June 25, 2020 | The Dispatch

Donald Trump’s Silence on Al-Qaeda Is Deafening

The administration is still going after terrorists even as it claims to be ending ‘endless war.’
June 25, 2020 | The Dispatch

Donald Trump’s Silence on Al-Qaeda Is Deafening

The administration is still going after terrorists even as it claims to be ending ‘endless war.’

On Saturday, June 13, President Trump delivered remarks at the U.S. Military Academy graduation ceremony. “We are ending the era of endless wars,” Trump declared. “In its place is a renewed, clear-eyed focus on defending America’s vital interests.”

There is a clear disconnect between President Trump’s rhetoric and reality on the ground.

Hours later that same weekend, an American drone dropped an exotic R9X Hellfire missile on a Hyundai Santa Fe driving around the northwest Syrian province of Idlib, a known al-Qaeda stronghold. The target was an al-Qaeda veteran named Khalid Aruri, who was also known as Abu al-Qassam. Aruri’s jihadist career began in Jordan in the early 1990s. His childhood friend, a more notorious Jordanian known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, did the same. And the pair traveled together to Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the name of jihad. Zarqawi went on to establish al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 and Aruri served by his side until June 2006, when Zarqawi perished in a counterterrorism raid. During that same timeframe, Aruri developed his own dossier of international terrorism. For example, authorities discovered that he likely financed the May 16, 2003, suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco. Those attacks, which targeted Western tourists, left dozens dead and wounded more than 100 others.

Sometime after 2006, Aruri made his way to Iran, where he was detained for a time. He was released as part of a hostage exchange between al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime in 2015. Aruri then absconded for Syria, where the jihadists have suffered from several bouts of vicious infighting. Throughout the intra-jihadi conflict, Aruri remained loyal to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Finally, sometime on June 13 or June 14, the U.S. caught up with him when that R9X missile crashed through the roof of his car. Nicknamed the “flying ginsu,” the R9X is not like other drone-fired missiles. Instead of detonating upon impact, it unleashes several blades that slice its victims to death. The “ninja bomb,” as it is also known, is intended to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage. You can see a photo of Aruri’s car above. Much of the vehicle remains intact, with only the windshield and the roof destroyed.

Aruri was a high-profile al-Qaeda operative—the latest in a line of al-Qaeda figures hunted during the Trump years. But President Trump did not mention al-Qaeda in his West Point speech at all—not once. He did boast that the “savage ISIS caliphate has been 100 percent destroyed under the Trump administration,” which is true in so far as the group no longer controls territory. But everyone knows ISIS fights on as an insurgency in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Trump also celebrated the fact that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “barbaric leader” of ISIS “is gone, killed, over”—as is Iran’s master terrorist, Qassem Suleimani, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in January. But there was nothing in the president’s speech about a continued commitment to the fight against ISIS, or his desire to restrain Iran’s regional ambitions.

At least those threats were briefly mentioned. Trump’s silence on al-Qaeda was deafening. You’d never know that his administration is still engaged in a worldwide campaign against the group.

On June 3, for instance, the French military led a counterterrorism raid against another al-Qaeda target in northern Mali. That manhunt was focused on Abdulmalek Droukdel, the longtime leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The U.S. military subsequently confirmed that it provided logistical support to the French in what proved to be a successful mission. Droukdel and some of his companions were killed.

Droukdel was a major figure in al Qaeda’s global network. Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound show that he reported directly to al Qaeda’s senior leadership, requesting guidance on personnel, hostage-taking operations, negotiations with the government of Mauritania, and other matters. Zawahiri, then bin Laden’s right hand man, oversaw Droukdel’s operations and directly corresponded with him.

Florence Parly, France’s minister for the armed forces, explained that Droukdel was not only AQIM’s emir, but also a member of al Qaeda’s global “management committee”—meaning he had a say in affairs that occurred far from his strongholds in North and West Africa. The French military went so far as to describe Droukdel as Ayman al Zawahiri’s “third deputy”—implying that he was in al Qaeda’s line of succession should the elderly Zawahiri finally succumb.

Still other al-Qaeda terrorists have perished during the Trump years.

In September 2019, American and Afghan forces killed Asim Umar, the first emir of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, during a raid in the Musa Qala district of Helmand. Umar and his comrades were embedded within a Taliban stronghold and they were protected by one of the Taliban’s “shadow governors.” Umar’s courier was also killed during the raid. According to the Afghan government, that same courier ran messages back and forth to Zawahiri.

Also in September 2019, Trump’s White House confirmed that Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s biological and ideological heir, had been killed in a “counterterrorism operation.” The White House did not explain when or where, only saying that Hamza had met his demise somewhere “in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.” The Trump administration added that Hamza “was responsible for planning and dealing with various terrorist groups,” but did not name those organizations. It is likely that Hamza was working with the Afghan Taliban, among other groups. Like his father and Zawahiri, Hamza swore an oath of fealty to the Taliban’s emir.

A monitoring team that works for the U.N. Security Council recently reported that a Taliban delegation met with Hamza in the spring of 2019 to “to reassure him personally that the Islamic Emirate would not break its historical ties with Al-Qaeda for any price.” The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is what the Taliban calls its totalitarian regime. The Trump administration claims that the Taliban is going to break with al-Qaeda as the result of the February 29 withdrawal agreement signed in Doha, but has yet to produce any evidence to this effect. The Taliban’s reported assurances to Hamza directly contradict the Trump administration’s claims. Similarly, the U.N. team reported that  Zawahiri met with a Haqqani Network delegation in February 2020 to discuss the agreement struck between the U.S. and the Taliban. The Haqqani Network is an integral part of the Taliban.

Then, in January, the U.S. killed Qasim al-Raymi in a drone strike in Yemen. It is likely that the U.S. redoubled its efforts to get Raymi, the emir of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), after the December 6, 2019, shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Three U.S. service members were killed and eight other Americans wounded when 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani (Al-Shamrani) of the Royal Saudi Air Force opened fire. Raymi claimed “full responsibility” for the attack in a video recorded shortly before his death. After finally cracking the security on Alshamrani’s iPhones, the FBI learned that Raymi’s claim wasn’t empty bluster. Alshamrani had been communicating with AQAP operatives for four years, including right up until the night before his attack. Raymi was an al-Qaeda veteran, whose career began in Afghanistan during the 1990s. The same is true of his successor, Khalid Batarfi, who is openly loyal to Zawahiri.

Of course, President Trump’s silence on al-Qaeda in his West Point speech is entirely unsurprising. The president has long expressed his desire to withdraw American troops from all of the jihadists’ battlefields—from Afghanistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere. A second Trump term, or a Biden presidency, could see a large-scale American retrenchment. Trump’s criticisms of the 9/11 wars are not entirely misplaced. He is right to think that the U.S. military has no plan for victory in Afghanistan and has been adrift in that country for years. The U.S. has been trying to stand up the Afghan government, so that it can eventually subdue the insurgents. That day has not yet arrived, and it looks like time is finally running out.

But in his West Point speech, the president cavalierly dismissed the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere as “ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never even heard of.” A good many Americans have heard of Afghanistan—especially after the 9/11 hijackings. That conflict isn’t “ancient.” Al-Qaeda was founded in the late 1980s. The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. It was the terrorism emanating from that country less than 20 years ago that drew America in.

“We are not the policemen of the world,” Trump declared. Fair enough. But it is still in America’s “vital interests” to hunt down terrorists—especially those who directly threaten Americans. Trump implicitly recognized this in his speech, saying: “But let our enemies be on notice: If our people are threatened, we will never, ever hesitate to act.”

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s leader, is certainly an enemy who threatens us. Earlier this month, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM, said Zawahiri’s general location was known. McKenzie pointed to the eastern part of a country you’ve probably heard of.


Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow Tom on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn.

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Afghanistan Al Qaeda Jihadism Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy