Bruce Hoffman on the fight against al Qaeda

This is a little late as Hoffman’s article is from April, but his take on the US’ strategy, or lack thereof, to deal with al Qaeda and allied Islamist terror groups, is a must read. There are far too many points made in the article to list here, so read the whole thing. Two items really stuck out, however, and are highlighted below.

First, Hoffman launches a devastating critique of the continued insistence that al Qaeda is in its dying gasps. This started with the Bush administration and continues today in the Obama administration.

Our leaders have made matters worse by turning counterterrorism into a numbers game in their location du jour. Successive administrations now battle one another for bragging rights over who has killed more senior al-Qaeda leaders using unmanned aerial drones. The result is that, largely based on these numbers, senior Bush and Obama officials and their intelligence chiefs repeatedly trumpet al-Qaeda’s demise when the evidence suggests otherwise.

In an interview with the Washington Post in May 2008, for instance, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden heralded al-Qaeda’s “near strategic defeat” in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and cited “significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally.” Then, shortly after President Obama took office, senior intelligence officers were similarly quoted by National Public Radio claiming that the movement’s ranks had been “decimated” and that al-Qaeda was “really, really struggling” as a result of what was described as “a significant, significant degradation of al-Qaeda command and control.”

These upbeat assessments continued throughout last summer and fall when the intensified unmanned-aerial-drone attacks authorized by President Obama were credited with having eliminated over half of al-Qaeda’s remaining senior leadership. “Al-Qaeda is under more pressure, is facing more challenges, and is a more vulnerable organization than at any time since the attacks on 11 September 2001,” Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, declared last September.

Then came the Christmas Day plot and only days later the suicide attack on a U.S. military base in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven key CIA operatives. Indeed, these developments, among others, prompted the director of national intelligence, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency all to agree in response to a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein when they testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence this February that al-Qaeda is virtually “certain” to attempt to attack the United States within the next six months.

Yet within weeks the administration was back on message when the director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, returned to the familiar claim that the Predator attacks “are seriously disrupting al-Qaeda.” “It’s pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting,” Panetta stated in March, “that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run.”

It seems the claims by successive administrations are repeated every one to two years, and the media by and large report these statements uncritically. Interestingly, but not surprising in the least, the Obama administration announced recently that “about a half of Al Qaeda has been eliminated.” See this Threat Matrix post from the other day addressing that statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Just days later, CIA Director Leon Panetta backed Gibbs.

Second, Hoffman makes a point that I often make on the radio and have made here at Threat Matrix in the past. He states that the US’ over-reliance on Predator strikes to defeat al Qaeda in northwestern Pakistan is merely a tactic and cannot be relied on alone to defeat al Qaeda:

No one denies that the drone program has been effective in making the lives of al-Qaeda’s leaders far more difficult by forcing them to pay ever-more attention to their own security and survival. It is, of course, essential to the war against terrorism. Rather, the point is to emphasize that a lone tactic has never proven successful in defeating a terrorist organization. And the drone program is just a tactic; it is not a strategy. At the end of the day, the unmanned Predator and Reaper attacks can hold al-Qaeda at bay and disrupt its operations, but they can neither eliminate the network entirely nor completely neutralize the threat that it poses.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Charu says:

    AQ is certainly not dead. It has only morphed into becoming a Pakistani Punjabi operation. Contrary to popular belief, Afghanistan is not a graveyard for empires; it has been invaded, conquered and dominated by many groups in the past, from the Macedonians down to the Sikhs. The issue always had been that there was little value to hold on to the territory. However, the “discovery”of its mineral wealth might now provide some added motivation, if ridding it of AQ and from reemerging as a state-sponsored incubator for terrorism was not enough. As with Iraq, Afghanistan will be better served by providing regional autonomy to its various ethnic groups, especially if the mineral wealth is not in Pashtun territory. The Pashtuns, in turn , should be allowed to reclaim their territories in Pakistan. The region (and the civilized world) would be better served if other ethnic minorities in Pakistan were also provided more autonomy. The Pakistani Punjabis, like the Iraqi Sunnis, would be less able to carry out their delusions of grandeur as a rump state-within-a-state.

  • I must commend Dr. Hoffman for an illuminating and forthright piece. His clarion call must be listened to.
    By the way, Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson published a similar piece in National Interest in 2004.
    My respect for Mr. Hoffman jumped a few fold by the implied admission in the article that he and his academic colleagues have failed to come up with a viable “

  • ds65 says:

    Interesting blog post. I don’t think I disagree with any of it. I’d add two things I didn’t like were 1) after the Christmas Day bomber the comment that the “system worked” by Sec. Napolitano and 2) the Times Square bomber, appeared to be a “lone wolf.”
    Both were just obvious attempts to comfort people, but esp. with the Christmas Day bomber making that claim when TTP had posted a video claiming responsibility that was timestamped prior to the attack by about 1 day or so (i.e. not weeks ahead of time which could more easily be a coincidence) was just such an absurd thing to say and it makes me nervous that Homeland Sec. doesn’t take non-qaeda groups seriously enough just because they haven’t been successful in the past.
    One thing I would point out is that I’m not sure either the Bush or Obama administrations would disagree with the article – like the previous poster rightly said the academics don’t have a grand strategy either. Seems it’s just a difficult problem.

  • Mike S says:

    I follow Hoffman’s articles and editorials closely due to his immense knowledge on the subject. However, I am consistently disappointed by his lack of distinction between al-Qaeda senior leadership and the other parts of the global jihadist movement. Hoffman uses the blanket term “al-Qaeda” to describe lone-wolfs, regional affiliates, and senior leadership in Pakistan. This is extremely misleading. He would be better served by breaking down each component and discussing them individually. For someone who continually criticizes others for their lack of understanding, Hoffman’s misuse of the terminology is particularly troublesome.


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