The Long War Continues

By Stephen F. Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn

The Weekly Standard

November 30, 2015

In many ways, the reaction to the horrific attacks in Paris has been familiar. There were the expressions of solidarity: flowers at French embassies; social media avatars changed from silly selfies to photos of the French flag snapping defiantly in the wind; buildings across the Western world lit up in red, white, and blue; spontaneous and deeply moving renditions of the national anthem, sung by spectators being evacuated from a soccer match at the Stade de France, site of one of the attacks, and three days later by French legislators after President François Hollande addressed them at Versailles.

There were glimpses of the attacks themselves: gut-wrenching descriptions of sudden horror from eye-witnesses; cell-phone videos capturing slices of the chaos and carnage; photos of rescue workers walking gingerly through broken glass and torn clothing and human flesh; and, later, the emotional remembrances of those lost, by friends and relatives whose ordinary Friday had just become the worst day of their lives.

And, of course, there were the condemnations and declarations of resolve from Western leaders: The world must not tolerate such barbaric acts; together we will fight those who have carried out such unfathomable deeds; we will work with the international community against terrorism; and on it goes.

President Obama’s words on the night of the attacks were familiar, too. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to work with the French people and with nations around the world to bring these terrorists to justice, and to go after any terrorist networks that go after our people.”

They were meant to be reassuring, but rang hollow. Nobody expected that the United States under Barack Obama would actually “do whatever it takes” to win a war the president has long neglected. Even his mouthing of the promise seemed perfunctory—a man saying what the president is supposed to say in such a moment, rather than a leader announcing a new American resolve in the long war against jihadism.

Obama validated this skepticism in short order. Three days after the Paris massacre, as President Hollande was calling the slaughter an “act of war” and preparing a full-scale international response, Obama gave a bizarre press conference in which he made clear that for him nothing had changed.

Speaking to reporters at the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Obama said that, while the Paris attacks might have been a “setback” for his ISIS strategy, they would not change it. When reporters expressed surprise at his continued embrace of an approach that was failing, he lashed out at them for daring to question him. At a time when an American president might have been expected to show some righteous anger at the attackers and those who enabled them, Obama instead directed his fury towards critics at home who worry about jihadist violence against the homeland. It was a shameful spectacle, and a revealing one.

Barack Obama remains committed to a failed strategy against an enemy he has long underestimated in a war he has no plans to win. Nothing has changed. And this time, what’s past truly is prologue.

In an interview with ABC News the day before Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists killed more than 130 people in multiple, coordinated attacks in Paris, Obama told George Stephanopoulos that the terror group had been “contained.” Stephanopoulos had asked Obama a straightforward question: “ISIS is gaining strength, aren’t they?”

 “Well, no, I don’t think they’re gaining strength,” Obama responded. “What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria they’ll come in, they’ll leave. But you don’t see this systematic march by [ISIS] across the terrain. What we have not yet been able to do is to completely decapitate their command and control structures. We’ve made some progress in trying to reduce the flow of foreign fighters.”

Some of what Obama said was true, if incomplete: The United States and its allies had made some progress in slowing the movement of foreign fighters, but where some routes had been closed others had opened. And ISIS had suffered some military defeats in Iraq and Syria. But there is no indication that ISIS is immediately at risk of losing most of the territory it claimed in 2014. And ISIS’s international network has grown to span multiple continents, with jihadists loyal to the “caliphate” executing terrorist attacks on a daily basis far outside of the group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Just two weeks before Obama sat down with ABC News, an ISIS “province” in the Sinai blew up a Russian airliner, killing all 224 people on board. It was one of the most devastating terrorist attacks since 9/11. In no meaningful sense, therefore, is ISIS “contained.”

The vast majority of U.S. intelligence on the subject—at least the intelligence that hasn’t been rewritten at the behest of the White House—makes clear that ISIS has become a significant threat to the United States, its interests, and allies. ISIS’s expansion around the globe, its deep roster of foreign fighters, and its brutally effective war machine make it a far greater threat today than its precursors were when Obama took office.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and frequent ally of

the White House on national security matters, offered a blunt contradiction of Obama’s claim. “I read the intelligence faithfully. ISIS is not contained. ISIS is expanding.”

Obama has been underestimating the threat of the global jihadist movement since before he was sworn in as president. And he’s been misleading the country about that threat for nearly as long.

Four months before he was elected president, Obama traveled to Iraq for briefings on the war he had long opposed. He met with General David Petraeus, who was then seeking to consolidate U.S. and coalition gains resulting from the surge in American forces and the Anbar Awakening. When Petraeus insisted that Iraq, not Afghanistan, was the central front in the war against al Qaeda, Obama challenged him, arguing that Al Qaeda in Iraq—the organization that would grow to become ISIS—had little ambition or reach beyond Iraq.

According to an account of the meeting in The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, by New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, Obama questioned “whether al Qaeda in Iraq presented a threat to the United States.” He said: “If AQI has morphed into a kind of mafia then they are not going to be blowing up buildings.” Petraeus pointed to an attempted attack in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2007, as an example of AQI’s reach and expressed concern about “the potential of AQI to expand its influence to Syria and Lebanon.” Obama was unmoved. “The al Qaeda leadership is not here in Iraq. They are there,” Obama said, pointing to Pakistan on a map.

It was an instructive exchange. Obama, a first-term senator with no experience in military or intelligence matters, challenged the general who had beaten back a jihadist insurgency in Iraq, led a remarkable turnaround in the country, and was a leading figure in America’s broader war on terror. The assessments Petraeus offered were based on years of personal experience guiding U.S. troops against jihadist armies generally, and Al Qaeda in Iraq specifically, and they were bolstered by mountains of intelligence reporting on the enemy, its objectives, and its practices.

Obama simply thought he knew better. His challenge wasn’t based on facts that contradicted Petraeus, or on facts at all. Rather, Obama made a series of assertions based on nothing more than his long-held conviction that Iraq was a distraction from the war on terror. And when he was presented with evidence that contradicted his thesis, Obama simply set it aside and restated his own view. It’s a pattern that would play out repeatedly throughout his presidency.

* Guantánamo. It started early. As one of his first acts in office, President Obama ordered the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, shuttered within one year. The president issued this deadline knowing little about the 240 detainees remaining in Cuba in January 2009. Obama’s executive order also established the Guantánamo Review Task Force, set up to review the intelligence files on each of the detainees.

The detainees had been evaluated many times before, including by Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the facility. JTF-GTMO’s analysts probably knew more about the detainees than anyone in the U.S. government. And they concluded that nearly 75 percent of the 240 jihadists held at Guantánamo seven years after it was opened were “high risks” to the United States and its allies.

George W. Bush’s administration had moved aggressively to transfer detainees, particularly in Bush’s second term. Most of the transferees were deemed “low” or “medium” risks, but the Department of Defense under Bush started to transfer “high risk” detainees as well. The effects of Bush’s transfer policies were not felt until Obama took office. In January 2009, the Defense Department estimated that 61 of the detainees who had been released up to that point either had returned to the jihad or were suspected of having done so. As of September 2015, that figure had more than tripled to 196 ex-detainees. All but 12 of them were transferred

prior to Obama’s inauguration.

Obama has eagerly criticized the Bush administration’s transfer policies, pointing out that nearly two-thirds of the detainees ever held in Cuba were transferred before he himself took office, and many of them returned to terrorism. But rather than learn from his predecessor’s mistakes, Obama repeated them.

The final report from Obama’s own task force, published in January 2010, made clear that the overwhelming majority of the remaining detainees belonged to the jihadists’ paramilitary armies and terror cells. Obama’s review body found that 95 percent of the detainees fit into four categories, ranging from low-level foreign fighters to terrorists who were “involved in terrorist plots against U.S. targets.” None of the remaining detainees was deemed innocent.

Instead of reevaluating his decision to close Guantánamo in light of the obvious risks, however, Obama continues to press forward. His own task force approved 156 (65 percent) of the 240 detainees it evaluated for transfer despite finding that nearly all of them had belonged to al Qaeda or Taliban-affiliated terror networks in some capacity. The Obama administration has transferred more than 120 detainees, and if recent history is any guide, more of them will one day join the U.S. government’s list of recidivists. Dozens of the jihadists Obama wants to ship out were once deemed “high risk” to the United States, its interests, and its allies by JTF-GTMO. Like its predecessor, the Obama administration disregarded the task force’s recommendations in many cases, and it continues to transfer “high-risk” detainees.

For obvious reasons, the president rarely speaks of the dangers posed by the detainees. Obama argues that such talk is political demagoguery, but he often finds the time to criticize his own country for holding the jihadists in the first place. In a speech at the National Archives in May 2009, for instance, Obama briefly acknowledged that some of the jihadists in Guantánamo would be tried for their past crimes, and there were others who “cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.” But much of his talk was devoted to portraying Guantánamo as a stain on America. “There is also no question that Guantánamo set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world,” Obama argued. He added: “Meanwhile, instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantánamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantánamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”

There is no evidence, however, to back up Obama’s claim. Guantánamo is rarely mentioned in al Qaeda’s propaganda and has never been a dominant recruiting theme.

While evidence of Guantánamo as a recruitment tool is lacking, evidence of the threat from recidivists is not. Ex-Guantánamo detainees have served international terror networks at every level, from suicide bombers to senior strategists and leaders. Mullah Zakir, a senior Taliban leader transferred by the Bush administration to Afghanistan in December 2007, quickly returned to the ranks, becoming the Taliban’s most senior military leader. Zakir was responsible for countering President Obama’s surge in southern Afghanistan and is likely responsible for the deaths of a dozen or more U.S. Marines. Another ex-detainee, Abdul Hafiz, returned to terrorism mere weeks after the Obama administration transferred him to Afghanistan in December 2009. Hafiz assumed command of a unit tasked with hunting charity workers, among others.

More than 100 of the confirmed or suspected Guantánamo recidivists remain at large today.

*Fort Hood. In November 2009, Army Major Nidal Hasan shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he gunned down fellow soldiers in an attack at Fort Hood. Despite eyewitness accounts confirming Hasan’s obvious jihadist beliefs, the Obama administration moved quickly to downplay suggestions that the shooter was motivated by a radical ideology. In the hours after the attack, one FBI source told Fox News thatthe bureau was not even looking at the possibility that Hasan had ties to terrorist groups. When news outlets reported that Hasan had been in touch with radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the FBI dismissed the contents of their emails as “benign.” The FBI was forced to abandon those claims when the emails—which included Hasan asking Awlaki if killing U.S. military personnel was permissible under sharialaw—were made public. But in its revised assessment, the bureau argued that the emails were consistent with Hasan’s research as an Army psychiatrist. The official Pentagon report on the attack made no mention of Hasan’s radical views or his contacts with Awlaki. The attacks were codified as “workplace violence,” and only months later did the administration acknowledge that the attack was, in fact, “violent Islamic terrorism.”

*The Christmas Day bomber. When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a bomb in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009, Obama administration officials immediately sought to minimize the significance of the botched attack. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said there was “no indication” the plot was “part of anything larger,” and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs boasted, erroneously, that the “system has worked.” In fact, Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent banker in Nigeria, had tried to alert U.S. officials to his son’s radicalism and the potential threat he posed to U.S. interests. His warnings were ignored. The system failed.

Obama, on vacation in Hawaii at the time, waited three days to make a statement. When he spoke, the president suggested that Abdulmutallab was an “isolated extremist.” He was not—and Obama should have known it when he spoke. As court records make clear, Abdulmutallab confessed almost immediately to FBI interrogators that he had received training and financing from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and that the group had dispatched him to attack the U.S. homeland.

*The Times Square bomber. In May 2010, after Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate an SUV loaded with explosive materials, Secretary Napolitano suggested it was a “one-off” attack, and administration officials downplayed claims of responsibility from the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan). But Shahzad soon confessed that he had received bomb-making training in Pakistan and met with a senior leader of an al Qaeda-allied terror group. Only after Pakistan’s interior minister publicly reported that Shahzad had not, in fact, acted alone did the Obama administration acknowledge that the Pakistani Taliban had supported the attempted attack.

*The bin Laden documents. In May 2011, Obama authorized an operation to capture or kill Osama bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was a courageous decision that involved significant risks and no guarantee of success. Obama had pledged to focus on al Qaeda senior leadership, and the death of bin Laden made good on his promise.

That important moment should have kicked off a comprehensive campaign to make the death of the al Qaeda leader the first step in the death of al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement. That didn’t happen. Obama, eager to end what he would call the Bush administration’s “boundless war on terror,” mistook this victory in an important battle as victory in the broader war.

During the raid, the Sensitive Site Exploitation team filled several oversized canvas bags with material belonging to the al Qaeda leader. Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, called it “the largest cache of intelligence” ever collected in such a raid and said the contents would fill “a small college library.”

But after a brief initial scrub for real-time intelligence, the bin Laden documents remained largely unexploited for as long as a year, according to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). After interagency infighting that echoed the pre-9/11 battles that had prevented information-sharing among relevant analysts, DIA officials were given limited access to the documents but told they were not allowed to write official reports based on their contents or circulate them throughout the intelligence community. Even that limited access made clear just how much valuable information had been missed by the Obama administration’s initial triage: details of the close relationship between al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban; after-action reports on past operations and indications of future al Qaeda targeting; correspondence between bin Laden and top operatives that revealed the internal dynamics of the al Qaeda network and its relations with al Qaeda branches around the globe; and additional intelligence on al Qaeda’s supporters and allies, including in Pakistan and Iran.

Beyond a deeper understanding of al Qaeda, a full exploitation of the documents would give the U.S. intelligence community (a) an accurate baseline from which to judge its past assessments of al Qaeda and its leaders, (b) the ability to compare what we thought we knew with what was actually happening, and (c) an opportunity to evaluate sources and methods to determine who and what means were producing the most accurate information.

But the U.S. intelligence community never made a comprehensive study of the bin Laden documents, says Derek Harvey, a former senior intelligence analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and ex-director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). “A full exploitation? No,” he says. “Not even close.”

*The 2012 presidential election. Beginning on the first anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden,

the Obama campaign rolled out an effort to portray the president as the imminent victor in the global war on terror. John Brennan, at the time a top White House counterterrorism official and later CIA director, spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and boldly predicted the demise of al Qaeda by the end of the decade.

Brennan began with a disclaimer—“We’ve always been clear that the end of bin Laden would [not] mark the end of al Qaeda”—but his speech pointed strongly in the other direction. Al Qaeda leaders were being killed at such a pace that the group “has had trouble replacing them,” and the “handful” of al Qaeda leaders who managed to survive “struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates.” Al Qaeda leadership was “on the path to its destruction,” he said, and “we can .  .  . envision a world in which the al Qaeda core is simply no longer relevant.”

Obama himself made this case in the strongest terms. Dozens of times during the campaign, Obama asserted that al Qaeda was “on the run” or “on the path to defeat.”

During a speech at a fundraiser in New York City on September 18, 2012, Obama suggested that al Qaeda was “decimated.” He said: “I ended the war in Iraq, as I promised. We are transitioning out of Afghanistan. We have gone after the terrorists who actually attacked us 9/11 and decimated al Qaeda.” It would become a campaign talking point.

Al Qaeda was not, in fact, decimated. Just as Obama and his supporters were boasting of al Qaeda’s demise, many of those closest to the fight were saying the opposite. “We were still facing a growing al Qaeda threat,” said Flynn, the former DIA director. “And it was not just Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq. But we saw it growing in Yemen. We clearly saw it growing still in East Africa.” The expansion of al Qaeda—and the broader jihadist threat—was not marginal. “By that time, they probably had grown by about—I’d say close to doubling by that time. And we knew that.”

Flynn tells The Weekly Standard that he saw most of the president’s daily briefings over the two years he headed DIA, from 2012 to 2014, and he had been studying assessments of the jihadist threat for a decade before that, in positions at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and in the intelligence bureaucracy. “The intelligence was very clear,” he says, and that intelligence “did not meet the narrative the White House” was selling to the American public. “Especially during the run-up to the elections,” Flynn says, “they were basically misinforming the public.”

*Benghazi. The attacks in Benghazi offer a case study of that deception. Six weeks before the election, on September 11, 2012, al Qaeda-affiliated fighters attacked U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans including the ambassador. The Obama administration’s duplicity is well known. Administration officials attributed the attacks to an out-of-control protest over an anti-Muslim film trailer. They downplayed the al Qaeda links of the attackers. They made revisions to talking points drafted by the U.S. intelligence community and produced a second set of talking points designed to elevate the importance of the video and distract from the administration’s policy failures in Libya.

Internal documents released as a result of FOIA requests or made public by the Select Committee on Ben-ghazi make clear that the narrative created by the administration in the aftermath of the attacks was at odds with what administration and intelligence officials were saying to one another behind the scenes. On the night of the attacks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told her daughter that the attacks had been conducted by an al Qaeda-like group, and the following day, in a conversation with Egypt’s prime minister, she knocked down speculation that the attacks were the result of a protest. According to State Department notes recording the call, Clinton said: “We know the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack, not a protest. .  .  . Based on the information we saw today, we believe that the group that claimed responsibility for this was affiliated with al-Qaeda.”

Two days later, however, she met with Charles Woods, the father of one of the CIA contractors killed in the attacks. He immediately jotted down her words to him: “We are going to have the filmmaker arrested who was responsible for the death of your son.”

President Obama repeatedly used the administration’s discredited narrative as he campaigned on his claim that al Qaeda had been decimated. “A day after 9/11, we are reminded that a new tower rises above the New York skyline, but al Qaeda is on the path to defeat and bin Laden is dead,” he said at a fundraiser in Las Vegas on September 12, 2012, one day after the Benghazi attacks.

So desperate was the administration to avoid admitting that the Benghazi attacks were a deliberate assault by jihadists that Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, scolded a reporter who asked whether there was some significance to the attackers’ choice of September 11 as the date for their assault on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi. “I think that you’re conveniently conflating two things,” Carney snapped, “which is the anniversary of 9/11 and the incidents that took place, which are under investigation.”

Hillary Clinton attributed her many contradictions to “the fog of war.” But the indictment of the only person in U.S. custody for those attacks is not foggy. The government charges that Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a leader in Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-affiliate in Libya, discovered the presence of a CIA facility in Benghazi and developed a plan to take it out. According to the indictment, “Khatallah informed others that there was an American facility in Benghazi posing as a diplomatic post, that he believed the facility was actually being used to collect intelligence, that he viewed U.S. intelligence actions in Benghazi as illegal, and that he was therefore going to do something about this facility.” The 21-page indictment mentions no video.

*Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Obama has repeatedly said that he plans to bring the war in Afghanistan to a “responsible end,” echoing his myopic claim about the war in Iraq. Obama decided only recently to keep a small American force of 5,500 troops in Afghanistan into 2017, as opposed to withdrawing all U.S. soldiers before he left office.

The decision was a tacit acknowledgment of stunning advances the Taliban and al Qaeda have made throughout the country. Approximately 40 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts have fallen to the jihadists this year. With 9,800 American troops in the country currently, the Taliban-al Qaeda axis launched attacks on Afghanistan’s provincial capitals and even briefly captured the city of Kunduz in late September. American airstrikes and special forces helped drive the insurgents out of Kunduz proper, but the city remains surrounded. The jihadists have not had such success in Afghanistan’s few urban areas since before September 11, 2001—an ominous sign.

Obama’s handling of the Afghan war has been uneven, to say the least. Afghanistan was the “good war,” according to Obama, and therefore deserved the resources that Iraq did not. Obama did order his own surge of forces into the country in late 2009, and the American-led coalition had some success, particularly in the south. But Obama’s “surge” was short-lived, bound by an arbitrary deadline of 18 months that he announced in the same speech as the surge itself, and didn’t target all of the jihadist-infested areas of the country. All of the additional American forces sent by Obama were withdrawn before the 2012 presidential election.

As part of their case that al Qaeda has been “decimated” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, administration officials have for years said the estimated number of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan is between 50 and 100. It’s an argument driven by politics, not facts.

In October, U.S. military officials revealed the existence of two large al Qaeda training camps in the southern province of Kandahar. The larger of the two was a virtual town of approximately 30 square miles.

Destroying the camps required a sustained, five-day campaign by both air and ground assets. The U.S. military and its Afghan allies launched 63 airstrikes on the training facilities and deployed a joint ground force of more than 200 troops. Establishing such a facility would have been neither possible nor necessary if there had been fewer than 100 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.

Obama has said that America’s mission in Afghanistan is to ensure “that al Qaeda can never again establish a safe haven to launch attacks against us or our allies.” Al Qaeda has safe havens in Afghanistan today. A “responsible end” to the war in Afghanistan is not within sight.

*Iran and terror. The highest priority of Obama’s second term was a nuclear deal with Iran, and the administration made clear early that it was willing to set aside Iran’s support for terror in order to secure such a deal. Administration officials described their approach as “decoupling” the nuclear talks from the other provocative behavior of the regime, including terrorism.

At times, however, top administration and intelligence officials went beyond simply ignoring Iran’s support for terror. They whitewashed it.

For years, the U.S. intelligence community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” reported in blunt language on Iran’s support for terrorism and its use of proxies to expand its influence in the region. For more than a decade, the report, produced for Congress by the director of national intelligence, was clear and consistent.

In 2007, for instance, the report read: “We assess that Iran regards its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad as a key element of its national security strategy: It considers this capability as helping to safeguard the regime by deterring U.S. or Israeli attacks, distracting and weakening Israel, enhancing Iran’s regional influence through intimidation, and helping to drive the United States from the region.”

By 2015, despite the fact that Iran remains the leading state sponsor of terror in the world, all references to Iran’s support for terrorism had been stripped from the DNI’s report. All that remained was vague language about Iran’s backing of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, its “promulgation of anti-Israeli policies, development of advanced military capabilities, and pursuit of its nuclear program.”

Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee noted the change in a letter to James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. “We are writing to express our concern that your 2015 worldwide threat assessment did not fully represent the threat posed by Iranian support for terrorist proxies and violent Shia militants throughout the Middle East. Iran continues to advance its subversive behavior through violent extremist groups like Lebanese Hezbollah, Shia militias, the Houthi rebels, and Palestinian extremists, among others. The Iranian regime leverages these relationships to export its so-called Islamic revolution, destabilize the regional order, and counter American interests in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Israel.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence described the changes as “an oversight” and denied any effort to minimize the threat from Iran as the administration pursued a nuclear deal with Tehran.

The administration’s policy of “decoupling” the nuclear talks from Iran’s support for terror came to an abrupt end with the signing of the deal itself. Among those who will receive international nuclear sanctions relief as part of the broader deal: Qassem Suleimani, the man responsible for overseeing Iran’s external terror operations as head of the Quds Force; Ahmad Vahidi, former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, wanted for his involvement in a terror attack on a Jewish community center in Argentina in 1994; and Iran’s Bank Saderat, which the regime uses to finance a variety of terrorist groups.

*ISIS. Obama’s skepticism about the Iraq war is well known. It helped get him elected president, and in speeches and interviews to this day he often points to that war to explain the chaos in the region. As his exchange with Petraeus back in 2008 makes clear, Obama believed jihadists operating from Iraq did not present a threat to the United States or the West. They were, in his view, “a mafia,” with parochial interests.

For Obama, the threat was limited to a core group of senior al Qaeda leaders, located in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who wanted to attack the United States. He was from the beginning utterly unconcerned about the potential expansion of AQI—now ISIS—and dismissive of evidence that jihadists from Iraq presented a threat to the West.

Obama was not only mistaken about the postwar threat from Iraq, he was apparently ignorant of the relevant history of jihadist threats emanating from Iraq. Even before the Iraq war began in March 2003, the CIA and liaison intelligence agencies across the Atlantic hunted down suspected terrorists in Europe who were tied to Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s operations in northern Iraq.

Former CIA director George Tenet writes in his autobiography, At the Center of the Storm, that U.S. “efforts to track activities emanating from Kurmal [in northern Iraq] resulted in the arrest of nearly one hundred Zarqawi operatives in Western Europe planning to use poisons in operations” prior to March 2003. Tenet also writes that two longtime subordinates to Ayman al Zawahiri (who was then bin Laden’s top deputy and is now the head of al Qaeda) were among the “dozen al Qaeda-affiliated extremists” who “converged on Baghdad, with apparently no harassment on the part of the Iraqi government,” in 2002. The CIA had “credible information” that they were “willing to strike U.S., Israeli, and Egyptian targets sometime in the future,” according to Tenet. One of the two, known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, went on to become one of the first leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a political front organization for Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terror group Zarqawi formally established in 2004. Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) grew into the group now known variously as ISIS, ISIL, and the Islamic State.

After Masri and his coleader were killed in April 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former prisoner in the coalition’s Camp Bucca detention center, took over as the new chief of the expanding terror operation and moved quickly to accelerate its growth.

Voices in the U.S. intelligence community warned about the jihadist threats from Iraq, echoing many previous assessments. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report cautioned that if “Iraq becomes a failed state, it will go to the top of the list of places that are breeding grounds for attacks against Americans at home.” Obama’s dismissal of the terror threat from Iraq not only disregarded contemporaneous intelligence reporting, but ignored bipartisan concerns of more than a decade’s standing.

On October 21, 2011, Obama announced that he was bringing the Iraq war to a “responsible end—for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world.” For Obama, the war in Iraq remained disconnected from the fight against al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists who threaten the West. “The tide of war is receding,” Obama claimed. “The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership—including Osama bin Laden.” Obama said nothing about Al Qaeda in Iraq (predecessor of ISIS) or the fact that it was still loyal to al Qaeda’s leadership. Obama’s oversight was glaring. In July 2011, in his first public statement as chief of the organization that would become ISIS, Baghdadi threatened to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States to avenge the slaying of Osama bin Laden.

Administration officials mocked the jihadists’ goals in Iraq and elsewhere. On June 29, 2011, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, argued that the administration wasn’t going to organize its counterterrorism policies around the “absurd” idea that al Qaeda and its branches were fighting to resurrect an Islamic caliphate. Brennan stressed that this was a “feckless delusion” that didn’t require America to be on a war footing.

Meanwhile, Baghdadi expanded his operations into Syria in late 2011 and 2012. His ambitious efforts led to a dispute with al Qaeda’s senior management in 2013 and eventually a formal split from al Qaeda. This fissure did not weaken either group.

In 2014, David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and author of a bestselling biography of Barack Obama, interviewed the president. Remnick asked him about ISIS and its worrisome gains in western Iraq. Obama was dismissive.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said. Remnick, obviously taken aback by Obama’s comparison, noted that he had resorted “to an uncharacteristically flip analogy.” Obama continued: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

Obama’s comments echoed the language of a major national security address he had given the previous spring at the National Defense University. In that speech, Obama contrasted the war in Iraq and the war against al Qaeda. Obama claimed to have “ended” the Iraq war, which “carried significant consequences for our fight against al Qaeda, our standing in the world, and—to this day—our interests in a vital region.” Obama said nothing about the resurgent jihadist threat in Iraq and only briefly mentioned that “extremists” had gained “a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria.” Obama sought to cast this threat as having “differences from 9/11.” He said some jihadist “groups are simply collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory.” Obama did say the United States must be “vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat,” but he insisted that “most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based.” The jihadist threat was primarily “localized” and “regional,” according to Obama, and we need not be overly concerned about large, 9/11-style attacks in the West.

Obama’s confidence was misplaced. On June 29, 2014, three years to the day after Brennan mocked the idea of a caliphate as “a feckless delusion” and six months after Obama dismissed ISIS as “jayvee,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi named himself “Caliph Ibrahim” and declared the vast swath of territory ISIS had come to control “the caliphate.”

In the space of less than three years, Baghdadi’s organization went from holding virtually no territory to ruling large parts of two nation-states, Iraq and Syria, and wiping out a border that had existed for decades.

The administration was at a loss to explain the dramatic rise of a terror group the president had so cavalierly dismissed. Press briefings at the White House, State Department, and the Pentagon were filled with exchanges between administration spokesmen and reporters incredulous at the repeated claims that the administration had a plan and that the plan was working. The charade came to an end on September 4, 2014, when Obama took questions from reporters in a White House press conference. In response to an inquiry about his plan to deal with ISIS, Obama made a startling admission. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” he said. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

Elements of the U.S. intelligence community carefully tracked the strengthening of ISIS, and many analysts tried to call attention to the mounting threat. But administration officials made clear that such assessments were unwelcome.

“More than 50 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military’s Central Command have formally complained that their reports on ISIS and al Qaeda’s branch in Syria were being inappropriately altered by senior officials,” the Daily Beast reported in September.

“The analysts have accused senior-level leaders, including the director of intelligence and his deputy in CENTCOM, of changing their analyses to be more in line with the Obama administration’s public contention that the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda is making progress.”

All the while, Obama and his advisers dismissed the group as “a kind of mafia,” “jayvee team,” and “local”—while belittling its ambitions as “absurd” and a “feckless delusion.” It was members of this jayvee team who conducted the Paris attacks.

Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the former DIA director, described the evolution of the jihadist threat over the course of the Obama presidency. When Obama was elected, the threat of the global jihadist movement had been “stabilized.” By 2012, as Obama campaigned for reelection, “they were back on the march in the Middle East and in Europe.” By the time Flynn left the DIA in August 2014, after two years of challenging the administration’s willful blindness on terrorism, “they were winning.”

And now?

“They have more than doubled. They are stronger. They are more ‘modernized’ via the world of the Internet. They have far better leaders, [they’re] more organized. They’ve clearly demonstrated a high planning ability, and their operational security is exceptional.”

Al Qaeda is not decimated. ISIS is not jayvee. Iran is not our friend. Terrorists sent by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are not isolated extremists. Attempted bombings by operatives dispatched by the Pakistani Taliban are not one-off attacks. Planned assaults on American facilities overseas are not protests. Groups blowing up airliners are not contained. September 11 was not an episode. Mass casualty attacks are not setbacks.

The long war is not over.