Political fallout for Obama building from terror threat

Well what do you know. The press is actually remembering what President Obama said about al-Qaeda during the 2012 election and is wondering, like the Wall Street Journal's Brett Stephens, about "The Al-Qaeda Obama Forgot":

In May, Barack Obama told an audience at the National Defense University that the core of al Qaeda was "on the path to defeat." The "future of terrorism," Mr. Obama predicted, would involve "more localized threats," on the order of "the types of attacks we faced before 9/11," such as the 1988 Lockerbie bombing or the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. "Dealt with smartly and proportionately," he added, "these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11." He ended by calling for repeal of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force--Congress's declaration of war on al Qaeda.

On Monday, the front page of The Wall Street Journal ran with this headline: "Regrouped al Qaeda Poses Global Threat." The second shortest distance in Washington now runs between an Obama speech and its empirical disproof.

The news, of course, is that 19 U.S. embassies and consulates in Africa and the Middle East will be shuttered until Saturday. This is on account of electronic intercepts of terrorist communications, collected by Edward Snowden's former employers at the National Security Agency and described by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) as "very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11." Vice President Joe Biden has delivered closed-door briefings to Congress; Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) has warned the attacks could come in Europe, the U.S., or as "a series of combined attacks"; Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) calls the threat "a big deal."

After 11 years of taking our shoes off at airports, seven years of being forced to throw away tubes of toothpaste and cans of hair spray, five years of assuming the surrender position at the X-ray machine, three years of don't-touch-my-junk anthems, eight seasons of TV's "24" and two seasons of "Homeland," it takes a lot to get Americans worked up about a speculative terrorist threat. If Mr. Durbin says the threat is a big deal, it is.

Then again, it's also a big deal that the executive branch of government has been operating on a contrary set of assumptions. Yes, the president's May speech contained all the required caveats about the abiding terrorist threat and the continued need for vigilance. But the gist of the address was clear, as was its purpose: to declare the war on terror won--or won well-enough--and go home. Facts and analysis were arranged to suit the policy goal. But the facts and analysis were wrong.

President Obama won two elections by saying that the anti-terror policies of George Bush were wrong - worse than wrong, they were a danger to American liberty.

As has been pointed out numerous times, the president's actions have belied those words. And that includes the terror alert this past weekend, for which George Bush was raked over the coals when he upped the alert status using the infamous Homeland Security color codes. Obama is praised for his caution.

But, as The Hill reports, the political fallout from these alerts is causing people to question Obama's entire national security record:

While experts say the conflict in Syria and reverberations from the Arab Spring have provided new fuel to extremists groups, the White House insists al Qaeda remains far weaker than it was when Obama took office.

"There is no question over the past several years al Qaeda core has been greatly diminished, not least because of the elimination of Osama bin Laden," Carney said at Monday's White House press briefing. 

Carney noted that the administration has made a distinction between al Qaeda and its offshoots.

"As al Qaeda's core has been diminished through the efforts of the United States and our allies, affiliate organizations, including in particular, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have strengthened. We have here in Washington have identified AQAP in particular as the dangerous threat," Carney said.

Obama made claims of a weakened al Qaeda central to his 2012 campaign, repeatedly claiming the group was "decimated" after a SEAL team raided bin Laden's compound.

"We have gone after the terrorists who actually attacked us 9/11 and decimated al Qaeda," he said at one September 2012 campaign event.

Experts in terrorism and the Middle East say that al Qaeda's central organization in Pakistan has been diminished by U.S. drone strikes, which Obama has used to take out key leaders.

But in the place of the old al Qaeda, groups like AQAP, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have emerged under the terror group's umbrella.

"It's certainly true that the core al Qaeda power has declined, and the movement as a whole is certainly far less capable of undertaking a 9/11-type attack," said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies. "It's a more diffused threat and a different threat, but also a highly consequential one."

This particular threat also gives the lie to Obama's soothing words about the decline of al-Qaeda.