Closing the book on a deceptive narrative about the al Qaeda threat
Weekly Standard, THE MAGAZINE: From the February 6 Issue – by Stephen Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn, January 27, 2017:
Less than 24 hours before the official end of the Obama presidency, while White House staffers were pulling pictures off the walls and cleaning out their desks, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) posted without fanfare another installment of the documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s compound during the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The press statement that accompanied the release made an unexpected declaration: This batch of newly released documents would be the last one. “Closing the Book on Bin Laden: Intelligence Community Releases the Final Abbottabad Documents,” the statement was headlined. According to a tally on the ODNI website, this last batch of 49 documents brings the total number released to 571.
For analysts who have paid attention to the Abbottabad documents, the numbers immediately caused alarm. For years, the Obama administration told the American people that the haul from the bin Laden compound was massive and important. In an interview on Meet the Press just days after the raid, Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, said the material could fill “a small college library.” A senior military intelligence official who briefed reporters at the Pentagon on May 7, 2011, said: “As a result of the raid, we’ve acquired the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.” Sources who have described the cache to THE WEEKLY STANDARD over the years have claimed that the number of captured documents, including even extraneous materials and duplicates, totals more than 1 million.
Can it really be the case that this release “closes the book”? The short answer: No, it can’t.
“[Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper and the old administration may want this to be closed, but it’s far from closed,” says Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). “Now the truth will begin to come out. It’s just the beginning.”
The documents have been at the center of an intense, five-year political battle between Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration, and an equally pitched bureaucratic battle between the Central Intelligence Agency and ODNI on one side, and U.S. military intelligence agencies on the other. The Obama administration and the intelligence community leaders who have been loyal to the president argue that the document collection provided valuable intelligence in the days after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but that what remains is unimportant and, in any case, supports the Obama administration’s approach to al Qaeda and jihadist terror over the past eight years. Republicans and military intelligence officials have a different view: Used properly, the document collection can serve as an important tool in understanding al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals—their history, their ideology, their structure, their operations, and even, five years on, their plans—not only for U.S. intelligence officials, but for lawmakers, historians, and the American public.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have pushed to have the documents declassified and released as part of an effort to hold the Obama administration accountable for its relentless politicization of intelligence on al Qaeda and threats to the United States and its interests. Based on his conversations with analysts who have worked on the documents, Nunes believes that many of those not yet released will contradict Obama administration claims about al Qaeda, its relationships, and its operations.
In 2014, Nunes fought to include language in the Intelligence Authorization Act requiring the declassification and release of the bin Laden documents. The law mandated the release of all documents in the collection that could be disclosed without hurting U.S. national security. The intelligence community was required to specify any documents deemed too sensitive to release publicly and offer an explanation justifying that decision. Nunes says he has not yet received such an explanation for any of the tens of thousands of documents withheld from the public.
Why do the documents still matter? Over the course of eight years, President Obama and his advisers repeatedly downplayed the jihadist threat. The story of how bin Laden’s documents were mischaracterized and mishandled offers important insights into how the administration pushed a deceptive narrative about al Qaeda and its branches around the globe. The jihadist threat grew—not diminished—over the course of the Obama administration. To this day, America and its allies continue to fight al Qaeda everywhere from West Africa to South Asia.
Because of its barbarism, massive land grabs, and multiple attacks in the West, the Islamic State (ISIS) dominates headlines these days. The Islamic State makes itself easy to see. But al Qaeda, the organization that birthed ISIS, is still alive and thriving, often masking the extent of its operations and influence. Since 2011, al Qaeda has grown rapidly in jihadist hotspots such as Syria, where today the group has 10,000 or more fighters, its largest guerrilla army yet.
Al Qaeda’s resiliency was a terribly inconvenient fact for President Obama, who won his first campaign arguing that George W. Bush had exaggerated the threat from jihadist terror and had fought jihadists with means that were both unnecessary and un-American. Obama scaled back such operations across the board—ending the war in Iraq, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, rewriting U.S. interrogation and detention policies, and releasing high-risk terrorists from the facility at Guantánamo Bay. When he ran for reelection, he told the American people that al Qaeda was “on the run” and had been “decimated.” His advisers sought to downgrade the nature of the threat to one of “violent extremists” and “lone wolf” attacks. Obama sold his efforts against al Qaeda as something close to a total victory.
“Today, by any measure, core al Qaeda—the organization that hit us on 9/11—is a shadow of its former self,” President Obama claimed on December 6, 2016, during his final counterterrorism speech. “Plots directed from within Afghanistan and Pakistan have been consistently disrupted. Its leadership has been decimated. Dozens of terrorist leaders have been killed. Osama bin Laden is dead.”
Some of this is certainly true: Osama bin Laden is dead, dozens of other jihadist leaders have been killed, and plots have been disrupted. But by most measures, al Qaeda is bigger today than ever. The organization and its branches are fighting in insurgencies in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Obama briefly mentioned al Qaeda’s “branches” in some of these countries during his speech, but he left Americans with the impression that al Qaeda has been reduced to a nuisance—if that.
Obama said nothing about al Qaeda’s massive force in Syria. But the U.S. military has reported that U.S. attacks killed upwards of 150 “al Qaeda operatives” in Syria during the first weeks of 2017.
Obama’s public case on his success against al Qaeda centered on what he calls “core al Qaeda,” which neither he nor his advisers ever bothered to define precisely. The phrase seems to refer to the senior al Qaeda leaders based in South Asia, and specifically those who had a hand in the 9/11 hijackings. Most of the 9/11 plotters, as it happens, were killed or captured during the Bush administration. Obama was right that “dozens” of other “core” al Qaeda jihadists have been killed in drone strikes and raids during his tenure. But those leaders have been replaced, in some cases by men who have proven even more effective in building the terror group’s global network and guiding its transnational efforts.
How many senior al Qaeda leaders were there at the beginning of his administration, in January 2009? How many are there today? Obama never answered these rudimentary questions—he never provided basic metrics to measure his own claims. But the fact that U.S. military and CIA officials continued to fire missiles at al Qaeda operatives around the globe on a regular basis, at the direction of a president who claimed to have defeated al Qaeda, suggests that Obama understood his rhetoric didn’t match reality.
Which brings us back to the bin Laden files. There is no better resource for understanding al Qaeda, how it thinks and operates, at least through 2011, than the intelligence recovered in its founder’s compound. For this reason, and others, the Trump administration should ensure that the ODNI doesn’t get to close the book on bin Laden’s files.