Senate Democrats

Making Real Progress in Our Mission to Disrupt, Dismantle, and Defeat al Qaeda

The Obama Administration’s focused and integrated counterterrorism strategy has proven a stronger and more effective approach for confronting threats at home and around the world.  By investing in new capabilities and bringing all of our national security tools to bear in a collaborative and strategic effort that, as the President asserted, draws strength from our values and advances a “positive vision of American leadership around the world,” the Administration has made the American homeland more secure and also made significant progress in our mission to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and affiliated terrorists operating around the world.[1]

In its first ten months, the Obama Administration has:

  • Disrupted the most serious terrorist threat against the United States since 9/11;
  • Killed the top leader of Pakistan’s Taliban insurgents, Baitullah Mehsud; and
  • Killed other key terrorist leaders around the world, including the most important terrorist leaders in East Africa and Indonesia.

Maintaining Vigilance in Defending America at Home Has Made Us Safer

Perhaps the best illustration of the Administration’s proactive and aggressive counterterrorism approach at home is the case of Najibullah Zazi, the 24-year-old Afghan immigrant who was arrested on September 10th in Denver on charges of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction inside the United States.  According to officials, Zazi had received weapons training during a trip to Pakistan’s tribal regions last summer and was “entering the execution phase” of a plot to make a bomb and possibly detonate it in New York City on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.[2]

The Administration was able to thwart the Zazi plot – described by officials as the most serious terrorist case in years – with a focused and coordinated interagency approach, in the President’s words, based on “aggressive intelligence collection and skillful analysis” and “effective and efficient coordination between federal government and our state and local partners.”  After Mr. Zazi was identified as a potential threat by law enforcement and intelligence officials in late August, the President reportedly was notified of the case within 24 hours, and remained deeply involved in monitoring developments over the course of the following weeks. 

While local and federal officials tracked the movement, email and phone communications of Mr. Zazi, the President and his national security team at the White House received updates as part of their daily intelligence briefing and, at the height of the investigation, received three to four briefings each day from John Brennan, the President’s homeland security and counterterrorism advisor.  In recent testimony, Mike Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center cited this case as “an example of the strong teamwork needed between local police departments and federal departments and agencies that is critical to protecting our country from potential terrorist attacks.”[3]

Using this same approach, the Administration has effectively disrupted several other terrorist threats to the U.S. homeland, including:

  • In September, Hosam Maher Smadi, a 19-year-old Jordanian man was arrested in an FBI sting operation in Dallas.  According to court papers, Smadi was discovered by the FBI within an online group of extremists; monitored by undercover officers for months; and arrested when authorities determined he posed a legitimate threat.  Smadi has been charged with trying to blow up a Dallas skyscraper.[4]
  • Also in September, FBI agents conducted a sting operation in Springfield, IL, arresting Michael Finton on charges of attempted murder and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.  According to authorities and court papers, Mr. Finton sought to detonate explosives at a federal building in Springfield in order to force U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.[5]
  • In October, the FBI arrested David Headley in Chicago.  According to recently released court papers, Headley is alleged to have participated in a terrorism plot to target the Danish newspaper that, in 2005, ran cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.  The FBI reportedly found contacts between Headley and operatives of Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist group with known ties to al Qaeda.  Tahawwur Hussain Rana was also arrested in connection with the plot, accused of providing material support to terrorism.[6]

A Comprehensive, Integrated Counterterrorism Strategy Has Significantly Disrupted al Qaeda’s Operation and Diminished the Terrorist Threat

Success in targeting top al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Somalia, and around the world.

The Obama Administration has stepped up the use of targeted strikes and raids against key Taliban, al Qaeda, and affiliated terrorist leaders, as part of its larger, comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.  As the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently underscored, these leadership losses have inflicted considerable damage on al Qaeda’s operational capacity, “interrupting training and plotting, potentially disrupting plots that are under way, and leaving leadership vacuums that are increasingly difficult to fill.”[7]

  • The Obama Administration has adopted an aggressive and focused use of surgical missile strikes against al Qaeda terrorists operating in ungoverned areas along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan – considered by our intelligence community to be the core of the al Qaeda organization and the most dangerous component of the al Qaeda network.  U.S. forces have been able to hone in on key targets, while effectively limiting civilian casualties and collateral damage that, in the past, had undermined our efforts.  According to media reports, 44 so-called surgical strikes have been launched in the region since January, up considerably from the 36 attacks conducted in all of 2008.  This approach has proven effective for pressuring al Qaeda’s leadership: according to data collected by the Long War Journal, U.S. strikes have taken out 404 Taliban and al Qaeda operatives during the first nine months of 2009, compared to 286 throughout 2008. 

    Perhaps most significant, was the successful targeting of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in an August 5 strike.  Mehsud was considered Pakistan’s most wanted terrorist, suspected of orchestrating dozens of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, including assaults on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the 2007 assassination of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. [8]

  • Last month, U.S. Special Forces led a successful operation in southern Somalia, killing four alleged terrorists, including Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan.  Nabhan had been wanted for the November 2002 attacks on the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mumbasa and an Israeli airliner flying in Kenyan airspace.  He was believed to be central figure in al Shabaab, the Somali insurgent group allegedly involved in the 1998 al Qaeda bombings in of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and since has played a key role in the management of al-Shabaab terrorist camps in Somalia.[9]
  • In September, police in Indonesia killed the most wanted terrorist suspect in South Asia, Noordin Muhammad Top, in a raid on his hide-out in Central Java.  Mr. Noordin was a leading figure in violent jihad efforts in the region and believed to be behind the bombings in Bali in 2005, at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003, the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004, as well as the coordinated suicide attacks in July on the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta.  While it remains unclear whether Mr. Nordin had direct ties to al Qaeda, experts say that his ideology, tactics, and propaganda are closely aligned with the terrorist network and he was viewed as the most dangerous terrorist in the region.[10]

Working with Pakistan’s leaders to take aggressive action against the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other extremist elements within their borders.  As part of a comprehensive civilian and military policy toward Pakistan, the Obama Administration has placed heightened pressure on the country’s leaders to address internal insurgent and terrorist threats.  While reaching out to Pakistan’s civilian government with new support and an unprecedented commitment to civilian and development assistance, the Administration also has helped prod Pakistan to lead a more aggressive and expansive counterinsurgency campaign.  The United States has reportedly deployed Special Forces teams to accelerate the training of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps; established the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund to help train and equip their military forces; and stepped up intelligence and information sharing to assist Pakistani forces in their fight against Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents in the border regions.  Following months of sustained pressure, Pakistan is showing new resolve in going after domestic extremists.  It is currently leading an offensive against al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds in South Waziristan, seeking to regain and hold key tribal areas, capture militants, and disrupt terrorist activities along the border with Afghanistan.[11]

Greater international assistance in disrupting the operations and undermining the capacity of al Qaeda and affiliated terrorists.  Officials have reported an increase in cooperation from other governments and intelligence services on counterterrorism initiatives under the Obama Administration due to the new image it has put forth to the global community, particularly its renewed commitment to diplomacy and international law, efforts to reach out to the world’s Muslims, as well as its revamped detainee policies, ban on enhanced interrogation techniques, and pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison.[12]

Responsibly drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq is allowing us to focus on terrorist threats in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the world.  As President Obama underscored when he announced his decision to deploy an additional 21,000 U.S. forces to Afghanistan this February, “The fact that we are going to responsibly drawdown our forces in Iraq allows us the flexibility to increase our presence in Afghanistan.”[13]

National security officials and terrorism experts report that al Qaeda is at its lowest capacity since the 9/11 attacks. 

  • Al Qaeda and affiliates are “under tremendous pressure.”  In August, John O. Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, stated that, “Al Qaeda and its affiliates are under tremendous pressure.  After years of U.S. counterterrorism operations, and in partnership with other nations, al Qaeda has been seriously damaged and forced to replace many of its top-tier leadership with less experienced and less capable individuals.  It is being forced to work harder and harder to raise money, to move its operatives around the world, and to plan attacks.”[14]
  • The U.S. is increasingly capable of preventing and disrupting al Qaeda plots.  In September, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told reporters that the United States is now safer from the threat of al Qaeda and more capable of disrupting its operations: “what has really made all the nations safer has been the accumulation of knowledge about al Qaeda and its affiliate groups, which enables us to be more aggressive in expanding that knowledge and stopping things before they happen.”[15]
  • Al Qaeda is at its “weakest” financial state.  On October 12, Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing, David Cohen, reported that, “In the first six months of this year, al Qaeda’s leaders made four public appeals for money, including one in June of this year, when an al Qaeda leader announced that a lack of funding was hurting the group’s recruitment and training.  We assess that al Qaeda is in its weakest financial condition in several years, and that, as a result, its influence is waning.”[16]

[1] Remarks by the President at the National Counterterrorism Center, 10/6/09.

[2] Remarks by the President at the National Counterterrorism Center, 10/6/09; Washington Post, 10/6/09.

[3] Washington Post, 10/6/09; New York Times, 9/24/09; Mike Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, 9/30/09.

[4] CNN, 9/25/09.

[5] New York Times, 9/28/09.

[6] Washington Post, 10/28/09; New York Times, 10/27/09.

[7] Mike Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, 9/30/09.

[8] New York Times, 10/6/09; CNN, 10/29/09; The Long War Journal, 10/1/09; Associated Press, 8/26/09.

[9] Time, 9/15/09.

[10] New York Times, 9/18/09.

[11] National Security Network, 6/1/09; Wall Street Journal, 5/16/09; New York Times, 10/17/09.

[12] Washington Post, 9/30/09.

[13] President Obama, 2/17/09.

[14] Remarks by John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, 8/6/09.

[15] Wall Street Journal, 9/17/09.

[16] Remarks by David S. Cohen, Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing, 10/12/09.