Opinion: Al-Qaida extremists pose new threat

June 13, 2014


— The capture Tuesday of Mosul, the hub of northern Iraq, by al-Qaida-linked militants is an alarm bell that violent extremists are on the rise again in the Middle East. And it’s a good time for President Obama to explain more about how he plans to fight this menace without making the mistakes of the past.

Obama needs to alert the country to the renewed extremist threat partly to clarify the record. Just 19 months ago, he won re-election arguing that his policies had vanquished the most dangerous core elements of al-Qaida. But the organization has morphed, and deadly new battles are ahead.

The campaign theme that the worst terrorist threat had been licked was vividly drawn in the third debate between Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, on Oct. 22, 2012.

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaida. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of terrorism.”

Obama countered Romney’s statement with his basic campaign mantra: “We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11. And as a consequence, al-Qaida’s core leadership has been decimated.”

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary America that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

The return of al-Qaida isn’t Obama’s fault; there are too many complicated factors at work here. But it helps explain the seething rage of many Republicans about Benghazi. They argue that the attack there on Sept. 11, 2012, which killed four Americans, was an early warning sign of rising chaos and extremism in the Middle East — and that Obama made it through Election Day partly by minimizing this problem.

Much of the GOP fury on Benghazi is misplaced, imagining conspiracies that don’t exist and smearing the reputations of respected public servants. But there’s a piece of the Benghazi critique that’s real: Extremism is back and Benghazi was a precursor. 

Obama made a solid start in framing a new counterterror strategy in his graduation address at West Point last month. “Today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qaida leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized al-Qaida affiliates and extremists,” he said. He proposed a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, “which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.” Good idea, but progress has been too slow. 

The administration is finally developing a serious strategy for Syria, which will include a CIA-trained guerrilla army to fight both President Bashar al-Assad and al-Qaida extremists. In addition, (if skittish Arab allies agree), U.S. Special Operations forces will train Free Syrian Army units to create a stabilization force for liberated areas. If the ambitious plan moves forward, the hope is to train 9,600 fighters by the end of this year.

The extremist fire is burning hottest with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which spans both countries. This group is so toxic that it’s disowned by al-Qaida and is feuding with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Senior U.S. intelligence officials tell me that ISIS is now recruiting fighters from some other affiliates, including the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Somali-based al-Shabab.

The extremists are resurgent. After assuring America in 2012 that they were on the run, Obama now must frame a strong response that, as he rightly says, avoids the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan. That may be his real legacy issue.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Robert Rauktis 4 years ago

"Obama needs to alert the country to the renewed extremist threat partly to clarify the record. Just 19 months ago, he won re-election arguing that his policies had vanquished the most dangerous core elements of al-Qaida. But the organization has morphed, and deadly new battles are ahead."

What does this Chicken Little want? Any response, by definition, will be a work in progress if you want to deal with a "morphing" entity. A big, awkward defense force hasn't ever been suitable to quick change, Too much individual hierarchy struggle for a quick, pointed response.

That's why aircraft carriers are sexy to the Pentagon and military-industrial-senatorial complex, soldiers aren't. Unless you want to blow them back to the stone age, which is where they now are.

Eisenhower wasn't enthused about big expensive weapons systems either. But what does he know, he was a moderate Republican.

Richard Heckler 4 years ago

What does the writer know. He is publishing the desired chit chat given him at high government channels. Meanwhile the USA government is loading Iraq up with new F16's and such. Yes the USA is getting sucked back to Iraq not that we ever left.

People in Iraq do not the USA government back. Too many innocent family members are dead and infrastructure throughout Iraq is screwed.

The USA government screwed up by invading Iraq for no reason other than the New World Order Global Economy. The USA has no right to be there. Killing our soldiers and killing their people is a threat to world peace. The world population is not supporting the USA government.

The BUSHCO government had no reason to invade Iraq. Then again neither did the Reagan/Bush government which has put the USA military in harms way for 34 years. 8,000 dead soldiers and many thousands of disabled soldiers are paying the price which is ongoing.

Bob Smith 4 years ago

The past 6 years of amazingly dumb foreign policy by President Bystander have led to this moment.

Ken Lassman 4 years ago

I gotta say, folks, this situation is truly confusing, and it would be confusing to anyone who was in the presidential office today. Saddam's Baathists, secular to a fault, are teaming up with extremists that make the Taliban look like moderate Republicans? And these ISIS extremists are fighting against the Iranian khomeni theocracy, creating the possibility that Iran and the US may be working together to shore up the Shiite-heavy government of al-Maliki? And the Shiites are heavily supporting the Hezbollah, who vow to erase Israel from the face of the earth, and are fighting against Assad in Syria, alongside the ISIS troops? And I haven't even put Afgahanistan into the mix, because I don't know where to start making sense of that ball of wax in relationship with the shifting sands of alliances I just described.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 4 years ago

And in some of these places you have local warlords who will take whichever side pays them better. We need to stand back and let them sort out their stupidity. But oil from Mexico and Venezuela. Let's all cut back on our consumption.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 4 years ago

"Extremism is back and Benghazi was a precursor. " What a moron. It never went away. Where has he been, or did he really think that Bush "won" the war against extremism? Is anyone that naive? Besides, the way I understand it, this is a new group, not Al Queda, and that we should be worried because they are even more extreme. But I'm not sure if you can fight extremism with guns. The people in these countries need to fight these people. I don't know about you, but if some extremists took over my town, I wouldn't leave, except to find a way to fight them. Why did Iraqi soldiers put down their weapons and run. If the people of Iraq are not willing to fight against these people, then they deserve what they get. We can't be the policeman of the world. I'm tired of false patriots who say we should go to war, while they advocate taking our manufacturing out of the country, causing poverty, and then they look down on poor people and don't want to spend money on helping our own citizens. If that's what patriotism is, then our country is doomed.

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