Stress was placed on their Nigerian operative's failure to blow up a US airliner on its approach to Detroit on Christmas day, 2009. But fresh in people's minds are the deaths of seven high-ranking Central Intelligence Agency staffers at a CIA facility in Khost, Afghanistan on December 30 by the hand of a triple agent, the 18-hour siege the Taliban laid to Kabul on January 18, the terror alerts still in force on three continents (America, Asia, Europe, as well as the Middle East) and, finally, the emergence of Yemen as yet another al Qaeda front line against the West while battles are still unresolved in other arenas.
This tumble of disquieting events in less than a month has conjured up in western minds a vision of al Qaeda, as at least as sizeable, far-reaching and capable of massive mayhem as it was on Sept. 11, 2001.
This image was fostered inside America when a US major and military psychiatrist Malik Nidal shot dead 13 comrades inside the Fort Hood facility in Texas. Alarm bells should have been heard much earlier from his contacts with influential al-Qaeda figures based in Yemen.
Another episode was the discovery of an active al Qaeda-linked cell in Chicago which appeared to be running the back office for major international terrorist operations. Two Americans, David Coleman Headley, and Tahawwur Hussein Rana, both Chicago residents of Pakistani origin, were arrested in October 2009. They were accused of planning, gathering intelligence and targeting the Mumbai terror attack executed by al-Qaeda affiliate Lashkar e-Taiba in November 2008, costing the lives of 171 people and wounding over 500. They were also charged with a plot against the Danish paper which carried Mohammed cartoons.
Washington chorus rounds on al Qaeda
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Washington report that President Barack Obama was urgently warned by his intelligence and counter-terror experts, especially his top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, and director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, that the louring, ever-growing al-Qaeda specter has become so rooted in the public perception that no one but the president in person has the power to shift it.
Obama's inner circle, which includes his adviser David Axlerod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, fear that the powerful images of al-Qaeda and theTaliban are projecting an aura of weakness around the president and incompetence for dealing with terrorism.
The crunch came Saturday night, January 23, when al-Jazeera Arabic television aired a new audio tape by al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, taking responsibility for the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmoutallab's failed to blow up a Delta airliner, warning that more attacks were on the way and America would know no peace until the Palestinians had security.
That message galvanized the administration into a verbal counter-offensive.
Sunday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the Bin Laden message meant nothing except as a reminder that al-Qaeda remains a "catalyst" for terrorist attacks, for which he is "trying to continue to appear relevant."
This audiotape verifies "what we already know," he said. "By keeping the pressure on core al-Qaeda in the area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, bin Laden is left to try to jump on the bandwagon when an al Qaeda franchise attempts a strike, as happened on Christmas Day."
"Don't know if Bin Laden is bluffing, but should assume not”
White House adviser David Axelrod said on CNN that the message "contains the same hollow justification for the mass slaughter of innocents."
Speaking on Fox News, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "Nobody's had a chance to authenticate that tape." He went on to say: "Everybody in this world understands that this is somebody that has to pop up in our lives over an audiotape because he's nothing but a cowardly murderous thug and terrorist that will some day — hopefully soon — be brought to justice."
Tuesday, January 26, President Obama moved in to salvage his administration's public image versus al Qaeda. While there is "no doubt" that a terror threat persists, he said in an NBC broadcast interview, "Al-Qaeda itself is greatly weakened from where it was back in 2000."
Obama went on to say: "Bin Laden sending out a tape, trying to take credit for a Nigerian student, who engaged in a failed bombing attempt, is an indication of how weakened he is, because this is not something necessarily directed by him.".
DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism and al-Qaeda experts believe that the President is wrong.
The Bin Laden threat is grave and concrete. Trying to brush it off as “weak” will not reduce it or blur the organization's resurgence since the Mumbai attack of late 2008 as a greater menace than ever before.
A few hours before the President spoke, former senior CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, who may be more knowledgeable about the war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban than any active operations officer, wrote in the website The Daily Beast: In the new audio tape, Al Qaeda is warning that the Nigerian who tried to destroy the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight was not a one-off but part of a larger conspiracy and a campaign of suicide bombers. We don’t know if bin Laden is bluffing but we should assume not.”
Al-Qaeda investment in infrastructure begins to pay off
The US president's immediate image may suffer in the short run but to preserve his credibility and effectiveness, his administration must face these facts squarely:
1. Al-Qaeda is poised for an offensive in the US, Asia, Europe, East and West Africa and the Middle East after investing four years since 2006 in building regional and local command and control centers in the US, Western Europe, Africa – North, East, West and the Horn, the Arabian Peninsula, South, East and Central Asia, not to mention Afghanistan and Pakistan. This investment is now paying off.
2. In the course of their activities in Europe, North Africa, Yemen and Somalia, Bin Laden's tacticians have developed new methods and tools of terror. One of them surfaced in the bomb materials sewn into the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for his attempt to blow up the Northwest airliner.
3. In Pakistan, special units are in training to raid major cities and set them to siege. Like the Bush administration, Obama's men are trying to shrug off the lessons of the Islamist assault on the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008. It took only 10 trained killers to seize the key locations of one of the world's biggest cities. They likewise underrate the significance of the Taliban's seizure of Kabul's center on Jan. 18, some US officials calling it a "non-success" or even a Taliban failure.
But many counter-terror experts, including members of the US intelligence community are far more worried by what appears to them to be a dress rehearsal for future al Qaeda-Taliban seizures of major capital centers.
Untrue and unconvincing
4. The administration persists in making light of the plans, first reported exclusively in DEBKA-Net-Weekly, of for al Qaeda attacks in the United States and Europe with the use of local recruits born to ordinary Muslim families but converted to extremism. These youngsters carry European or American passports and may look nothing like a Middle Easterner or South Asian.
The American public was not made aware of this danger until ABC News broke the story on January 23, of at least two female suicide bombers on their way from Yemen to attack US airliners or flights bound for the US or try and infiltrate the US homeland for attacks on American soil. The story hinged on comments by Bush-era White House counter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, who warned that such terrorists may be equipped with western passports and be western in appearance to conceal their identities from US security services.
5. China is not America's only cyber-enemy. DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism experts emphasize once again that al-Qaeda's internet experts have for years been using cyberspace for usually coded operational communications and have recently intensified this method which Western experts have never so far managed to track or decipher.
Given these developments, President Obama would have bolstered his image more effectively by leveling with the public rather than claiming unconvincingly that that “Al-Qaeda itself is greatly weakened from where it was back in 2000" – an assertion not supported by facts.