The terrorist ideology behind al Qaeda is expanding significantly—contrary to President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign theme that declared the Islamist terror threat in decline, according to the outgoing director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
"It's not on the run, and that ideology is actually, it’s sadly, it feels like it's exponentially growing," DIA Director Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn said during a security conference Saturday.
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Flynn was asked about the controversy over Obama’s statements during his 2012 reelection bid that al Qaeda had been "decimated" by the U.S. war on terrorism, and that the group was "on the run" as a result.
Flynn challenged use of the term "core al Qaeda" to identify the group once led by Osama bin Laden and now headed by his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri.
"My belief—so this is Mike Flynn—core al Qaeda is the ideology," he said. "Al Qaeda command and control is where the senior leadership resides. So al Qaeda command and control resides today, Zawahiri, over in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], Pakistan."
Flynn said al Qaeda’s leadership is being challenged by the offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS, whose leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who was once in U.S. custody, is declaring himself "caliph," or leader of all Muslims.
Other Islamist terror leaders also are gaining influence.
"We use the term ‘core al Qaeda,’ and I have been going against these guys for a long time," Flynn said. "The core is the core belief that these individuals have."
A large number of young people in Africa and the Middle East are being sucked into Islamist terror groups.
"These organizations that are out there that are well-organized, they are well-funded, they reach into these young people and they pull them in," Flynn said. "And there seems to be more and more of them today than there were when I first started this thing in, post 9/11."
The comments by the DIA chief, an Iraq war veteran who announced in April he will retire in the fall, highlight what critics say is the failure of the Obama administration to target the Islamist ideology. Instead, counterterrorism during the Obama administration has focused on "kinetic" operations, such as drone strikes and special operations raids aimed at killing terrorist leaders.
Many al Qaeda leaders were killed. But the newer generation of leaders, such as ISIL’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and leaders of groups like Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, appear more committed to imposing Sharia law and annihilating non-Muslims.
New video of ISIL-perpetrated beheadings appeared on the Internet over the weekend. Dozens of headless bodies were shown in a video from Syria with heads mounted on poles.
Obama has made ending the "war" on terrorism in place since 2001 a priority. The administration has asked Congress to end the authorization of the use of military force that was approved in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Critics of the administration’s counterterrorism policies say political sensitivities aimed at avoiding offending Muslims are preventing military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies from identifying the nature of the Islamist terror threat, a needed first step in developing an ideological counter.
For example, intelligence analysts at several U.S. agencies currently are constrained from using the term "Islamic" to describe terrorism over concerns it will upset Muslim activist groups.
Retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said U.S. weakness and al Qaeda propaganda efforts are behind the increase of terrorism over the past several years.
"I believe that al Qaeda has grown in numbers and influence since the Obama administration took office," Boykin said.
"Their core theology is jihad, or holy war," he said. "That theology has spread at an alarming rate due in large measure to the fact that al Qaeda is winning the propaganda war, and the U.S. is seen as weak and compliant."
Additionally, Boykin said the U.S. government has supported the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamic entities. That "has contributed to the perception that al Qaeda is winning the ideological war," he said.
"And in reality, it is," he said. "America is only kidding itself about a decline of the jihadist ideology and influence. Most young Muslims around the world see just the opposite, and they are running to the sound of the jihadist guns in record numbers."
Sebastian Gorka, a professor of counterterrorism at the Marine Corps University, said Flynn correctly identified the problem.
"The administration had willfully distorted the reality of the current threat," Gorka said. "By completely denying the relevance of the religious motivation that drives jihadism, they have focused exclusively on al Qaeda as an organization. This has made the growth of other organizations like ISIS/IS possible."
Gorka said it is urgent for the United States to recognize the ideology that motivates the country’s enemies, whether it is the ideology of ISIL’s Baghdadi or the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing.
"Unless we recognize what it is that motivates our enemies, Americans will never be safe," he said.
Flynn, in his remarks, said current terrorist groups are more dangerous.
"We have a whole gang of new actors out there that are far more extreme than al Qaeda," he said, noting the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Currently, one of the most dangerous threats is that ISIL or another terrorist group inside Syria will obtain chemical weapons, he said.
Asked if the United States is safer today than it was two to 10 years ago, Flynn said: "My quick answer is, we’re not."
"We’re not, and we are working to organize ourselves better," Flynn said. "We're facing a different type of threat that they don't love a beautiful place like Aspen. … There are people in this world that don't like that—that don't like that way of our life."
Flynn defended the trillions of dollars spent by the U.S. government on improving security that he said is aimed at preventing foreign terrorism and related conflicts from reaching U.S. shores.
"We are in a place now where, as I mentioned, this business of our conflict, it costs us our resources, it costs us our time, it costs us our people," he said. "And so we have to recognize that we want to keep it over there. And I think that to do that it's going to come at a cost."
Foreign terrorists who have traveled to Syria for training with Islamists "have every intention to come back to this country and do damage here," he said.
On ISIL’s rapid takeover of major portions of Iraq, Flynn said the intelligence community was surprised by incursion that took over Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
"The speed that they came into this northern city in Iraq, into Mosul … like a hot knife through butter, through really about four divisions, I would say that level of speed that they were able to do, that caught us by surprise," he said.
The buildup of forces of ISIL, including about 7,000 to 10,000 fighters combined with some former military officers of the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein was watched, he said.
"The warning signs were there and I know that we saw this for the last couple of years," he said.
On the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Flynn said the conflict is likely to continue.
"Is there going to be peace in the Middle East? Not in my lifetime," Flynn said.
Hamas’ investment in a massive network of tunnels and underground facilities—the main target of the recent Israeli military operation—is misguided.
Flynn said Hamas’ huge investment in energy, money, and intellect for a subterranean network solely aimed at bringing "violence not just to Israel, but just to the region" would have been better invested in schools and hospitals."
However, destroying Hamas could produce an even more violent terrorist entity, Flynn said.
"If Hamas were fully destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse, or the region would end up with something much worse," he said. "There would be a worse threat that could come into the sort of the ecosystem there and be more dangerous."
Hamas could be replaced by an ISIL-like group currently in the region.
"So we really have to be careful," he said. "The Israelis, I think that they recognize this better than anybody."