Obama's act of oratorical magic -- poof, the global war has ended -- became an awkward problem, however. Real world events subsequently demonstrated that the word "overseas" was at best misleading, if not outright wrong. Detroit, New York and Portland, Ore., certainly aren't overseas, yet militant Islamist-inspired terrorists tried (and fortunately failed) to bomb all three -- Detroit on Christmas 2009, New York's Times Square in May 2010 and Portland in November 2010.
Obama still cannot call Maj. Nidal Hasan's terrorist attack at Fort Hood, Texas, (November 2009) a terrorist act. Hasan, however, had been in contact with militant Islamic cleric and al-Qaida recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, who at the time was holed up in Yemen with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Hasan praised Awlaki as a source of inspiration.
To his credit, Obama didn't make the mistake of equating Osama bin Laden's May 2011 demise with the end of al-Qaida. He came close in May 2012, on the first anniversary of bin Laden's death, however, when he declared, "The goal that I set -- to defeat al-Qaida and deny it a chance to rebuild -- is now within our reach."
The president can make a good case that al-Qaida circa 2001 has suffered severe losses in personnel as well as substantial material and moral damage. Eleven years of global military, political and financial warfare have drastically reduced al-Qaida's ability to serve as the central operational actor in a global war against everyone who does not share its crackpot vision of a global caliphate.
Military and police initiatives organized by the U.S. have led to the deaths or arrests of al-Qaida's most experienced commanders. CIA drones have killed second-tier operatives (to include Awlaki, April 2012) who might have filled the leadership void. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current supreme leader, lacks bin Laden's media savvy and charisma. He doesn't move the masses.
Events in Mali and Algeria, however, demonstrate that the fragment al-Qaidas (plural) of 2013 can still conduct spectacular massacres and attract global attention. Like AQAP in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is an al-Qaida regional orchestrator.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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