Skip to main content

CNN Fact Check: Is al Qaeda's core decimated or is group growing?

By Pam Benson, CNN
October 23, 2012 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama says al Qaeda's core leadership in Pakistan has been severely weakened
  • Romney claims al Qaeda branches have spread to almost a dozen countries
  • Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen are particularly worrisome to U.S.

(CNN) -- During Monday night's foreign-policy focused presidential debate, President Barack Obama made the case that al Qaeda in Pakistan is decimated while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney argued they are on the rise in other countries:

The claims:

Obama: Al Qaeda's core leadership has been decimated.

Romney: This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America, long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.

Fact Check: Romney, Obama and Iraq

The facts:

Obama, Romney spar over troops in Iraq
Spiking on Facebook: Bayonets & whoppers
Romney promises more jobs if elected

There's no disputing that al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed in 2011 in a highly successful mission in Pakistan approved by Obama. Romney has tipped his hat to the military and intelligence professionals who orchestrated that raid.

The Obama administration also dramatically upped the operation of armed unmanned aircraft in Pakistan, with nearly 300 strikes so far and greatly increased the number of al Qaeda and other extremists taken off the battlefield.

Most of those killed were foot soldiers, but besides bin Laden, some of the key players killed in recent years include: Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the No. 2 to current leader Ayman al Zawahiri; Sayeed al-Masri, No. 3 in the hierarchy; and Abu Ayyub al Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Although Obama at times speaks more broadly about al Qaeda being on the run, his top national security team has consistently zeroed in on al Qaeda's core leadership, which is hiding out in Pakistan. Obama was careful to specify that in this last debate.

Fact Check: Comparing costs of Iraq, Libya missions

Just last month, National Counterterrorism Director Matt Olsen said, "The intelligence picture shows that al Qaeda's core is a shadow of its former self and the overall threat from al Qaeda in Pakistan is diminished."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta predicted last year after the bin Laden strike that if the U.S. keeps up the pressure, "I'm convinced that we're within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda," again a reference to the Pakistan-based leaders.

What's worrisome are al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, North Africa and elsewhere in the Mideast.

"Even as al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan struggles to remain relevant, the terrorist threat we face has become more diverse," Olsen said. "Al Qaeda has turned to other groups to carry out attacks and to advance its ideology. These groups are based in an array of countries, including Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and in Iraq."

Of particular concern is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates in Yemen.

When Obama took office in 2009, AQAP was a newly formed affiliate, the result of a merger between al Qaeda forces fleeing Saudi Arabia and jihadists in Yemen. A locally focused group quickly became a more powerful al Qaeda franchise soon plotting attacks outside Yemen's borders.

First there was the failed attempt by a suicide bomber in the summer of 2009 to kill the Saudi prince who ran the country's counterterrorism campaign. By the end of that year, AQAP was behind the attempt by Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day. Plans by AQAP to blow up cargo planes destined for the United States in 2010 and to put a suicide bomber aboard a passenger aircraft earlier this year were thwarted by U.S. and allied intelligence services.

Fact Check: Romney against Afghanistan 2012 deadline?

AQAP and al-Shabaab, the affiliated extremist group in Somalia, have been under sustained pressure by government and regional forces with assistance from the United States, but CIA Director David Petraeus said at a congressional hearing earlier this year that although AQAP, al-Shabaab and others have "sustained important losses ... the threat of terrorism remains significant and we must sustain the campaign, we must maintain the pressure on al Qaeda and its affiliates."

The Arab Spring has resulted in fundamental changes in many parts of the region, but the continued instability and fledgling governments also prevent an opportunity for terrorists.

"Al Qaeda was not part of this change, but the group is seeking to take advantage of the unrest in some areas, seeking to establish safe havens and recruit extremists where security is diminished," Olsen said.

Of particular concern are large swaths of Libya and Mali where extremists, some associated with al Qaeda, have found refuge.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in northern Africa, is one of the group seen to be taking advantage of the situation.

Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, recently retired as Defense Intelligence Agency director, told Congress that "AQIM acquired weapons from Libya this year, kidnapped Westerners and continues its support to Nigerian based Boko Haram." Boko Haram is an insurgent group in Nigeria with a goal of creating an Islamic state in the northern part of the country.

The unrest in Syria has provided an opportunity for al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has extended its reach into the war-torn nation. Although AQI's presense in Syria is considered small, intelligence officials worry it will grow as the chaos continues.

Clapper said that while al Qaeda core's in Pakistan will remain mostly a symbolic importance to the global jihadist movement, the regional affiliates "will drive the global jihad agenda."

Fact Check: Obama's apology tour?

The conclusion:

Both claims are true.

Al Qaeda's core leadership has been seriously weakened, but the affiliates remain active, particularly in Yemen and North Africa, where the threat to Western interests and plotting against the homeland remain strong.

Romney's claim that al Qaeda is in 10 to 12 countries is in the ballpark, and the administration would seem to agree that poses an enormous threat.

Complete coverage: CNN Fact Checks

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 23, 2012 -- Updated 1458 GMT (2258 HKT)
Although it has been over for nearly a year now, the war in Iraq continued to be a flash point in the final debate.
October 23, 2012 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
President Barack Obama made the case that al Qaeda in Pakistan is decimated while Mitt Romney argued they are on the rise in other countries.
October 23, 2012 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
President Barack Obama accused Mitt Romney of initially being against a withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan in 2014.
October 23, 2012 -- Updated 1318 GMT (2118 HKT)
The contention that President Obama apologized to other nations for American behavior has been mentioned repeatedly by his critics, including Mitt Romney.
October 23, 2012 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
President Barack Obama asserted that it cost the United States less to help oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi than it did to run two weeks of the 2003-2011 war in Iraq.
October 23, 2012 -- Updated 2158 GMT (0558 HKT)
President Barack Obama said Gov. Mitt Romney had criticized his administration for being too tough against China, and bringing a protectionist case at the World Trade Organization.
October 20, 2012 -- Updated 1648 GMT (0048 HKT)
Conservative critics launched an attack on moderator Candy Crowley after she corrected Romney's claim that Obama did not refer to the consulate attack in Benghazi as an "act of terror."
October 17, 2012 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
Romney highlighted the number of women in the unemployment lines during President Barack Obama's term.
October 17, 2012 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Obama said he identified the September 11 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya as a terrorist attack within a day; Romney said it took two weeks.
October 17, 2012 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Obama touted his administration's support for the federal Pell Grant program and other aid for college students.
October 17, 2012 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Obama boasted that the Affordable Care Act gives insured women free contraception coverage, and said Romney thinks employers should decide whether women can get contraception through insurance.
October 12, 2012 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Fears of a possibly nuclear-armed Iran took center stage early in the vice presidential debate between Biden and Ryan.
October 12, 2012 -- Updated 1218 GMT (2018 HKT)
The September attack that killed four Americans at a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya was the subject of a few claims at the VP debate.
October 12, 2012 -- Updated 1220 GMT (2020 HKT)
Federal support for wind power and electric cars was one of the early flashpoints between Biden and Ryan.
October 12, 2012 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
The Affordable Care Act emerged as an issue between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
ADVERTISEMENT