US President Barack Obama with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. (AFP/Getty Images)
For several years, Obama and his top national security aides have talked publicly of an al-Qaida greatly diminished by US armed drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the emergence of affiliate groups mostly focused on attacks in Southwest Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
In a landmark speech on his targeted-killing program last May, Obama described al-Qaida’s core cell and leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan as “on the path to defeat.” The commander in chief said al-Qaida’s “remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.”
“They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston,” Obama said. “They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.”
Obama also made clear that he and his top advisers see an al-Qaida focused less on attacks in the United States.
“While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based,” Obama said at the time. “And that means we’ll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria, in which local operatives — perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks — launch periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies and other soft targets, or resort to kidnapping and other criminal enterprises to fund their operations.”
In his State of the Union address a few weeks ago, Obama again described a weakened al-Qaida, although he did acknowledge “the threat has evolved, as al-Qaida affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world” like “Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Mali.”
When describing the role of any American and NATO forces that will remain in Afghanistan after this year, Obama said one of the primary missions would be “counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida.”
In that address, Obama again said “we have put al-Qaida’s core leadership on a path to defeat.”
Obama also vowed to take America “off a permanent war footing.”
But during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn offered a different assessment.
Under questioning on that topic from panel Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., Clapper described al-Qaida as “morphing,” with new groups popping up in North Africa.
Flynn replied, “they are not,” when asked by Inhofe if al-Qaida is, as Obama has said, on a path to defeat and on the run.
Clapper seemed to downplay his own warnings about the threat to the United States posed by so-called al-Qaida affiliates when he said such organizations are not currently plotting attacks on “the homeland.” But he keeps them on his lengthy threat list simply because one day, “they could.”
Obama sees al-Qaida groups outside Afghanistan and Pakistan as focused on the countries in which they operate and not on attacking America. When asked by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whether the emergence of new Islamic extremist groups in Syria increases the threat of attacks on the US homeland, Clapper said yes.
No panel members pressed Clapper on this seeming disconnect with his boss.
In his written testimony, Clapper stated that regarding “core al-Qa’ida” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a number of factors have put it “on a downward trajectory since 2008.” The group now possesses “a degraded … ability to carry out a catastrophic attack against the US homeland and eroded its position as leader of the global violent extremist movement.”
Where Obama describes a mostly defeated core al-Qaida, Clapper warns it is poised for a comeback.
“It probably hopes for a resurgence following the drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan in 2014,” the DNI told the Senate panel.
Meantime, panel Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., pressed the duo on whether the situation in Afghanistan would be improved if Washington and its allies simply announced it would wait for a new Afghan president before again pushing for finalization of a long-term security pact between the two countries that would keep US forces there into 2015 and beyond.
“The United States and the Coalition of which we are a part would be better off waiting for [Hamid] Karzai’s successor to sign the agreement the Afghan people favor, as reflected by the consensus of the 3,000-member Loya Jirga,” Levin said.
Clapper revealed he believes Karzai will not sign the security pact before he leaves office later this year.
The DNI said that waiting this long to finalize the agreement already has yielded “negative trends,” such as an exodus of foreign investment in Afghanistan.
On Iran, Clapper remained in lockstep with the White House, telling the Senate committee that the US intelligence community has concluded new sanctions against Iran would be “counterproductive” to ongoing multilateral talks aimed at convincing Tehran to give up its atomic-arms program.
Some Republicans and a declining number of Democrats on Capitol Hill want to vote soon on a measure that would slap new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear-arms desires.
The White House is lobbying hard against such a vote in one or both chambers.