• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

US No Safer Than on 9/11 Says DIA Chief

US Army Lt General Flynn testifies before House Intelligence Committee in Washington

LTG Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, says the United States is no safer after 13 years of war and that the danger from Islamist terrorism is likely greater than ever.

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, he declared, “We have a whole gang of new actors out there that are far more extreme than Al Qaeda.” Flynn directly challenged the notion, repeatedly declared by President Obama and other senior administration officials, that al Qaeda is “on the run.” Indeed, he contends, “It’s not on the run, and that ideology is actually, it’s sadly, it feels like it’s exponentially growing.” He argues that the various jihadist “organizations that are out there that are well-organized, they are well-funded, they reach into these young people and they pull them in. And there seems to be more and more of them today than there were when I first started this thing in, post 9/11.”

Asked point blank whether we’re safer by a reporter who noted that Flynn’s commentary would be disappointing to Americans after so much blood and treasure spilled in the global war on terrorism, Flynn replied, “Yeah, my quick answer is that we’re not,” Anna Mulrine reports for the Christian Science Monitor.

Flynn announced his retirement in April and, according to reporting at the Washington Post, was forced out under pressure because his troop-focused vision for the organization and strident leadership style rankled leaders in the administration and Congress. Clearly, he’s going out in a blaze of glory.

While he’s obviously in a better position that I am to assess the state of the jihadist threat, I’m nonetheless skeptical of the notion that the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL [hereafter IS(*)] is more dangerous to America than the al Qaeda of 9/11. It may well be bigger but the thing that made al Qaeda al Qaeda was its focus on the “external threat”—the United States. IS(*) may be a more potent military force but, like pre-AQ jihadists, it’s focusing its destructive power inside the Islamic world.

Additionally, Flynn made another interesting argument. “We throw this phrase ‘core Al Qaeda’ out.” But rather than people, “core Al Qaeda” is an ideology, he reportedly said. ”The core is the core belief that these individuals have – and it’s not on the run.”

Now, again, I’m in no position to argue with the head of the DIA on the facts here. Further, the idea that jihadi sentiment—or what my colleague Doug Streusand terms totalitarian Islam—is indeed growing. But I’m going to push back on Flynn’s redefining “core al Qaeda” to mean something completely different from what we understand it to mean: the terrorist network controlled by the late Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Whether the franchise operators that have filled the vacuum—long referred to as “al Qaeda 2.0″—much less other jihadist networks like IS(*) remain dangerous and to whom are separate questions. Indeed, Obama and Flynn may well both be right. That is, we have in fact decimated core al Qaeda, rendering it vastly less able to carry out major terrorist operations than it did during its heyday, but not substantially diminished the overall totalitarian Islamist threat.

It’s also quite possible—and, indeed, it’s my strong sense—that we’ve vastly overstated the threat of al Qaeda, core or otherwise, and its fellow travelers all along.

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    Good article on the Arab world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. al-Ameda says:

    Oh, I think we’re probably marginally safer, than we were on September 11, 2001. After all, we’ve implemented many security and surveillance measures that have pre-empted some planned terror attacks, however we will never be able to live in a risk-free world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  3. Mu says:

    Are ranks above MG by now substantive ranks or do you still need presidential approval to retire in that grade?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Mu: 10 U.S. Code § 1370 seems to allow them to retire in grade automatically after three years and with permission after six months unless they’re flagged for unsatisfactory service.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    I suspect that the threat of a 911 style attack is much less but there may be some smaller attack by individuals. The war on terror has certainly created more enemies than it has eliminated.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It’s also quite possible—and, indeed, it’s my strong sense—that we’ve vastly overstated the threat of al Qaeda, core or otherwise, and its fellow travelers all along.

    This. Although, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the continuing use of drones in Pakistan did nothing to win hearts and minds in the world Muslim populace. We probably can’t win at this point but we should at least try to not p!ss people off for no good reason.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  7. PJ says:

    With the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact gone, a new bogeyman was needed.

    Al Qaeda isn’t very powerful nor is it run by brilliant JamesBondesque evil masterminds. Someone probably got the idea for 9/11 from reading Debt of Honor…

    But a new bogeyman was needed, so Al Qaeda got propped up as the worst thing ever….

    So, yes, the threat of al Quada was vastly overstated. For a reason.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  8. gVOR08 says:

    On 9/11 we realized we were at war with Ossama bin Laden and a few thousand followers. It didn’t take long before there was a lot of loose talk about a war against Islam, a clash between Western Civilization and the Caliphate. It was all nonsense, but I fear we’ve gone a long way toward making it a self fulfilling prophecy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  9. Andy says:

    While he’s obviously in a better position that I am to assess the state of the jihadist threat, I’m nonetheless skeptical of the notion that the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL [hereafter IS(*)] is more dangerous to America than the al Qaeda of 9/11. It may well be bigger but the thing that made al Qaeda al Qaeda was its focus on the “external threat”—the United States. IS(*) may be a more potent military force but, like pre-AQ jihadists, it’s focusing its destructive power inside the Islamic world.

    So the the reason you are skeptical is because IS is too busy lopping the heads off Iraqi Shias instead of focusing on us? That shouldn’t give anyone much comfort.

    Snark aside, I think Flynn is right about half the equation – violent Islamist extremism is more widespread and more dangerous. What Flynn doesn’t account for is that our various active and passive defensive measures are much, much better today than they were before 9/11. We are a “harder target” which does several things to include incentivizing violent extremist organizations to go after softer targets. Groups like IS also learned from AQ’s failure – AQ attacking the “far enemy” did not help them win locally nor did it further their organizational goals – quite the opposite.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Andy:

    So the the reason you are skeptical is because IS is too busy lopping the heads off Iraqi Shias instead of focusing on us? That shouldn’t give anyone much comfort.

    Oh, I think it’s a big problem. Aside from the humanitarian tragedy and the fact that thousands of Americans fought and died to give these people freedom that they’ve now lost, the region remains vital to US security and economic interests. But the question was about the safety of Americans. We’re safer when the bad guys are focused on killing people other than Americans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  11. Ben Wolf says:

    There’s no getting away from the reality that jihadist groups have multiplied since our declaration of war on terror. The Mid-east is far more volatile than when we started, despite the Bush Administration’s “roadmap” of toppled states to follow Iraq into compliant and stable democracy. Regardless of the justness of our invasion of Iraq (it wasn’t), it goes down as the greatest strategic blunder in American history, creating exactly the conditions it was supposed to prevent.

    The real threat is to Israel, which in my opinion is probably doomed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Rob Prather says:

    Every day I feel like dying a thousand deaths for supporting the Iraq War. Everything I can see now indicates that we’ve made things worse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 1

  13. Ron Beasley says:

    I think that France may have some problems down the road with their 10s of thousands of young unemployed Algerians.
    The place that frightens me the most is Pakistan which seems to be a country that is falling apart and it has nukes. They have tried to keep the tribal areas contained by giving quasi covert support.
    The Iraq war was a great blunder and created far more problems than it solved. I suspect that if the ISIL moves further south in Iraq or grabs even more of Syria Iran will become heavily involved which would lead to a very nasty situation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  14. Davebo says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Israel is far from doomed. It’s more secure than it’s been since it’s inception and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Rob Prather: It sure looks that way but, to quote Chou Enlai, it’s too soon to tell.

    Saddam’s rule was unsustainable, both domestically and in terms of the US no-fly zones in the Kurdish and Shia regions. But we clearly didn’t anticipate the internecine carnage that would follow, much less the regional fallout like IS(*).

    Will the situation in 10-15 years be better than it was in 2003? I still hold out hope. But the human toll in the meantime has been horrific.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  16. Ron Beasley says:

    @James Joyner:

    But we clearly didn’t anticipate the internecine carnage that would follow, much less the regional fallout like IS(*).

    This is one of my favorite quotes at the time which I no one should ever listen to Bill Kristol

    .”There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America … that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq’s always been very secular.”
    ~Willaim Kristol, April 4th, 2003

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    @Davebo: One nuclear weapon smuggled into the heart of Israel would do the job. A groundburst would contaminate everything in country leaving no choice but evacuation. I hold no hope for the IDF either as no amount of supposed tactical brilliance (which, given Hizb’allah’s victory in 2006 is questionable) can overcome a bad geostrategic position and Israel’s is very bad indeed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Tony W says:

    @Rob Prather:

    Every day I feel like dying a thousand deaths for supporting the Iraq War.

    Figured somebody must have. Out here in the west we shook our heads in disbelief.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. CB says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    I’ve been thinking that about the IDF’s tactical strength, too. Entebbe was a long time ago, at this point. The war has changed, and more importantly, their enemies have changed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But we clearly didn’t anticipate the internecine carnage that would follow

    Come on, James, you’re a better historian than that. Yes, we did. You can find any number of quotations from Dick Cheney explaining that this is exactly why we wrapped up the First Gulf War when we did.

    I have to say, if we’re not any safer now than we were, I really wonder what the Patriot Act was for.

    My personal impression is that we’re safer from them, but not as safe from us. As in the classic Pogo line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Ron Beasley: @DrDaveT: I’m not referring there to the sectarian fighting in Iraq, which many predicted but I thought mitigated by the widespread belief that the Iraqis were at their core secular and nationalistic. I’m referring to the seeming unification of the Iraq-Syria fighting via IS(*) and other actors. I’m sure somebody saw that coming but it sure as hell wasn’t me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m referring to the seeming unification of the Iraq-Syria fighting via IS(*) and other actors.

    OK, I had missed your point. Sorry about that.

    On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a surprise to near-eastern studies scholars that “nations” are not primary loyalty entities in the middle east. All of those boundaries were drawn recently, by westerners. Clan, tribe, sect — that’s where the action is. Lawrence would laugh bitterly at us.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    But we clearly didn’t anticipate the internecine carnage that would follow, much less the regional fallout like IS(*).

    Well, no. YOU didn’t, but plenty of the rest of us did, and said so at the time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Right. I’ve long been a fan of the essence of the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis despite it being pilloried by most academics. But there was a strong “But Iraq is different” vibe that I accepted.

    @Rafer Janders: Again, I’m referring to something other than the Sunni-Shia-Kurd conflict, which was obviously ongoing even ahead of our invasion even though I underestimated the full extent of it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. Dave Schuler says:

    This is something I’ve been saying for the better part of a decade. In order actually to be safer, we would have needed to have identified the critical success factors behind the attacks and either eliminated them or mitigated the risks they posed. We haven’t done that so almost by definition we are not safer than we were on September 11, 2001.

    What we have done instead is engaged in expensive and largely futile shows of force.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  26. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner:

    Again, I’m referring to something other than the Sunni-Shia-Kurd conflict, which was obviously ongoing even ahead of our invasion even though I underestimated the full extent of it.

    Anybody with NPR on their radio knew the country was in danger of splitting into 3 blocs if Saddam was overthrown, and we knew it well before the invasion. Hell, the GHW Bush administration knew it when they didn’t march on Baghdad in 1990. We also knew that Turkey had many native Kurds who would love to unify with the Iraqi Kurds and split from the European imposed borders – and we knew that would be a threat to the Sunis and Shiites.

    If anybody was unaware of these dynamics in 2003 they were either not paying attention, or were willfully ignorant because they wanted to believe the tripe coming from the White House press room. I apologize for being so harsh but it was crystal clear “outside the beltway” what was happening – and it was equally frustrating not being able to stop it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  27. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But there was a strong “But Iraq is different” vibe that I accepted.

    Rule number one: you can’t tell under a dictatorship, or charismatic unifier. Turkey is different; we know this because we’ve seen it under various rulers since Ataturk, and it’s still stable. Yugoslavia was not different, and the fact that it was stable under Tito didn’t mean squat. Ditto for Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Libya.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  28. Robert C says:

    In the grand scheme of things, even be fore Sept 11 we really we not that unsafe.
    The M.O. of the Govt since…both Dem and Repub…and the military-industrial complex
    Is pure fear-mongering..their mantra..”Give Fear a Chance”.
    The generals comments are entirely self-serving and he knows it.

    RC

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  29. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    Again, I’m referring to something other than the Sunni-Shia-Kurd conflict, which was obviously ongoing even ahead of our invasion even though I underestimated the full extent of it.

    You may have been referring to that in your head, but that’s not what you wrote on the page, so to speak. Here’s what you actually wrote:

    But we clearly didn’t anticipate the internecine carnage that would follow, much less the regional fallout like IS(*).

    If you have an extra-special secret meaning, it helps if you actually write it out. “Internecine carnage” read as it quite naturally refers to the Sunni-Shia-Kurd split, as well as to any other rivalries within Iraq.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. anjin-san says:

    So, yes, the threat of al Quada was vastly overstated. For a reason.

    Hey, we got a 100%+ increase in “defense” spending and a surveillance state out of the deal…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  31. anjin-san says:

    @ James

    But we clearly didn’t anticipate the internecine carnage that would follow,

    What “we” are you referring to? Quite a few people did anticipate it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  32. Barry says:

    @Andy: “So the the reason you are skeptical is because IS is too busy lopping the heads off Iraqi Shias instead of focusing on us? That shouldn’t give anyone much comfort.”

    Yes, and because (from what I can gather) that is what they do – move into a vacuum and hold sway as one of the bigger gangs in the local wasteland.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “… the fact that thousands of Americans fought and died to give these people freedom that they’ve now lost,…”

    Not true; thousands of Americans died to – whatever. Help Bush and Cheney loot, satisfy blood lust, whatever. The goal of the US government was never freedom; what freedom they had was the result of the US government not being able to install a dictatorship.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  34. Barry says:

    @Rob Prather: “Every day I feel like dying a thousand deaths for supporting the Iraq War. Everything I can see now indicates that we’ve made things worse. ”

    At least you learned.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  35. Barry says:

    @Ron Beasley: ” I suspect that if the ISIL moves further south in Iraq or grabs even more of Syria Iran will become heavily involved which would lead to a very nasty situation. ”

    I don’t think that they’re going to take the Shiite areas of Iraq – they’ll have zero popular support there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  36. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “Saddam’s rule was unsustainable, both domestically and in terms of the US no-fly zones in the Kurdish and Shia regions.”

    Um, evidence?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  37. Barry says:

    @Ben Wolf: “One nuclear weapon smuggled into the heart of Israel would do the job. ”

    And the likelihood of that is what? (hint: zero credit for saying ‘Iran’)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  38. Barry says:

    @CB: “I’ve been thinking that about the IDF’s tactical strength, too. Entebbe was a long time ago, at this point. The war has changed, and more importantly, their enemies have changed. ”

    Entebbe is irrelevant. I wouldn’t be surprised if the IDF ground forces s*cked at serious conventional war (see the last invasion of Lebanon), but they aren’t facing any conventional armies. The only one near them is Egypt, and those guys are now an inward-facing kleptocrcay; attacking Israel would lose them sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet US cash.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  39. Barry says:

    @Rafer Janders: “Well, no. YOU didn’t, but plenty of the rest of us did, and said so at the time. ”

    Yes. James, plenty of people predicted it, and many of those were in a position to know.

    *Any* and *all* ‘we didn’t know’ arguments are false, here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  40. anjin-san says:

    Saddam’s rule was unsustainable

    And you base this conclusion on what? Other than a desire to carry water for Bush, Cheney, & Co.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  41. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “the fact that thousands of Americans fought and died to give these people freedom ”

    Oh, is that why we invaded? Gosh, our government told us it was because of an existential threat to the USA. I wonder why they didn’t tell us the truth, if this was the case.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  42. rudderpedals says:

    I imagine he expected a better legacy. It has to be awfully humbling to openly and voluntarily admit one’s own leadership failure while on the way out the door.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  43. Jon Shafer says:

    @Ron Beasley: The “war on terror” was, and is, a self-fulfilling mechanism by design. Create more enemies to justify more war. And 9/11 as I see it, and as more and more scientific and circumstantial connections are found, was a planned false flag. And our government consistently avoids telling us al Qaeda is a creation of the US, via the CIA, which we fund and provide arms to, such as the ousting of Libya’s Gaddafi. Washington and our entire intelligence community is awash in lies and deceptions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  44. Jon Shafer says:

    @gVOR08: As an added note, bin Laden was on CIA payroll during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then made the 9/11 poster boy, then replaced for a while by this hairy Sheik Mohammed fellow as the 9/11 “mastermind,” then oddly a federal court rules, no, Iran is the culprit behind 9/11. That’s the self-fulfilling part, the blame-game, and even our government can’t seem to make up its mind as it continues to manufacture, willy-nilly, a premise to fit its global agenda….and all three, I believe, are wrong. 9/11, much in the same way as the Pentagon’s “Operation Northwoods” scheme to blame on, then attack Cuba in 1962, was and is a false flag inside event. Also, the bin Laden Navy seals shooting seems clearly a massive fabrication, in that bin Laden has been reported dead for years. I have death reports going back to December 2001, shortly following reports of bin Laden being near death at an American hospital in Dubai in July 2001, and visited by a CIA agent. He was on dialysis.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0