Commentary by Kyle Shideler is the Director of Research and Communications at the Endowment for Middle East Truth.
President Barack Obama recently made headlines in a "New Yorker" magazine piece, in which he described the current crop of Al Qaeda fighters as being like when “a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms” adding, “that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” He indicated the analogy was common in the White House.
He went on to say that unlike Osama bin Laden, the current group was, “engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
The comment was in response to the recent seizure of Fallujah and Ramadi by the Al Qaeda group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and was a defense of the president’s claims to have “demolished” Al Qaeda.
The president’s comment is deeply interesting, because its tone-deafness (even the "New Yorker" interviewer noted the analogy as “uncharacteristically flip”) reflects the general failure of the Obama administration to understand Al Qaeda, or Islamist movements more generally, and the disasters that have resulted from that failed understanding. President Obama even managed to point out that Al Qaeda fighters were “jihadists” while making absolutely clear he has no conception of what that actually means.
In this citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a protester holds a placard depicting U.S. President Barack Obama during a demonstration in Kafr Nabil town, Idlib province, northern Syria, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)
The president’s comparison of Al Qaeda action to “various power struggles and disputes” was naturally paired in the minds of many with a recent "CNN" report that “Al Qaeda Controls More Territory than Ever in The Middle East,” authored by national security journalist Peter Bergen. Ironically, as Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies rightly pointed out, Bergen is among those responsible for the utterly false meme (perpetuated by President Obama) that “Al Qaeda is defeated.”
Meanwhile Iraqi security forces, trained and equipped by the United States during our time in Iraq, failed to oust Al Qaeda from Ramadi, while one Iraqi minister lamented that Al Qaeda in Fallujah had weapons, “huge and advanced and frankly enough to occupy Baghdad."
This is apparently not something that worries President Obama. In his "New Yorker" interview he noted:
“…how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”
In other words, if Al Qaeda forces put all of the Middle East under the thumb of Sharia Law, that’s no reason to be alarmed.
It’s a curious statement, particularly since under President Obama the United States has repeatedly waded into conflicts ON BEHALF of those motivated by “an extremist Islamic ideology.”
Fighters of al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant carry their weapons during a parade at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border with Turkey January 2, 2014. Picture taken January 2, 2014. REUTERS/Yaser Al-Khodor
First in Egypt, where the closeness in relations between the Obama administration and the Muslim Brotherhood (M.B.) was such that M.B. members were given “visiting dignitary” treatment and permitted to bypass security screenings when entering the U.S., before they had even won Egyptian elections. The Egyptian interim government which took over after the military ousted the M.B. has designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group after revealing evidence they say links the Muslim Brotherhood closely to Al Qaeda affiliated fighters in the Sinai Peninsula.
In Libya, U.S. aircraft provided close air support for rebels known to be associated with Al Qaeda. Those responsible for the attack on the Benghazi Consulate killing four Americans were also Al Qaeda linked rebels, as May noted in his column. A “horrible action” which was presumably not, as President Obama noted, “a direct threat to us.”
In Syria, the Obama Administration has attempted to negotiate with the Islamic Front, a group of rebels that includes Ahrar-al-Sham, a militia linked to Al Qaeda. The leader of the group, Abu Khaled al Suri, has openly admitted to being Al Qaeda, and was the man designated by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to mediate between the Al Qaeda branches of Al Nusra Front and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).
We now have the curious situation of Al Qaeda attacking Al Qaeda.
This has baffled commentators, who have described the Islamic Front and other rebel battles against ISIS as some kind of rejection of the jihadist element. But the reality is that ISIS is being ostracized not because it is fighting to impose Islamic law upon otherwise secular rebels as some have claimed, but because ISIS has violated Islamic law and refused to answer to sharia courts, and the other jihadi forces will not stand for it.
In particular, ISIS has been accused of killing a doctor with ties to Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front called for the ISIS operatives responsible to face charges. As former Department of Defense analyst and specialist on Islamic law Stephen Coughlin explained to this author,
“For a person to kill a Muslim who has not engaged in apostasy, adultery or likewise killed an innocent Muslim represents a capital offense under the Sharia, providing an Islamic legal justification for the Islamic Front to fight ISIS. Failing to understand that Al Qaeda-affiliated organizations take the practice and implementation of Islamic law seriously leads to their actions being misinterpreted by Western observers.”
This understanding indeed seems to mirror that of Al Qaeda head honcho Ayman Al Zawahiri (certainly a varsity player if there ever was one) who has favored the Islamic front and Al-Nusrah over the ISIS in previous disputes and who was recently reported speaking out on the inter-jihadi fighting:
Zawahiri says that al Qaeda does not accept "any violation" or "any assault" against the "sanctity of any Muslim or jihadist." Al Qaeda also does "not accept" the accusations of "infidelity or apostasy" that have been levied against some jihadist groups, because they are all "sacrificing their lives and properties" for the sake of jihad.
Having backed those with an “extremist Islamic ideology” in every location in the Middle East, President Obama now claims to be reluctant to fix the chaos his Administration has helped to unleash, and which he now attributes to “warlords and thugs and criminals [who] are trying to gain leverage or a foothold so that they can control resources, populations, territory.”
This view is precisely wrong. Whatever else they may be, the jihadists operating in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East are not mere “warlords.” The fighting ongoing now is not strictly about “controlling resources, populations or territory.” It is about the imposition of Sharia law. The fact that President Obama does not understand that reality means his judgment about who is a direct threat, or who is varsity player and who is “jayvee,” is not to be trusted.
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