It is no secret in Washington that US President Barack Obama shuns the “terrorist” label like the plague. His administration therefore misses alerts and, when beset by an onrush of unforeseen events, its spokesmen issue vague, noncommittal and often embarrassingly conflicting statements.
The overall impression conveyed is of a foreign policy floating high above the storm-tossed ground in some private presidential corner of the stratosphere where multilateral diplomacy cures all.
Wednesday, Sept. 19, the Counterterrorism Center’s Director Matthew Olsen visibly struggled with the dissonance between his job and his government’s policies. Pinned to the wall by Sen. Joe Lieberman at the Senate Homeland Security Committee, he admitted that the deadly assault on the US consulate in the Libyan town of Benghazi, which left four US diplomats dead, was “a terrorist attack.”
But he immediately qualified this by saying it was probably not a pre-planned operation but “an opportunistic attack on our embassy” by “individuals who may have had connections to Al Qaeda…in particular, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
Olsen was clearly fighting a rearguard action after the official line put out for seven days was that the outrage was only part of the spontaneous protest sweeping the region over the anti-Islam film produced in California.
Al Qaeda naturally had no part in this official narrative.
Muddled US responses go back three years
The difficulty of fighting terrorism without saying these words out loud – least of all admitting that the Al Qaeda was still virulently active – came into prominence three years ago in the case of the Underwear Bomber.
Only because Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate his explosives were the lives spared of 289 Americans aboard Northwest Airlines flight 53 en route from Amsterdam to Detroit.
On February 16, 2012, Abdulmutallab was convicted of eight criminal counts, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But he never would have been on the plane in the first place if someone had heeded his own father’s warning Nov. 19, 2009 to two CIA officers at the US Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. He warned that Umar was in the grip of extreme religious views and was likely to be in Yemen preparing terrorist attacks on US targets.
Yet his name was not added to any US terrorist watch bases, including the No Fly List. And even his US visa was not revoked.
The muddle subsequent to this episode is still rampant.
Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said then that the (American security and intelligence) system had "worked,” only to acknowledge the next day that the US aviation security system had failed.
President Obama then ordered a review of detection and watch list procedures, saying that "totally unacceptable" systemic and human failures had occurred.
No terror and no advance warning
Yet three years later, on the night of September 11, 2012, a gang of gunmen murdered US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, along with Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, former Navy SEAL commandos employed as diplomatic security officers, and Sean Smith, an information management officer.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources report that the 20-30 handpicked attackers had been in training for this operation for months inside Libya – at the eastern town of Derna. They regarded the mission as the highest honor their faith and movement could bestow on them. They trained in hiding amongst members of the radical Ansar al-Shariah Brigade headed by Mohammed Ali al-Zahawy which, contrary to all denials, is part of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb-AQIM.
The Obama administration knew all this when the order was handed down to its spokesman to forcefully deny any advance warning had been received of the murderous attack to come – and on no account call it a terrorist act.
State Department officials obeyed this directive when denying American diplomats had died in an act of terror Monday, Sept. 17.
As for prior warning, on Sept. 10, twenty-four hours before the Benghazi attack, Al Qaeda released a video, on which Ayman al-Zawahiri confirmed the death of his second-in-command Abu Yahiya Al Libi after four months’ silence. He urged all Libyans to avenge his death.
Why Obama ties himself in knots over Islamist terror
The terrorists waiting at Derna knew this was their signal to go into action in Benghazi.
Within minutes, all Western and Middle East counter-terror agencies understood that if al Qaeda was going public on an operation that meant it had started – excepting the US intelligence and monitoring agencies operating in Libya. They missed this alarm signal and so no warning of an imminent Al Qaeda attack went out to US embassies, institutions and units in the Middle East and Africa – until it was too late.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly offers some of the causes for the Obama White House’s predilection to tie itself in knots over matters related to terror and Islam:
1. Barack Obama had hoped to be allowed to bask in the kudos of his bold decision to dispatch the SEALs unit to kill al Qaeda’s founder and brain Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. It was to be admired as peaking the mortal combat against the jihadists who perpetrated 9/11. But admitting that on his watch, al Qaeda had managed to murder a US ambassador, a decade-old ambition cherished by the jihads and hitherto foiled, would confirm that Al Qaeda is still alive and kicking and so diminish his crowning achievement.
To rub it in, Al Qaeda in Northern Africa (AQAM) announced that the Benghazi attack on the US ambassador would be replicated in other African countries.
2. The murder of Ambassador Stevens was a lot crueler and more barbaric than its description. He was not killed by a rocket but by a lynch mob. Our sources will spare readers details of the atrocity except to say that there was a passing resemblance to the way in which Muammar Qaddafi was done to death on Oct. 20, 2011.
This is partly because ex-Libyan intelligence agents were willing to abet al Qaeda in order to avenge Qaddafi’s death.
Survivors of deposed Arab regimes make common cause with al Qaeda
3. Libya, in whose liberation the Obama administration had a stake, is the first post-Arab revolt country to offer a stage for remnants of the deposed regime to play ball with al Qaeda against US interests.
Our intelligence and counterterrorism experts say it won’t be the last. Similar manifestations are taking shape in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.
Each of the parties to this burgeoning partnership appreciates that neither can beat America on its own. But they can make life very hard for the United States if they combine their resources by, say, pooling intelligence, exchanging combat techniques, sharing information about sophisticated weapons caches, swapping the identities of former secret agents and exploiting their newfound freedom to rally the masses to their flags for anti-US street action.
4. Washington cannot publicly own up to what is really going on in these volatile areas without facing the charge that Obama’s Arab and Muslim policies are not working. Even their linchpin, the supposedly “moderate, pro-American” Muslim Brotherhood regimes, are a letdown. They are not tempted by rewards such as the US outreach to Muslims, economic aid, or even the gradual US withdrawal from its historic friendship with Israel.
By acknowledging these disappointments, President Obama would have to admit that his policies have not only run riot but are shaking the foundations of America’s entire strategic global posture.
The Muslim Brotherhood on the horns of a dilemma
5. Lacking ways and means to abort the dangerous partnerships taking shape between Al Qaeda and ancien régime elements, the Obama administration is forced to watch as the supposedly “moderate” Muslim regimes he espoused seriously weigh their choices:
They can walk hand in hand with the US and let Al Qaeda, the Salafis, the Jihadists and the remnants of ousted regimes form a united front against them. Or they can go against America and try to break up the radical front by getting close to some of its factions.
The second course would write the closing chapter to the saga of American influence in the Arab Revolt and may already be a work in progress.
6. The developments reported here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's exclusive sources are beginning to catch up with the administration. That is why President Obama said on Thursday, Sept.13, right after the death of the American ambassador in Benghazi, that the US would consider Egypt neither as an ally nor an enemy.
In an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo, he said Egypt is "a new government that is trying to find its way."
But he also warned that if the Egyptian government takes actions showing "they're not taking responsibility, it would be a real big problem."
Egyptian President Morsi pushed into a choice
It was generally assumed that the president was putting the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo on probation on its handling of the anti-US Islamist riots over the film mocking Islam made in California.
But Obama was thinking in broader terms: Tuesday, September 18, the administration leaked to the Washington media a report that in consequence of the violent disturbances – and the Cairo government’s irresolute response – it had been decided to put on ice the discussions between Washington and Cairo for granting Egypt $1 billion in urgent debt relief and millions more of aid dollars.
Administration sources made it clear that Egypt could expect no more assistance to be approved until after the November 6 presidential election.
President Mohamed Morsi was thus plunked squarely betwixt and between two choices: Go with the Salafis and Egyptian Islamic Jihad and lose America – or opt for alliance with the United States
7. None of these events explains why the intelligence data reaching Washington about an imminent Al Qaeda attack at least two days before it happened was not conveyed to Ambassador Stevens and he was allowed to travel to Benghazi.
Was it a case of conceptual blindness, or intelligence blindness?