By Julian Pecquet and Jeremy Herb - 01/19/13 01:03 PM EST
Republicans are ramping up criticism that President Obama failed to prevent a resurgence of al-Qaeda offshoots in northern Africa in the wake of the bloody hostage crisis in Algeria.
Foreign policy was considered a key strength for Obama in the run-up to the 2012 election, when the president repeatedly boasted of killing Osama bin Laden and leaving al Qaeda “decimated” and “on its heels.”
“We said that we would go after al Qaeda,” Obama told supporters in Washington on Sept. 28, “and they are on the run and bin Laden is dead.”
“Today, North Africa is the next frontier in the war on terror,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Thursday.
“Al Qaeda's North African franchises have become emboldened by our timid response to Benghazi, have gained significant wealth by ratcheting up kidnappings for ransom. They use this wealth to fund operations against the West and reached inside the United States.”
The debate over the effectiveness of the U.S. war on terror is expected to come up next week when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House and Senate on Benghazi. FBI Director Robert Mueller met with top Libyan officials this week for an update on the investigation, as the killers of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans remain at large more than four months after the attack.
Republicans, perhaps wary of being seen as politicizing a developing situation, have so far stayed clear of the more aggressive tone they adopted after Benghazi, when some of them accused the White House of deliberately misleading the public. Instead, they've applauded the president for supporting a French operation to rout Islamists in Mali while obliquely suggesting he didn't keep his eye on the ball in northern Africa after militants help topple Libya's Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
“Mali is the first victim of Libya because of the weapon caches that were raided and the inability for anyone to stop those weapons from flying all over,” House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told CNN. “You have to have an overarching plan that puts pressure on these groups. You can't just fire a few missiles and pack up and go home and hope for the best.”
The White House says it's taking the threat seriously.
“We here in the White House and throughout the administration are intensely focused on al Qaeda and its affiliates,” spokesman Jay Carney said at his daily briefing. “I think that that has been made abundantly clear by the actions that we've taken. And that continues to be the case.”
The administration's hands have largely been tied in Mali over the past year, however. A military coup in March made it illegal for the Obama administration to continue providing counterterrorism aid, giving Islamist militants crucial breathing space to consolidate their hold over vast swaths of the desert country and to plan forays into neighboring countries.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the Obama administration has always said it needs to remain vigilant about al Qaeda affiliates who try to exploit unrest in the region.
“We have worked closely with countries across Africa to build up their capacity to fight terrorists and to address the political and economic instability that allow countries to become terrorist safe havens. We’ve also been in close touch with international partners like the French who share our goal of denying terrorists a safe-haven,” Vietor said.
The administration has gradually softened its rhetoric since the Benghazi attack. Carney stopped saying al Qaeda had been decimated in October, and the president himself began to use more specific language in the last month of the campaign.
“Al Qaeda’s core leadership has been decimated,” Obama told supporters at two campaign stops in Florida on Oct. 23.
Leaders of the House panel that will grill Clinton next Wednesday made it clear this week that they're not satisfied with the administration's response to date.
New House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the terrorist attack in Algeria was “the latest demonstration of a large and growing radical movement across North Africa.”
And Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the committee's panel on Middle East and North Africa, made the same point shortly before the hostage crisis. “I'm glad that the president woke up, finally,” she told The Hill on Tuesday after the White House backed France's intervention in Mali. “We had been ignoring the violent extremists for so long.”
The group that took responsibility for the hostage crisis in Algeria is reportedly an offshoot of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is itself an affiliate of core al Qaeda.
The man allegedly behind the attack, Moktar Belmoktar, started the group Al-Mulathameen that took responsibility for the attack Wednesday. He is nicknamed “Mr. Marlboro” for his connection to cigarette smuggling.
AQIM, the al Qaeda affiliate in West Africa, is the same militant group that the French are seeking to drive out of Mali with their incursion. The group has also been linked to the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
The Mulathameen have said they took the hostages to force a French withdrawal from Mali, but their motivations – and just how much a threat they pose to the United States – remain murky. Some reports suggested this week's operation initially aimed to extort the Algerian government and foreign energy firms.
Rogers and Royce themselves questioned the group's demands on Thursday, telling Fox News the complex attack appeared to have been planned long in advance.