WASHINGTON -- The Obama administrations sweeping response to an alleged al Qaida plot closing diplomatic posts in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia suggests a terrorist organization thats capable of striking virtually anywhere, not the one U.S. officials have depicted as a group thats near defeat.
Counterterrorism analysts said Monday that the U.S. governments global response to a threat emanating from Yemen, home to al Qaidas most active affiliate, was at odds with how dismissive President Barack Obama was in a speech in May, when he said that not every collection of thugs that labels themselves as al Qaida will pose a credible threat to the United States.
That was only one of a series of public statements by Obama and his Cabinet members that played down the capabilities of al Qaida-linked groups. For at least the past two years, the administration has sought to reassure Americans that al Qaida is on the run, while counterterrorism experts were warning about the semiautonomous affiliates that have wreaked havoc in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
The actions the administration is taking now are deeply inconsistent with the portrait of al Qaida strength the administration has been painting, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research institute.
U.S. officials have been secretive about what precise information led to the worldwide travel advisory and embassy closings, but a Yemeni official told McClatchy on Sunday that authorities had intercepted clear orders from al Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri to Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of the affiliate in Yemen, to carry out an attack.
On the campaign trail last fall, Obama touted the killing of Osama bin Laden during a covert U.S. raid in 2011 as a sign that, while the U.S. would have to maintain vigilance, the truth, though, is that al Qaida is much weaker than it was when I came into office. In his State of the Union address last February, the president called al Qaida a shadow of its former self and said the threat posed by its affiliates wouldnt require large-scale U.S. military deployment.
In July 2011, Obamas then newly appointed defense secretary, Leon Panetta, said he was convinced in this capacity that were within reach of strategically defeating al Qaida.
One more nuanced voice at the time was the current CIA director, John Brennan, who while serving as Obamas counterterrorism and homeland security adviser said in April 2012 that as the al Qaida core falters, it continues to look to its affiliates and adherents to carry on its murderous cause. Even so, he repeated the line that these affiliates continue to lose key commanders and capabilities as well.
Those assessments came as the U.S. military had just pulled out of Iraq and was setting the stage for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan after more than a decade in battle. Critics of such optimistic views say the Obama administration was grasping for a positive spin on bloody wars that many consider unfinished.
Its called politics. They know its not true, said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and blogs about them at Jihadology.net. The movement has grown over the past two years. The ideology is thriving.