By Jeremy Herb - 08/05/13 10:47 PM EDT
Groups affiliated with al Qaeda have grown in strength over the last year, prompting new challenges for the Obama White House, which has touted its record in fighting terror groups.
President Obama declared al Qaeda on the run following the death of Osama bin Laden, but that assessment is being called into question now that the group has been caught planning a major terrorist attack.
“The obituary for al Qaeda has been proclaimed year in and year out ever since 2001. It’s proven premature in every case,” said Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project.
While experts say the conflict in Syria and reverberations from the Arab Spring have provided new fuel to extremists groups, the White House insists al Qaeda remains far weaker than it was when Obama took office.
“There is no question over the past several years al Qaeda core has been greatly diminished, not least because of the elimination of Osama bin Laden,” Carney said at Monday’s White House press briefing.
Carney noted that the administration has made a distinction between al Qaeda and its offshoots.
“As al Qaeda's core has been diminished through the efforts of the United States and our allies, affiliate organizations, including in particular, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have strengthened. We have here in Washington have identified AQAP in particular as the dangerous threat,” Carney said.
Obama made claims of a weakened al Qaeda central to his 2012 campaign, repeatedly claiming the group was “decimated” after a SEAL team raided bin Laden’s compound.
“We have gone after the terrorists who actually attacked us 9/11 and decimated al Qaeda,” he said at one September 2012 campaign event.
Experts in terrorism and the Middle East say that al Qaeda’s central organization in Pakistan has been diminished by U.S. drone strikes, which Obama has used to take out key leaders.
But in the place of the old al Qaeda, groups like AQAP, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have emerged under the terror group’s umbrella.
“It’s certainly true that the core al Qaeda power has declined, and the movement as a whole is certainly far less capable of undertaking a 9/11-type attack,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. “It’s a more diffused threat and a different threat, but also a highly consequential one.”
The embassy closings, which began on Sunday and could continue beyond this week, were reportedly prompted by U.S. intelligence intercepting a message between AQAP’s leader and al-Zawahri, a potential sign of an unusual collaboration.
Republican national security hawks have praised the administration’s steps to close the embassies, particularly following last year’s attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya.
But they also say the closings should be a “wake-up call” to the resurgence of al Qaeda-affiliated terror groups.
“This is a wake-up call. Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11 because it's mutated, and it spread, and it can come at us from different directions,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“After Benghazi, these al Qaeda types are really on steroids thinking we’re weaker and they’re stronger,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Terrorism analysts said that Benghazi was not likely a seminal event that rejuvenated al Qaeda affiliates, though it was a sign of their capabilities. They point to a longer arc that has been fueled by the tumult in the region stemming from the Arab spring, when democratic governments failed to take hold after dictators were toppled by protests.
“A lot of the heady optimism that attended the Arab spring and supposedly the demise of al Qaeda — people argued democracy taking to streets rendered al Qaeda irrelevant — has turned out to be wishful thinking,” Hoffman said. “We see across the region that al Qaeda is stronger today than it was a year ago.”
It’s a far cry by the beginning of the Arab spring, which began with a nonviolent protest in what was then viewed as a rebuke of al Qaeda’s jihadist ideology, said Thomas Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS).
“It’s certainly an unwelcome evolution in the Arab spring … there are millions with unmet expectations,” Sanderson said. “And so al Qaeda has a tremendous opportunity to capitalize, as AQI is with the Syrians.”
The two-year Syrian civil war has been a boon to al Qaeda in Iraq, where its fighters have moved across the border to join the al Nusra Front fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad — and sometimes the secular Syrian opposition forces.
Other al Qaeda affiliates have benefited from regions without much government control, such as AQIM in Mali, which grew in stature after the government was overthrown in the most recent military coup last year.
AQAP in Yemen, the group allegedly behind the latest threat, is viewed as the affiliate with the most capability to strike at the U.S. It has been quiet recently, however, as the government in Yemen has made a push to fight back.
Sanderson said that during the 2012 campaign, Obama was correct to tout the success that had been made in diminishing al Qaeda across the globe. But he said Obama should also acknowledge that the terror network has gained.
“When the president made these statements a year ago, things certainly looked much better. I don’t fault the president for having said that,” he said. “But not calling out or recognizing the pretty significant downturn, and the upswing in al Qaeda’s fortune, it would be wrong not to recognize that.”
— Carlo Muñoz and Justin Sink contributed.