded for as long as James Clapper remains director of national intelligence. He lied to Congress last March about the facts of the NSA surveillance activities. When asked whether the NSA was collecting information about millions of Americans, he replied, “No,” and then, a few seconds later, “not wittingly.” As he has admitted following Edward Snowden’s revelations, the true reply was “yes.” This is the same James Clapper who declared at the time of Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood was a “largely secular” group that had “eschewed violence.” Secular, like Mohamed Morsi. Nonviolent, like the daily attacks on Christian churches and their Coptic flock. With Clapper in charge of our national intelligence, no blunder should be excluded, and no lie unanticipated.
It is possible, of course, that the intelligence which prompted the embassy closings was not “real-life and credible” at all; that it was not faulty, or misinterpreted, but simply invented—cut out of whole cloth—in the fashion of Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction.” Embassy closings came amid the controversy surrounding the NSA’s sweeping data-collection programs. A day after the closures were announced, Obama’s loyalists were all over the Sunday talk-show circuit claiming that the intercepts proved the utility and importance of the NSA screening programs. That claim is ridiculous. The tools and methods of analysis used in domestic and foreign surveillance programs are vastly different, but to the majority of misinformed and manipulated Americans, who after all believed that Saddam had WMDs and was helping Al Qaeda, it may ring true.
Barack Obama is an accomplished obfuscator and deceiver, and a significant segment of the American public is still willing to accept devious malarkey from on high—which is treated as gospel by a docile media machine—rather than question the nature and methods of the Surveillance State. That state is based on the demand for complete submission to authority at home and for the acceptance of outright criminality abroad, U.S.-led NATO bombings of foreign nations and targeted assassinations included. The coming of age of the Surveillance State in the homeland and the ongoing policy of global interventionism are inseparable. They need each other and feed on each other. Americans are being made as helpless before the state as foreign nations and individuals are helpless before a B-17 bomber or a drone rocket bearing the USAF logo.
Each undeclared war, each targeted assassination, is a crime. That most of our fellow citizens neither realize nor care what is being done in their name is a tragedy.