Opinion

Osama is dead, but al Qaeda is far from it

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Photo - Libyan military guards check one of the burnt out buildings at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. American ambassador, Chris Stevens and three other Americans died there three days earlier when a mob of protesters and gunmen overwhelmed the compound. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)
Libyan military guards check one of the burnt out buildings at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. American ambassador, Chris Stevens and three other Americans died there three days earlier when a mob of protesters and gunmen overwhelmed the compound. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)
Opinion,Op-Eds

Reports of al Qaeda's death are greatly exaggerated, and the tragic events in Benghazi, Libya, and elsewhere make clear that al Qaeda and its affiliates remain a clear danger to the United States. The jihadists are taking full advantage of a permissive operating environment across the Middle East and North Africa to regroup, strengthen and plot new attacks against our homeland and American interests abroad.

When I was named chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence on the House Homeland Security Committee, the Arab Spring had not begun and Osama bin Laden was alive. Over the last two years, I have received regular classified briefings from the U.S. intelligence community, held nearly two dozen hearings on the various terrorist threats, traveled to the Middle East and issued an investigative report on al Qaeda affiliates. In my judgment, the facts in evidence lead to one conclusion: In the words of National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, "Al Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents around the world -- as well as other terrorist organizations -- continue to pose a significant threat to our country. This threat is resilient, adaptive and persistent."

The president has rightly continued our campaign to weaken al Qaeda's core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the killing of bin Laden. But I am troubled that the administration is not focused enough on an emerging worldwide network of al Qaeda affiliates that is increasing in capability, intent and lethality.

For example, al Qaeda in Iraq has found safe haven in Syria. It has doubled its size in Iraq since our withdrawal, reportedly establishing five militant training camps in the western desert. Despite U.S. pressure, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is solidifying its gains in Yemen, where it was reported this week that a host of jihadists from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Chechnya and Somalia were forming sleeper cells intent on attacking the West.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has found refuge across North Africa and now operates with impunity, selling weapons from Libya, kidnapping foreigners and sharing money with the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram. Al Shabaab continues to be persistent in Somalia. Al Qaeda fighters are even flowing into the Sinai, putting the 1979 accord between Israel and Egypt in jeopardy.

We now know from disclosed emails that the White House Situation Room, the Pentagon and the State Department were aware just hours after the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate that the jihadist group Ansar al Sharia had claimed responsibility. Intelligence has revealed that Ansar al Sharia was in communication with AQIM after the attack, "bragging about it," according to the Associated Press.

The president has correctly said that these issues should not be about politics. But they should be about the facts on the ground. The facts point to a drastically different reality of al Qaeda's intent and capability. The president needs to explain how his approach to counterterrorism and the security of the U.S. homeland and interests is adapting to this evolving threat.

The 9/11 Commission Report made clear that a "failure of imagination" contributed to the massive attack of 2001. It also properly identified our enemy as one that will continue to "menace Americans and American interests long after Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are killed."

I fear that a failure to clearly identify and adapt to an evolving jihadist enemy contributed to the Benghazi attacks. As was the case after the first 9/11, we must use the events of this Sept. 11 attack to understand the gravity of the threats we face. Our ability to imagine the coming attack will give policymakers and the intelligence community the ability to recognize emerging national security threats before they strike.

Patrick Meehan, a former U.S. attorney, is a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania and chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.

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