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They Who Must Not Be Named

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
January 31, 2014


The annual ritual of the worldwide threat briefings of Intelligence Community (IC) officials before the congressional intelligence committees has begun. Policymakers, analysts, and the media watch these rare public assessments of the severity and trend lines of national security threats very closely. Last year, we learned from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that, "On the issue of terrorism, the threat from core al Qaeda and the potential for a massive coordinated attack on the United States is diminished, but the global jihadist movement is a more diversified, decentralized, and persistent threat." This week we were told that al Qaeda is "more diverse," "more complicated and complex," and characterized by "dispersion and decentralization."

What the American people will not be told -- understandably, as it is a matter of policy and not intelligence -- is who exactly the United States remains at war with, more than 12 years after Sept. 11, 2001. Obama administration officials characterize the scope of the enemy variously as "core al Qaeda," "al Qaeda," "al Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents," or "those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans." But this elasticity makes it impossible for policymakers and the public to assess progress in the war against terrorism or to determine if those strategies already in place are succeeding, much less anticipate an end to the conflict. The time for the Obama administration to explicitly name which organizations the United States are at war with has long passed.

It is impossible to gauge the true threat based upon any information released by the U.S. government. The White House has sent a war powers resolution consolidated report to Congress every six months since 2012, which names some countries where the U.S. military conducts "direct action" against "al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces." But because there is no additional specificity provided -- such as whether this also captures those groups targeted under Title 50 "covert" lethal operations conducted by the CIA -- it is incomplete even though this information might be in the classified annex attached to each report.

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