Politico: Boko Haram, Benghazi Linked by Obama Narrative on Al-Qaida

Tuesday, 13 May 2014 01:07 PM

By Melanie Batley

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Boko Haram and Benghazi may have something in common, according to Politico Magazine: Obama administration efforts to convince the public it had successfully forced al-Qaida into retreat.

"There are very likely real links between the Obama administration's handling of Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group, and the violent extremists behind the Benghazi tragedy," Michael Hirsh, the magazine's national editor, wrote in a column.

"According to current and former U.S. officials, the reluctance of Hillary Clinton's State Department to designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization in the summer of 2012 was no isolated case; it was partly rooted in a larger effort by the Obama administration to narrowly define al-Qaida and deemphasize the rise of its new affiliates, especially in Africa," according to Politico's Hirsh.

Hirsh argued that even if there is a link, it would not be conclusive proof that there was a cover-up regarding Benghazi, or that it was wrong to keep Boko Haram off the official list of designated terrorist organizations, despite the group's subsequent recent kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls.

Nevertheless, the majority of people involved in the debate inside the administration regarding the status of Boko Haram was of the opinion that there were strong links to al-Qaida and encouraged the State Department to formalize the connection on the list.

But, one U.S. counterterrorism official familiar with the discussions at the time told Politico that there was a "real reluctance" to expand the war against al-Qaida to "other parts of the world, especially Africa, and a desire to avoid mission creep."

The timing of the debate also coincided with genuine concern by the president that the war against al-Qaida and its affiliates had become too broad and ill-defined, even in places such as Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Hirsh said.

"It was in this super stringent context that the administration approached Boko Haram and the various Islamist threats emerging in northern Africa, including the groups ultimately responsible for the Benghazi attack," Hirsh wrote.

"This attitude was reflected broadly in speeches by Obama warning that America must get off a 'perpetual wartime footing,' and declaring that 'core al-Qaida is a shell of its former self.' In a landmark speech at National Defense University last year, Obama said, 'We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us…. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight.'"

Hirsh added, "That's Obama's counterterrorism philosophy in a nutshell, and it helps explain the administration's effort to blame the Benghazi violence mainly on widespread protests against a video lampooning the Prophet Muhammad rather than 'a failure of policy,' as Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes put it in his recently released and controversial memo.

"It has also given rise to Republican charges, unsubstantiated though they remain, that the administration covered up what it knew about the Benghazi attackers to further the president's case that he was defeating al-Qaida."

Hirsh says that in some ways, the administration has already admitted that it had underestimated the growing Islamist threat in Libya that lead to the Benghazi attack, as evidenced by conclusions by Clinton's Accountability Review Board and in little-noticed remarks she has made.

It also appears that the administration was naively hoping that the rise of new jihadist groups would remain mostly engaged in local conflicts, which also served to support Obama's contention that the United States should tone down the rhetoric regarding a "war" with radical Islamists, and view it instead as an inevitable, but manageable, law-enforcement problem, Hirsh said.

"The fact remains that it is hard, if not impossible, to separate the war against al-Qaida from the legal targeting of other jihadist groups suspected of links to al-Qaida. The decision to designate such a group is often a political one, sometimes taken to appease a foreign government — and, sometimes, the American public," Hirsh concluded.

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