In a speech at the National Defense University in May, President Barack Obama tried to draw a distinction between what he called “core al-Qaida” (which, he assured us, was “on a path to defeat”) and lesser affiliates, such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which do not pose a threat on the “scale of 9/11.”
“Core al-Qaida is a shell of its former self,” Obama boasted, adding that “they did not direct the attacks in Benghazi, Libya or Boston” and that their “remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.”
Well, it turns out that was wrong.
The Washington Post reports that the plot that has led to the closure of U.S. Embassies and the emergency evacuation of U.S. diplomats was directed by none other than Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, who gave “clear orders” to Nasser al-Wahishi, the founder of AQAP, to undertake an attack.
Okay, so let’s get this straight.
Obama says “core al-Qaida” is on “the path to defeat.” Yet the plot that officials have called the “most specific and credible threat” since 9/11 was ordered by the leader of – core al-Qaida.
Moreover, The Post reports, the person to whom Zawahri delivered this order – Wahishi – “was once bin Laden’s personal secretary.”
Doesn’t serving as the personal secretary of the founder of “core al-Qaida” qualify you as being “core al-Qaida”?
And that’s not all. Not only was Wahishi a top bin Laden aide (who was with the al-Qaida leader in Tora Bora), The Post further reports that Wahishi “recently was elevated by Zawahiri to the number two position in al-Qaida.”
So the leader of AQAP, the group that just put us on the highest terror alert since 9/11, is also second in command of . . . “core al-Qaida.”
Sense a pattern here?
The fact is, Obama’s effort to distinguish between “core al-Qaida” and AQAP is pure sophistry. AQAP was founded by a leader of “core al-Qaida.” It takes orders from “core al-Qaida.” Its leader is second in command of “core al-Qaida.”
AQAP is “core al-Qaeda.”
As American Enterprise Institute scholar Katherine Zimmerman points out, being “core al-Qaida” does not require being in Pakistan. Members of al-Qaida’s core leadership have moved across the world – from Sudan in the 1990s, to Afghanistan before 9/11, to Pakistan in the wake of Operation Enduring Freedom. Now many of its “core” leaders are dispersed throughout the world – including in Yemen.
What this means is that Obama’s entire meme of having put “core al-Qaida” on the “path to defeat” is untrue. So why is Obama so determined to make this false distinction between “core al-Qaida” and AQAP? Because he wants to bring to an end what he dismissed in his National Defense Universityspeech as “a boundless ‘global war on terror’” (his quotation marks). In that address, Obama made his intentions clear: He wants to withdraw from Afghanistan, end drone strikes, repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed after Sept. 11, 2001, and take the United States off of a “perpetual wartime footing.”
But if “core al-Qaida” is not, in fact, on a path to defeat – if the affiliate Obama admits is “most active in plotting against our homeland” is in fact “core al-Qaida” – then he can’t really declare an end to our war against them, can he?
In truth, Obama is just recycling the same tired line of argument used by critics of the surge in Iraq in 2007. Back then, many on the left tried to argue that bin Laden’s Iraqi affiliate, al-Qaida in Iraq, was not really al-Qaida – because if it was not really bin Laden’s al-Qaida, then we could safely pull out before that affiliate was defeated.
In a speech at the Charleston air base, President George W. Bush systematically took apart these false distinctions, explaining in detail how “al-Qaida in Iraq is run by foreign leaders loyal to Osama bin Laden.”
As Bush put it then: “There’s a good reason they are called al-Qaida in Iraq. They are al-Qaida . . . in . . . Iraq.”
Well today, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is run by bin Laden’s personal secretary who is second in command to bin Laden’s successor, Zawahiri. There is a good reason why that group is called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
It is al-Qaida . . . in . . . the Arabian Peninsula.
Until it is defeated, “core al-Qaida” is not defeated either.
Marc A. Thiessen is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and writes a weekly online column for The Washington Post.