President Obama is set to deliver a speech on Wednesday evening laying out his strategy for countering the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). But a line in his prepared remarks should cause everyone who hears it a lot of concern.
In arguing that the fight against ISIS will be different than the large-scale wars of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to excerpts released by the White House ahead of the address, the president will dismiss the potential for any sort of massive ground force. Instead, he’ll say, the U.S. will depend on using air power and supporting Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian rebel forces on the ground through arming and training them as the way to ultimately defeat the militants that have taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” the excerpt reads.
Except this is probably among the least encouraging thing that Obama could possibly say. Yemen and Somalia have been the target of hundreds of U.S. strikes, from not just armed drones, but also Special Forces raids and missiles launched from nearby ships. After nearly 13 years of using the authority granted to President George W. Bush to destroy al Qaeda in 2001, the United States is still trying to prevent the spread of terror in those countries, making the odds that the fight against ISIS will be a short one extremely low.
Yemen is currently the home base to the group known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most dangerous of the affiliates currently operating. Unlike others such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), AQAP not only has the means but the will to carry out strikes against the United States directly. It was an AQAP member who attempted to carry out the failed “underwear bomb” plot against a Detroit airport on Christmas 2009. It was his involvement with AQAP that lead the United States to determine that American citizen and Islamic cleric Anwar al-Alwaki was enough of a threat to warrant death without a trial. And it was AQAP collaborating with core Al Qaeda last year that caused America to briefly close its embassy in Yemen.
“The question I have is, If the Obama administration is confident that its strategy in Yemen is correct, then why is Al Qaeda growing in Yemen and why is the group still capable of forcing the United States to shut down embassies in more than a dozen countries?” Gregory D. Johnsen, a scholar and journalist who has written extensively about AQAP asked last year.
“We continue to assess that AQAP remains the al-Qa‘ida affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States,” National Counterterrorism Center Deputy Director Nicholas Rasmussen told the Senate just today. In contrast, he said, ISIS’ “ability to carry out complex, significant attacks in the West is currently limited.”
While AQAP continues to thrive, the Yemeni government is currently fighting to stay in power as members of the Houthi movement have demanded a greater inclusion in leading the country forward. The government was already fragile, due to the machinations of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who left the country’s institutions weakened in his attempts to play al-Qaeda, the West, and local political enemies against each other in order to stay in office. Between the number of threatened coups and the government opening fire on unarmed protesters, Yemen is hardly a model that any country should aspire towards.
As for Somalia, the United States has been facing off there against al-Shabaab, a group that has plagued the region since 2006 now. In an example of just how hard it is to destroy a group like Shabaab, the United States recently launched a secret mission to kill Ahmed Godane, the head of the terrorist group. The mission was a success. But rather than discouraging the remaining members, the group instead named a new leader and renewed its allegiance to al Qaeda. If these are the countries that are being held up as success stories, the fight against ISIS is going to be even more of a slog than originally assumed.