US pulls back on fight against al-Qaeda and terrorists
UNITED STATES President Barrack Obama’s declaration to end the ‘Global war on terrorism’ launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush following the 2001 terrorist attacks on mainland America and its twin towers, was more than a shift in rhetoric.
The White House has been trying to scale back the scope of its global counter-terrorism activities ever since the president’s remarks in May 2010.
That trend is unlikely to change in the absence of ‘game-changing’ revelations from the terrorist investigation into the April 15, 2013, bombing at the Boston Marathon.
What is at issue, during President Obama’s second term, is whether the transformation reflects a shift in focus or just a dissipation of effort.
President Obama said in May 2010: ‘(We) are at war with a specific network, al-Qaeda, and its terrorist affiliates who support efforts to attack the United States, our allies, and partners’.
Those words were sharply reflected in US counter-terrorism operations by the end of Mr Obama’s first term.
The lion’s share of US overseas’ operations were directed at the leadership of al-Qaeda and its operational activities. They were aimed at declared affiliates too, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa, who were attempting to organise attacks directly on the US or its allies.
The weakening of al-Qaeda ‘central’, combined with the success of domestic security activities, has allowed the White House to make the case that scaling back global counter-terrorism operations is a reasonable and responsible course of action.
There are many indicators that this trend will continue.
During his Congressional testimony prior to Senate confirmation as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), John Brennan promised that ‘one of his highest priorities’ would be to review controversial counter-terrorism activities including detention, rendition, and drone-strikes.
Mr Brennan, also said, during his confirmation hearings, that the CIA ‘should not be doing traditional military activities and operations’. He also told senators he would consider a ‘reallocation’ of missions and that the CIA’s role in tracking down and killing terrorists in recent years was an ‘aberration’ from its traditional mission.
There are other more subtle signs as well. The National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC), which was established specifically to lead the global US effort, has been steadily winding down some activities. For example, in 2012 the NCTC discontinued the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System. It has also begun to reduce its programme on countering violent extremism.
Washington has been able to justify its success in combating global terrorism in part by narrowing the definition of what it worries about.
The US, for example, is in the process of disengaging from direct counter-terrorism activities in Iraq and Afghanistan even as al-Qaeda and its affiliates are ramping up activities.
It has been widely reported that al-Qaeda in Iraq has merged with the al-Nusrah Front in Syria to create the ‘Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’.
The US has claimed ‘progress’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan largely by ignoring the activities of affiliate groups engaged in terrorist activities, who may not be directly targeting US forces.
Law enforcement officials in Kenya and Nigeria arrested plotters with ‘links to Iran’ in 2012. These had planned to attack US targets, but the US has not launched major operations against these groups.
The US administration’s public assessments of the terror bombings during the Boston Marathon offer little to suggest that the White House will shift tactics in its counter-terrorism efforts. The remarkably well-organised response and investigation significantly assuaged public concerns.
It is unlikely that there will be significant pressure on the administration to do much differently unless further investigation reveals a serious lapse which could have prevented the attack or a demonstrable link to a transnational terrorist group.
The global terrorist threats which may one day turn on America and its allies seem a diminishing priority for Washington at present.
That may reflect growing drift in the government’s counter-terrorism operations or an assessment that these threats just do not represent enough cause for concern right now.