Interview: “Obama Leaves Office With Terrorist Groups In 80 Countries”
Dr. Albert Samah, a Senior Instructor in the History Department of the University of Buea and Executive Director of the Strategic Centre for Peace and Leadership, talks on the legacy of US President Barack Obama.
On the whole, how do you assess US President Barack Obama’s war against terrorism during his two terms in office?
Before President Obama took office in January 2009, he criticised President George W. Bush on a number of issues including his approach to the so-called “War On Terror.” Barack Obama came to power with a new determination to end the “War On Terror,” a term he abolished during the first term of his administration.
Obama believed and still believes that America was overreacting to terrorism and that to some extent, it is caused or at least fueled by America’s attitude towards other countries, especially the Muslim nations. This explains why he persistently refused to use the term “Islamic Terrorist” or “Radical Islam” to refer any terrorist group, explaining that giving them these labels will validate their claims and make it look as though they were speaking for Islam.
Unlike Bush, Obama greatly shifted from overreliance on the use of force. During his two terms in office, President Obama adopted an approach based on targeted killings, which includes the use of airstrikes and increased internet surveillance to prevent terrorists from poisoning the minds of Americans. He also provided training, equipment and other security assistance to the military and intelligence forces of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Libya and Cameroon.
He worked with allies like France, UK and Germany, which in recent times have been victims of terrorist attacks. In some ways, Obama made attempts at addressing the root causes of terrorism. Overall, I think Obama greatly improved what George W. Bush did in the fight against terrorism, though in many areas he continued with some of the policies of his predecessor.
How and why did he succeed?
It is dicey to say whether President Obama succeeded in the fight against terrorism as he leaves office with terrorist groups in 80 countries across the world. Some of these groups emerged during his administration. But I think he made some significant progress in addressing terrorism both in America and the rest of the world.
First, he haunted and killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011 after 10 years of search by both his predecessor and himself. Obama killed almost all of Al Qaeda’s leadership. So far, some of ISIS key leaders, about 112 of them, were either captured or killed. He succeeded to get the perpetrators of the Benghazi Attack in Libya captured, and imprisoned terrorist perpetrators in Yemen.
The United States under President Obama led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut, disrupt and disconnect terrorist organisations from the international financial system. In eight years, the Obama administration carried out over 13,000 airstrikes that destroyed terrorist training camps, weapons and forces in Somalia, Libya, Mali, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. I think Obama achieved this as a result of his collaboration with America’s close allies like France, Germany, Kenya and Saudi Arabia, and because he departed a little bit from his predecessor’s over aggressive approach in the fight against terrorism.
Where and why did he fail?
First, I think although going to Iraq was never Barack’s idea, taking out US troops prematurely when the country had not fully stabilised laid the foundation for the emergence of ISIS. The withdrawal of US forces from Iraq created a vacuum that gave the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria open space to exist, operate and gradually move to Syria, Libya and different parts of the world.
Again, one of the promises President Obama made during his campaign was the closure of Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre. A promise he was and is still unable to keep even after two terms in office.
He failed basically for two reasons - his extreme idealist policy and the intransigence of Congress in the fight against terrorism. In trying to depart completely from Bush’s overly aggressive tactic, Obama time and again wandered to an extreme idealism and multilateralism and made the fight against terrorism ineffective. In trying to please the entire world, especially the Muslim countries, the Obama administration failed to take some hard measures against terrorist organisations, especially those in the Middle East.
This posture is also clearly demonstrated when in 2012 Hilary Clinton refused to put Boko Haram on the US terrorist watch list. This gave the opportunity for the group to spread its tentacles in West and Central Africa. Presidents Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria had difficulties securing weapons from the United States to fight Boko Haram. US refusal to provide the much-needed weapons was on the basis of claims made by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organisations of violations carried out by the Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram.
I think the Republican-led Congress also made things difficult for the Obama administration to fight terrorism. Congress continuously opposed the closure of Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre or the transfer of its prisoners to the United States. Sometimes, votes for continuous use of force against ISIS by Congress are not easy to come by. For more than 14 months, Senate failed to vote Adam Szubin, President Obama’s nominee for Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. This greatly weakened Adam’s Szubin’s ability to cut the finances of terrorist organisations, which is the life wire of these networks.
What kind of world does he leave behind – free or still full of terrorist threats?
The fight against terrorism is primarily in the hands of the country from where these organisations operate. Under international law, the United States can only intervene when countries are unable to do so and this should be sanctioned through a United Nations Security Council Resolution. However, as President Obama looks forward to leaving office in barely two months, about 60 per cent of Americans disapprove of the way he handled terrorism, especially in recent months.
About 68 per cent of Americans think that US military response to ISIS is not aggressive enough. Americans believe they live in a world which is now plagued by terrorism more than when Obama took office in 2009. Terrorist groups in Libya, Syria and Mali that emerged during the Presidency of Barack Obama will add to the existing organisations in 80 different countries across the world. This will make regions in Africa and the Middle East dangerous in the years to come.
Of great worry is the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a global Salafi jihadist organisation that has gradually replaced Al Qaeda and whose origin can be traced to the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. ISIS is not only a threat to the US, but to the rest of the world as several terrorist organisations like Boko Haram and Al Shabab have pledged allegiance to it.