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
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
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”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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.”
“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
The long war is not over.