Politico Magazine: 2013 'Great Year for Al Qaeda' Despite Obama's Claims

by Edwin Mora

Dec 30, 2013 5:07 PM PT

Al Qaeda’s resilience to the demise of its leader Osama bin Laden proved to be strong in 2013, argued an article published by Politico Magazine.

The Dec. 29 article written by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is entitled “Al Qaeda’s Big Year” and covers the terrorist group’s “comeback in 2013.” Gartenstein-Ross, an expert on al Qaeda and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, produced a startling list of successful al Qaeda operations since January.

According to the article, “any way you measure it, 2013 was a good year for al Qaeda.” It noted that 2013 was not supposed to be a year of success considering that Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.

“But as this year ends, the jihadist group’s regional affiliates have dramatically reasserted themselves in multiple countries, carrying out spectacular attacks and inflicting increasing levels of carnage,” he explained. "Though it’s hard to come by reliable estimates of the deaths they caused, the number is certainly in the thousands, and more than half a dozen countries now view these affiliates, or foreigners who have joined their ranks, as their top national security concern.” 

One example of al Qaeda’s resurgence was a series of jailbreaks in three different nations, all of which occurred in July. At least 1,867 prisoners, including potential jihadists, were freed courtesy of prison breaks at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison (500 inmates freed), Benghazi’s Kuafiya prison (1,117), and Dera Ismail Khanin Pakistan (250). U.S. officials suspected that al-Qaeda was behind the prison breaks, especially considering their close timetable, according to the article. “These jailbreaks are significant to al Qaeda’s future capabilities,” it added.

Meanwhile, the article pointed out that in 2013 “al Qaeda’s biggest gain was perhaps the July military coup that deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, and the often brutal crackdown on protesters that followed. After the coup, jihadist groups in the Sinai went on an immediate offensive, with targets including security officers and Christians.” 

Gartenstein-Ross pointed out that throughout the year al Qaeda’s regeneration was concentrated in the African countries of Mali, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Somalia, home to the violent al Qaeda affiliate known as al-Shabaab. However, al Qaeda also made a comeback through operations in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.     

The article explained that “by the end of 2013, more than 6,000 Iraqis had died in violence, the highest level of fatalities since 2007, the peak year of Iraq’s bloody civil war.” Al Qaeda also grew stronger out of its operations in Syria where it fought as “some of the country’s most effective rebel factions,” building on the gains jihadists made there in 2012.

President Obama, on various occasions throughout 2013, had described the jihadist group as “decimated” or some other variation of that word. On August 5, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended Obama’s claim, saying Obama was only referring to the “al Qaeda core" in the Af-Pak region.

According to the article, the jihadist group's “affiliates’ regeneration became so apparent over the course of this year that President Barack Obama was forced to clarify that his administration’s various claims of al Qaeda’s decimation were limited to the core leadership in Pakistan alone.”

However, the Politico Magazine article further acknowledged that “there are signs in Pakistan that even the supposedly decimated core remains resilient despite losing a number of top leaders.”

“Because of the striking developments that occurred this year, thinkers like retired Marine Corps general James Mattis now describe early predictions of al Qaeda’s demise as ‘premature and... now discredited.’ This conflict will neither wrap up as neatly nor as quickly as almost anybody would hope,” later added Gartenstein-Ross.

Obama, he argues, was simply wrong about al Qaeda's being decimated. “The Obama administration’s proclamations about al Qaeda’s near defeat in its first term were eerily similar to those made in Bush’s first administration,” said the author. “And neither of them got it right.”

The author concluded by noting that victory in the U.S. fight against al Qaeda is not clearly defined; it lacks metrics. “As the fight with al Qaeda moves further into its second decade, the U.S. government should focus on addressing two major areas. The first, given the length of the conflict and the public’s war-weariness, is ensuring the sustainability of counterterrorism efforts,” wrote Gartenstein-Ross. “The second is establishing better metrics for success. Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, famously noted in a 2003 memo, ‘we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.’ The same could be said today.”