A new book by former CIA deputy director Michael Morell argues that the agency badly underestimated al-Qaida’s effectiveness in taking advantage of the Arab Spring after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011.
According to Morell, who retired in 2013 following 33 years of service, the agency figured that the Arab Spring movement would contribute to the collapse of al-Qaida by undermining the group’s narrative, The Washington Post reports.
Instead, the exact opposite happened.
The Arab Spring essentially provided fuel to an already unstable situation and allowed populist extremists to take control of social movements ostensibly interested in democratic reform. As a result, the CIA estimates that al-Qaida has spread like wildfire across Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and other countries, filling the power vacuum created by an absence of strong government. Aside from al-Qaida, the Islamic State has also made deep incursions into territory once controlled by Iraq and Syria.
Part of the reason for intelligence underperformance, Morell says, is because intelligence officials grew complacent and were content to gather material from regular sources in Middle Eastern governments.
“We were lax in creating our own windows into what was happening, and the leadership we were relying on was isolated and unaware of the tidal wave that was about to hit,” Morell wrote.
Now, intelligence officials say that it will take a decade for the surge of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups to wind down.
Obama has been quick to declare victory over al-Qaida at least 32 times in one form or another since the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in 2012. It appears that Obama may have been relying on flawed intelligence from the CIA.
Morell is not the first to point to the Arab Spring as the impetus for al-Qaida’s resurgence. In early 2014, USA Today reported that the death of Osama bin Laden actually may have helped al-Qaida flourish. The terrorist group has evolved from a more top-down structure to a band of affiliates who act in the organization’s name.
Despite the death of high-ranking al-Qaida leaders like Sheik Said al Masri and Atiyah Abd al Rahman at the hands of the United States, a structural shift has allowed the group to take advantage of weak governance. The lack of strong, secular dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa has provided the perfect environment for extremist movements to fester.
“In eastern Libya or in Sinai you have a weak state that is unable to govern, that is unable to administer an area,” Frederic Wehrey, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told USA Today. “You have a set of festering grievances, tribal grievances, and you have al-Qaeda able to exploit those.”