by Austin Bay
January 22, 2013
Four years ago, as his first term began, President Barack Obama ditched the name Global War on Terror (GWOT). Instead of fighting Al-Qaida-inspired terrorism around the world, the U.S. would conduct "overseas contingency operations" (OCO).
Obama's act of oratorical magic -- poof, the global war has ended -- became an awkward problem, however. Real world events subsequently demonstrated that the word "overseas" was at best misleading, if not outright wrong. Detroit, New York and Portland, Ore., certainly aren't overseas, yet militant Islamist-inspired terrorists tried (and fortunately failed) to bomb all three -- Detroit on Christmas 2009, New York's Times Square in May 2010 and Portland in November 2010.
Obama still cannot call Maj. Nidal Hasan's terrorist attack at Fort Hood, Texas, (November 2009) a terrorist act. Hasan, however, had been in contact with militant Islamic cleric and al-Qaida recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, who at the time was holed up in Yemen with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Hasan praised Awlaki as a source of inspiration.
To his credit, Obama didn't make the mistake of equating Osama bin Laden's May 2011 demise with the end of al-Qaida. He came close in May 2012, on the first anniversary of bin Laden's death, however, when he declared, "The goal that I set -- to defeat al-Qaida and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is now within our reach."
The president can make a good case that al-Qaida circa 2001 has suffered severe losses in personnel as well as substantial material and moral damage. Eleven years of global military, political and financial warfare have drastically reduced al-Qaida's ability to serve as the central operational actor in a global war against everyone who does not share its crackpot vision of a global caliphate.
Military and police initiatives organized by the U.S. have led to the deaths or arrests of al-Qaida's most experienced commanders. CIA drones have killed second-tier operatives (to include Awlaki, April 2012) who might have filled the leadership void. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current supreme leader, lacks bin Laden's media savvy and charisma. He doesn't move the masses.
Events in Mali and Algeria, however, demonstrate that the fragment al-Qaidas (plural) of 2013 can still conduct spectacular massacres and attract global attention. Like AQAP in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is an al-Qaida regional orchestrator.
AQIM sponsored the attack on Algeria's Amenas gas plant, which left 37 foreign workers dead. The Amenas slaughter, replete with real bullets, bombs, corpses and consequences, ought to call into doubt Obama's inaugural claim that "a decade of war is now ending." In fact, the president's claim, with which he begins his second administration, is as ludicrous as his first term's OCO prestidigitation.
The Obama administration has taken pride in its "African solutions to African problems" partnership approach to sub-Saharan African problems. Its goals are laudable: promote democracy while strengthening fragile states by emphasizing good governance and economic development. But if the administration wants to see its nascent African efforts blossom, it is going to have to continue to wage war on Africa's various al-Qaidas.
The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism recently surveyed several extremist factions associated with AQIM. They are a deadly jumble of religious anger and criminal talent, but quite capable of wreaking havoc from Algeria to Nigeria. Other al-Qaida-aligned factions plague east Africa.
Al-Qaida 2001's dark genius was to connect the Muslim world's angry, humiliated and isolated young men with a utopian fantasy preaching the virtue of violence. That utopian fantasy seeks to explain and then redress roughly 800 years of Muslim decline. That dark genius continues to empower the al-Qaidas of 2013.
Their war against the world continues. No matter what President Obama says, our war against them hasn't ended, either.