The nation’s former No. 2 spymaster said Wednesday the last decade of war in the Middle East has resulted in great victories for both al-Qaida and the United States, adding he is concerned that the threat of Islamic extremism likely will grow in the coming years.
“Al-Qaida’s great victory has been the spread of its ideology across a very wide swath of the Muslim world,” said Michael Morell, who until last August served as the deputy director of the CIA. He testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Wednesday morning about the Obama administration’s much-discussed talking points in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attack.
Morell, who on two occasions served as interim director of the CIA, acknowledged America’s tacit defeat of al-Qaida's core, comprised of some of the organization’s founders and figureheads largely located in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the organization’s extremist ideology now has spread from northern Nigeria into the Sahel region, he said, and throughout North and East Africa. It is also deeply rooted in the ongoing civil war in Syria and in Iraq, where U.S. troops withdrew fully in 2011 after almost nine years of war.
“So both sides have had this great victory, and the threat to Americans remains very significant,” he said. “I’m deeply concerned the threat is going to grow in the years ahead.”
Al-Qaida’s influence has prompted military action from the U.S. and its allies across the globe in recent years. The French military led an incursion into Mali in early 2013 after a coalition of extremist groups advanced from bases in the arid northern reaches of the country into the more populous south. U.S. commandos have launched raids in Somalia and in Libya to capture high-profile leaders of other al-Qaida franchises there. The U.S. has a small unit of troops now stationed in Somalia to help the organization of African troops there combat extremist elements.
Al-Shabab, an al-Qaida affiliate in Somalia, was responsible for the high-profile attack in September on an upscale mall in neighboring Kenya.
American drones also have targeted Islamic extremists throughout the Muslim world. Such strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have garnered the greatest media attention, including one particular strike in the al-Bayda province of Yemen in December that targeted supposed al-Qaida operatives, but reportedly killed members of a wedding party by accident.
In a speech last May, President Barack Obama said it was time to end America’s ill-defined, anti-extremist campaign.
"We must define our effort not as a boundless 'Global War on Terror,' but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," he said while speaking at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
"Deranged or alienated individuals – often U.S. citizens or legal residents – can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad,” he said. “So that's the current threat: Lethal yet less capable al-Qaida affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We must take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them."