January 07, 2010

It's a War. Where's the Strategy?

Originally published in The Corner: National Review Online

The interagency report on the Christmas Day airplane bombing attempt issued by the White House today states that failing to “connect the dots” was the main reason for the failure to prevent the Christmas Day attack. Additionally, the report summary notes that intelligence community analysts spent December examining al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) threats against U.S. interests in Yemen and providing support to counterterrorism operations in Yemen, as opposed to focusing on AQAP threats against the American homeland. These analysis priorities apparently persisted despite an increasing shift in AQAP rhetoric during the fall suggesting that the organization was targeting the United States itself.

Al-Qaeda has an active strategy to fight America and its interests using its franchises and affiliates, who often follow through on threats of the type made by AQAP, in concert. The Christmas Day attack was carried out by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP is an al-Qaeda regional franchise — not a copycat cell and not a local proxy — that is in direct communication with al-Qaeda’s central leadership. The group’s efforts contribute to al-Qaeda’s long-term goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East and, indeed, globally. 

The global Islamist movement has franchises and affiliates all around the world — not just Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen — and the administration has not yet described a coherent and detailed strategy to combat them. Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups in Somalia and West Africa — particularly al Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — may pose threats to the United States and its interests as large or larger as AQAP does. These groups appear to be flying under the radar just as AQAP had for most of 2009. Like AQAP, al Shabaab has shown an ability to follow through on threats: In December 2009, it killed, via a suicide bombing, the Somali ministers of education and higher education, as well as dozens of others, at a college-graduation ceremony. Just three months earlier, the group warned against the use of “un-Islamic” educational materials. Like AQAP, al Shabaab’s rhetoric has increasingly singled out the West, moving beyond threats confined to Somalia alone.

America cannot afford to fight terror only with x-ray machines and visas, as the president has suggested. The Obama administration needs to develop, articulate, and implement a comprehensive strategy for defeating those terrorists and denying them safe havens.