Accepting his party’s renomination for president on Sept. 6, Barack Obama boasted, “Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead.” The crowd roared its approval.
It’s now painfully clear that someone wasn’t listening. Five days later, terrorists attacked in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Other terrorists in northern Mali, affiliated with al Qaeda, were in the process of seizing territory the size of Texas, and still others just carried out a daring raid in Algeria resulting in 38 or more hostages killed.
The US and Western response to date has been disjointed and with decidedly mixed results. If President Obama doesn’t soon jettison his ideological blinders about the threat of international terrorism, we could see a series of further attacks — not unlike the 1990s series that culminated in the 9/11 strikes.
Obama has attempted verbally and politically to narrowly define the terrorist threat in order to declare victory. In his acceptance speech, for example, he said: “I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. We have.” By continually restricting and narrowing “terrorism” to al Qaeda in Waziristan (thereby excluding the Taliban, al Qaeda components elsewhere and in fact nearly everyone except bin Laden’s own cadre), the administration hoped to reach the point where it could proclaim the war on terror finished.
Yet events in Libya, Mali and now Algeria have shredded that budding myth, at a tragic cost in human life.
By demanding the release of terrorists imprisoned in America in exchange for their hostages, the Algerian marauders in particular demonstrated that we are still top of mind in the terrorist world.
In Libya, Obama walked away after Moammar Khadafy’s overthrow. Terrorists took root, leading to the Benghazi tragedy. Meanwhile, Khadafy’s mercenaries fled, carving out a sanctuary in Mali that radicals from around the world could use as a safe haven. And in Algeria, where the military fought a bloody civil war 20 years ago against Islamicists, the embers flared again.
One terrorist attack didn’t cause another, but the correlation of forces underlying these mortal threats now stands unambiguously exposed. Khadafy’s overthrow, touted by Obama’s White House as vindication of its Middle East policies, has simply exposed the reality that the terrorist threat had metastasized well beyond bin Laden. Killing him and al Qaeda leaders in Waziristan hasn’t reduced threats that now grow daily: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb; Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in Iraq — the list of thriving franchises continues to grow.
And when the Taliban recapture power in Afghanistan, as Obama’s policies are almost surely guaranteeing, we can count on al Qaeda re-emerging there as well.
The hostage-taking at BP’s In Amenas natural-gas facility was purportedly in retaliation for Algeria permitting French military over-flights in support of their mission against the Mali terrorist enclave, as was the little-reported execution of a French hostage in Somalia. But the terrorist attack in Algeria certainly required extensive prior preparation.
Moreover, while hostage-taking was its most salient objective, it is quite significant that the terrorists assaulted a critical economic target. Oil and gas production is central to Algeria’s economy; if energy facilities there are now targets, others around the region will soon be as well — with potentially sizable effects on volatile energy prices. And the affair may presage broader attacks on infrastructure, financial institutions or Western economic targets.
Yet the massive defense cuts of Obama’s first term (with another $500 billion looming through sequestration) will substantially reduce America’s ability to project force internationally to protect our interests. Europe is in even worse shape: Even though France’s Mali operation is in its colonial backyard, Paris’s capacity to continue for an extended period is doubtful.
If the terrorists can hold their own, they can plan and stage operations worldwide. Timbuktu may sound far away, but it’s only two plane rides from Manhattan. Precisely because terrorism doesn’t operate through corporate hierarchies or military command-and-control structures, we can’t easily “decapitate” it. Al Qaeda isn’t simply an organization but an excrescence of extremist ideology that has swept across the Middle East and beyond.
Under Obama, the United States is whistling past the graveyard while the Middle East descends into chaos. Beyond North Africa, the wars in Syria and Yemen wind on. The Arab Spring, far from yielding peaceful alternatives to al-Qaeda-style terrorism, has instead become an adjunct and even an enabler of terrorism — with radical Islamism in power in Egypt and threatening regimes friendly to the United States.
Now safely re-elected, will Obama care even less about external threats to America than he did previously? We have a long four years ahead. And our adversaries know it well.
John R. Bolton is a former US ambassador to the United Nations. This column was published in the New York Post.