Opinion: Is al Qaeda really dying? The birth of a news meme


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Washington Post news story, 7:01 p.m. Tuesday:

U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly convinced that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toll of seven years of CIA drone strikes have pushed al ­Qaeda to the brink of collapse. The assessment reflects a widespread view at the CIA and other agencies that a relatively small number of additional blows could effectively extinguish the Pakistan-based organization that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — an outcome that was seen as a distant prospect for much of the past decade.


Do you want to believe this? Wouldn’t that be nice to think that the worst bad guys in our worst nightmares from the last decade are near extinction? Brought to justice by SEALs, Special Forces and armed drones as swiftly and violently as they delivered their unjust death sentences on innocents?

(For a primer on armed drones in Afghanistan, scroll down for an interesting C-SPAN video.)

Now, ask yourself as a regular news reader why do you think the newspaper’s unidentified sources are saying this? More importantly, why are they saying this now? And why, if things are going so swimmingly in the terrorist eradication business, these officials feel the need to hide their identities?

Wasn’t it this President Obama and his Democratic administration that denied all but....

...a privileged few D.C. power people the opportunity to see Osama bin Laden’s death photo in May because the rest of us couldn’t handle the gore, having only watched fellow citizens jump to their deaths on 9/11? And the administration’s adults didn’t want any endzone dancing over the bloody demise of the world’s most wanted beard. His death was no biggie, you understand. But a confirming gruesome photo might well incite some awful new attack, despite enhanced TSA groping.

And yet here, less than 90 days later hidden behind the cloak of anonymity, are the same administration’s officials pronouncing the 9/11 al Qaeda ogre effectively neutralized. Just like that.


Could there possibly be a more blatant invitation to one looney than announcing in a leading American newspaper that these guys shuffling around Pakistan’s tribal areas in sandals are not only impotent but virtual goners after a few more Reaper raids? How convenient is this thinking?

Our focus has nothing to do with the Post, one of the nation’s best news organizations, and its respected reporter. It has everything to do with how competitive traditional journalism is still practiced in the nation’s capitol by the best of them.

How government uses that competition and its control of information to shape public thinking to its will, especially in delicate political times like these. And how Americans can be better-informed, more wary consumers of political news.

The complete Post story here is typically well-crafted with even an over-abundance of professional caveats: ‘al Qaeda might yet rally’ and ‘its demise would not end the terrorist threat.’

Adding: ‘Indeed, officials said that al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen is now seen as a greater counterterroism challenge than the organization’s traditional base’ in Pakistan.

And then: ‘Even if al Qaeda is dismantled, its militant ideology has spread and will remain a long-term threat.’

What? Wait! What then exactly do these unidentified experts want us to feel like carefully celebrating in this summer when Obama’s Afghan troop drawdown is scheduled to begin?

Oh, that’s it. ‘Mission Accomplished’ without the banner. We’re not cutting and running from an endless conflict in a foresaken place that’s become the nation’s longest war ever and claimed 1,680 American lives, 1,050 of them under Commander-in-Chief Obama.

Apparent retreat would be a gift to Republicans in next year’s presidential campaign.

Better to frame it, ‘We’ve pretty much taken care of this crowd of bad guys and we can safely bring the boys and girls home.’ That would be good news for Obama, even if he wasn’t a Nobel Peace Prize winner with undeclared, ongoing military conflicts in Yemen and Libya.

In a competitive news town like Washington, if you provide this information to, say, the Kalamazoo Gazette, it goes nowhere but Kalamazoo.

If you can assist or convince a respected major news outlet that its competition is also on to the al Qaeda demise story or that you’re merely responding to legitmate news questions, you might get on a widely-read homepage and front page.

More importantly, as the government information management business goes, influential news competitors might match the story this week or begin replicating it in a couple of weeks, slowly creating a news meme about al Qaeda’s demise and Obama’s success. It might be true. It might be wishful. But it’s very real.

A sense of military victory over al Qaeda could help bolster Obama’s national security credentials next year, giving him a positive talking point that usually belongs to the GOP.

Now, nobody but the reporter and his editor knows the exact sources of this Afghan story other than it’s ‘the widespread view at the CIA and other agencies.’ As it happens, Leon Panetta was head of the CIA until recently.

As it happens, on a trip to Afghanistan recently he uttered something remarkably similar to the theme of the Post’s story. He said: ‘We’re within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda.’

As it happens, Panetta is now Obama’s new secretary of Defense with a direct stake in selling his boss’ Afghan withdrawal plans as justified by the military realities on the ground.

As it happens, Panetta was previously President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff. He was called in to take that job in 1994, in part to help manage the political aftermath of a basement bomb attack on New York’s World Trade Center by some wacko Muslim group called al Qaeda and its messianic leader Osama something-or-other.

But all this could just be coincidence.


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-- Andrew Malcolm

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