Obama's Inheritance: Al-Qaeda in Retreat

By Thiessen, Marc A. | World Affairs, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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Obama's Inheritance: Al-Qaeda in Retreat


Thiessen, Marc A., World Affairs


In a widely noted speech at the National Archives in May, President Barack Obama said of George W. Bush's national security policies: "We are cleaning up something that is quite simply a mess." The president is wrong. Far from a mess, when it comes to national security, President Obama actually inherited a very strong hand from his predecessor. When Bush left office in January, America had marked 2,688 days without suffering another terrorist attack on its soil, an outcome that seemed all but impossible when the smoke cleared on September 12, 2001. Despite repeated attempts, al-Qaeda failed in its efforts to strike the U.S. again--because Bush kept its leaders on their heels and left them increasingly defeated and discredited on battlefronts across the globe.

To understand exactly how strong Obama's hand is on national security, one needs only to compare the situation today to the one Bush inherited when he arrived at the White House. In 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, and had turned that country over to al-Qaeda to train terrorists and plan attacks. Pakistan was one of the only countries in the world that recognized the Taliban regime, but the United States was not actively working with that country's leaders or its military to shut down al-Qaeda's operations. Saudi Arabia had turned a blind eye to facilitators within its own borders who were providing recruits, money, religious justification, and logistical support to al-Qaeda. In Southeast Asia, a terrorist network called Jemaah Islamiyah was growing in strength and collaborating with al-Qaeda on attacks planned for the American homeland.

The terrorists were engaged in a virtually unimpeded offensive. They had launched a string of attacks against America: the first effort to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993; the murder of nineteen American airmen at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three years later; the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, causing the deaths of 17 American sailors. In none of these cases was there a forceful United States response.

Within weeks after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. special operations forces were on the ground in Afghanistan; and in less than a month they had destroyed the Taliban regime, and driven al-Qaeda from its sanctuary there. Following Afghanistan's liberation, America and its coalition partners captured or killed hundreds of al-Qaeda leaders, managers, and operatives in more than two dozen countries. Among them were most of al-Qaeda's top operational commanders--the senior leaders responsible for day-to-day planning of the terror group's activities across the globe:

* In November 2001, coalition forces killed al-Qaeda's number three leader, Muhammad Atif, with an air strike in Afghanistan;

* In March 2003, his replacement, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed(KSM)--the mastermind of 9/11--was captured in Pakistan;

* In May 2005, the man who took over for KSM as external operations chief, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, was captured in South Asia;

* In December 2005, al-Qaeda's next external operations chief, Hamza Rabia, was killed;

* In April 2006, another top external operations leader, Abd al-Rahman alMuhajir, was killed;

* In June 2006, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi was killed;

* In October 2006, another senior operational leader, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, was captured;

* And in Bush's final year in office, a string of at least six top al-Qaeda operational leaders reportedly met their end: Abu Layth al-Libi, killed in January 2008; Abu Sulayman al-Jaziri, killed in May 2008; Abu Khabab al-Masri, killed in July 2008; Khalid Habib, killed in October 2008; and Usama al-Kini, al-Qaeda's chief of operations in Pakistan, and his lieutenant, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, killed in January 2009.

These may not be household names--but that is only because they were eliminated before they could launch attacks that would have won them a place alongside Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the pantheon of mass murder.

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