Whereas in his first term as president, Barack Obama opted for “leading from behind,” in international military operations, he enters his second term – even before being sworn in this week – by expanding this step-back precept into American isolationism proper – even when it comes to countering Islamist terrorism.
debkafile’s analysts note that this stance was heralded in December 2012 by his abrupt order to the USS Eisenhower strike group and the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group to withdraw from stations opposite Syria.
Washington had already then decided to ignore the Syrian chemical war threat, and brush aside the report from the US consul in Istanbul that the Syrian ruler Bashad Assad had already fired chemical bombs against rebels.
And so French military intervention in Mali on Jan. 12 and Al Qaeda’s massive attack on an international Algerian gas field four days later found the United States without a single carrier, landing vessel or marine force anywhere in the vicinity, to be available for aiding in the rescue of scores of Western hostages from ten countries, including the United States.
The USS John Stennis carrier is the only vessel left at a Middle East battle station. It is tied down at the Strait of Hormuz to secure the flow of Gulf oil to the West.
It is therefore hardly surprising to find Pentagon and top US military experts leveling sharp criticism at the White House’s policy of non-intervention in the Mali conflict, where France is fighting alone, or in Algeria’s In Amenas gas field, where Algerian forces are battling a multinational al Qaeda assault and multiple hostage-taking raid for the third day.
The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday, Jan. 20 that the sharp debate between the Pentagon and White House is over the “danger posed by a mix of Islamist militant groups, some with murky ties to Al Qaeda that are creating havoc in West Africa” and whether they present enough of a risk to US allies and interests to warrant a military response.
Many of Obama's top aides say “it is unclear whether the Mali insurgents, who include members of the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, threaten the US.”
As to the question, “What threat do they pose to the US homeland? The answer so far has been none.”
Some top Pentagon officials and military officers warn that without more aggressive US action, Mali could become a haven for extremists, akin to Afghanistan before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
debkafile’s counterterrorism sources report that these assertions are misleading.
Whereas the US homeland may not be in immediate peril from the Mali and Algeria episodes, it is important to remember the far-reaching interconnectivity of al Qaeda’s operations. Seven years ago, the suicidal jihads who on July 7, blew up London trains and a bus, used explosives provided by the same Al Qaeda cells of Sahel Desert which are now threatening Mali and which struck the Algerian gas field.
No US official can guarantee that such explosives from the same source won’t be used in 2013 against American targets in Europe or be smuggled into the American homeland by al Qaeda cells in Europe.
The Algerian gas field hostage siege was carried out after all by a multinational group that included Algerians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, a Frenchman and a Malian.
It is true that Al Qaeda terrorists are engaged in vast smuggling rackets – especially of drugs and cigarettes – across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, as well arms trafficking through networks covering Egypt, Sinai, Arabia, the Gulf, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan – all of which are direct threats of US national security. But to write them off as criminals and smugglers is simplistic: “… some are diehard terrorists with more grandiose visions,” as Pentagon officials point out.
The way the Al Qaeda menace is being handled by Washington has a ripple effect in the wider context. Tehran and Damascus are avidly watching the Obama administration’s stand-aside stance on military involvement in external crises – even emergencies posed by the Al Qaeda terrorist threat encroaching on continental Europe and Africa and the Middle East up to and including the Persian Gulf.
Washington should therefore not be surprised when its diplomatic efforts – overt and secret – to rein in Iran’s military nuclear ambitions run into the sand. The Iranians know they have nothing to fear from the Obama administration. The next surprise, our Middle East sources are now reporting, will come from Damascus where, according to a hint President Bashar Assad threw out this week to his intimates.