Is Obama too sanguine about al Qaeda’s threat to the homeland?

Amidst all the straw men President Obama grappled with during his mushy commencement speech at West Point were a few serious points. One of them was this:

[T]he need for a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al Qaida leadership. Instead, it comes from decentralized Al Qaida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of U.S. personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi.

From this premise, Obama argued that our strategy should consist of partnering with and “empowering” governments that confront al Qaeda affiliates, but cannot consist of military intervention in such a wide array of countries.

Here, Obama was back to taking on straw men. Our anti-terrorism strategy has never consisted of intervening militarily in all or most countries where al Qaeda is present, and no one seriously claims that it should.

But what of Obama’s premise? Is our homeland substantially safer in a world where al Qaeda has become more decentralized?

Not necessarily. Pre-9/11, Osama bin Laden had local agendas. For example, he wanted to topple the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This did not preclude organizing a major deadly attack against the U.S.

Indeed, one can argue that 9/11 was, in part, an attempt to further bin Laden’s local agendas. For one thing, a successful attack against such a formidable foe would give al Qaeda a shot in the arm and boost bin Laden’s prestige as he pushed his local agendas. In addition, bin Laden may well have believed that the likely U.S. response to 9/11 — an attack against the Taliban in Afghanistan — would, if supported by Musharraf, destabilize Pakistan.

Today, al Qaeda affiliates might well perceive similar advantages from attacking the U.S. A successful attack would boost prestige, win new adherents, and provide primacy over rival terrorist organizations. It might also induce the government of whatever country the attack was planned in to take unpopular measures.

But we need not rely on hypothesis. Al Qaeda has planned attacks against the U.S. from Yemen. These include the failed attempt of the underwear bomber to bring down a U.S.-bound airliner, a plot to send mail bombs hidden in the toner cartridges on planes headed to the U.S., and planned attack on U.S. synagogues. U.S. intelligence officials reportedly believe that al Qaeda may still be planning attacks on the U.S. from Yemen.

There’s also the matter of what happens if al Qaeda succeeds with its local agenda. There may be periods when its operative have to devote their full attention to fighting for local supremacy. But if they gain it, or even just a safe harbor, they can turn their attention to the wider world, including the U.S., as bin Laden did from his safe harbor in Afghanistan.

Thus, Obama appears too sanguine about the consequences of al Qaeda’s decentralization.

Does this mean that we need to intervene militarily wherever al Qaeda has a local affiliate? Of course not. But it implies a higher level of military commitment than Obama seems to have in mind.

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