Five Years Since the bin Laden Raid
On May 2, 2011, the world learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a raid by U.S. Navy Seals. Finally, the leader of al Qaeda who had ordered the attacks on 9/11 ten years earlier could threaten the world no more. The killing of bin Laden also marked the last time Democrats drew even with Republicans on the question of which party could best protect the nation from external threats. Not only did the May 2011 raid rid the world of one of the most evil terrorists on Earth, it was also a tangible achievement in the war against terrorism.
As we approach the five-year anniversary of this successful and courageous military effort and bin Laden’s death, it is a good time for Democrats to point out the many concrete actions the U.S. has taken under President Obama to confront terrorism. This is a great moment to salute the heroism of those who continue to fight our enemies abroad and who protect us at home. And it is an opportunity to demonstrate that we have had many successes against terrorism in the five years since bin Laden drew his last breath.
It is an opportunity to remind Americans that:
- On a typical day, U.S. and coalition forces mount nearly 20 strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
- ISIS is in retreat, having lost 40% of the territory it once held in Iraq and 11% in Syria.
- More than 100 senior ISIS recruiters have been taken out in airstrikes by U.S. and coalition forces in the last 18 months.
These are just three of the many examples of the tough and smart actions President Obama has taken to defeat our enemies abroad and protect us at home. This is a story that should be told, but unfortunately Democrats have left the telling of that story to Republicans in Congress and media outlets like FOX-News. While there are many Republican leaders who are genuine in their concerns about the war on terror and who have made constructive critiques of Administration actions and decisions, even the most responsible of these leaders are not apt to tell the full story of our achievements under a Democratic president. That is unfortunate, but a reality in today’s polarized environment. So it is up to Democrats to tell this story.
With that in mind, we recommend that Members of Congress mark the anniversary of this crowning counterterrorism achievement during the first week of May by promoting the many successes of President Obama’s counterterrorism policy. This memo presents some background and political context to help members make the case that the U.S. has had significant successes in preventing major terrorist attacks, even as it remains vigilant in the face of dangerous groups like ISIS. This fight is not over, but we have made progress and Americans deserve to hear it. And if they don’t hear it from you, they will hear a very different story.
Background: The Hunt for Bin Laden
Osama bin Laden founded al Qaeda in 1988, intending to overthrow pro-Western governments throughout the Arab world. In the 1990s, bin Laden turned his attention to the “far enemy”—the U.S.—and began attacking American targets. In 1998, al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing about 300 people and injuring thousands. Two years later, al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole, a navy destroyer docked in Aden, Yemen. The attack killed 17 American sailors.
September 11, 2001 marked the deadliest terrorist attack in history, killing nearly 3,000 people. Planning for the attack began in 1999, and despite the U.S. intelligence community picking up reports of a planned attack, gaps in information-sharing hindered efforts to prevent it. In response, the U.S. fundamentally altered its counterterrorism approach, establishing the Director of National Intelligence to oversee and coordinate intelligence efforts, and creating the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to protect Americans from potential threats.
Within weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Administration went after al Qaeda and bin Laden, beginning Operation Enduring Freedom with our allies to take out al Qaeda militants and the Taliban, who provided them safe haven in Afghanistan. President Bush initially used rhetoric like, “Wanted: Dead or Alive”1 in eliminating bin Laden. But months later, the Administration had already moved onto Iraq, willfully ignoring the terrorist responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. In 2002, President Bush said of bin Laden, “I truly am not that concerned about him.”2 Even towards the end of his term, he didn’t account for bin Laden in his military strategy.3
Soon after he took office, President Obama prioritized finding Osama bin Laden and defeating al Qaeda. By 2010, the CIA had a lead on bin Laden’s potential location in Pakistan, and prepared plans to capture or kill him. After months of intelligence analysis and intense planning, President Obama ordered the raid that killed bin Laden. A little over two years after President Obama took the oath of office, his top priority was realized, and Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, was dead.
After 9/11, the U.S. intelligence community and law enforcement agencies across the country retooled to more effectively detect and disrupt terrorist plots, and prosecute terrorists. Drawing on unparalleled funding, expertise, and cooperation with foreign governments, the U.S. has disrupted a series of sophisticated plots, from the thwarted New York subway bombing, to the failed attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound cargo plane in 2010, and the planned Fourth of July attacks in 2015. U.S. counterterrorism efforts have prevented any major, coordinated terrorist attack on the scale of Paris or Brussels from taking place on U.S. soil.4
There have been dozens of successful prosecutions against international and homegrown terrorists. In the first year of the Obama Administration, the number of terrorism indictments doubled. In 2015 alone, the Justice Department charged 31 individuals for attempting to join ISIS. Of course, the long arm of the law does not stop at U.S. borders—from 2002 to 2013, the Justice Department secured 67 convictions against terrorists who were arrested overseas.5
Where terrorists plot from beyond the homeland, our military and intelligence specialists have decimated the senior ranks of the most dangerous groups. In addition to bin Laden, the U.S. has captured or killed at least 27 top leaders or commanders in al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Somalia-based al Shabaab since 2009. These include taking out the head of al Qaeda in Yemen, the leader of ISIS in Libya, and several deputies to al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri. Removing senior leaders is particularly effective, depriving terrorist networks of skilled leaders and disrupting day-to-day operations. Today, counterterrorism operations continue in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and, more recently, in Iraq and Syria.
Checking the Rise of ISIS
In 2014, the U.S. expanded its operations to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. has about 3,800 U.S. military and Special Operations forces on the ground, advising Iraqi forces and conducting targeted raids on ISIS leaders. U.S. and coalition partners have been bombing ISIS and retaking territory since 2014, and have recently intensified their efforts:
- U.S. and coalition forces are mounting nearly 20 strikes per day in Iraq and Syria.
- The U.S. is spending about $11.4 million per day on operations against ISIS.
- ISIS has lost about 40% of the territory it once held in Iraq and at least 11% in Syria.6
- Iraqi forces took back the cities of Ramadi and Tikrit with the aid of U.S. military advisors and airstrikes.
- Airstrikes are taking out ISIS tanks, Humvees, fighting positions, oil facilities, and cash depots.
- ISIS has lost control of the vital supply route linking its strongholds in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq.
ISIS’s leaders are also being captured and killed. In the last year and a half, airstrikes have killed about 100 ISIS recruiters, attempting to enlist volunteers to conduct attacks in the West.7 Dozens of key senior leaders have also been removed from the battlefield by U.S. and coalition forces, including:
- Abu Sayyaf: The senior ISIS leader in charge of energy activities was killed by U.S. forces in 2015.8
- Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali: The ISIS leader who was the second-in-command, was killed by U.S. airstrikes last year.9
- Solaiman Dawood al-Afri: An ISIS operative with knowledge of the group’s chemical weapons activities was captured and interrogated by U.S. Special Operations forces in March.
- Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli: Last month, ISIS’s top financier was killed by U.S. Special Operations forces.
- Omar al-Shishani: ISIS’s war minister was killed by U.S. airstrikes in March.
- Abu Sarah: In March, U.S. airstrikes killed ISIS’s chief accountant.10
- Assi Ali Mohammed Nasser al-Obeidi: Iraqi airstrikes killed the top ISIS military commander and a deputy to the ISIS leader in January.11
Politics of the Bin Laden Raid
Following the death of Osama bin Laden, Democrats pulled even with Republicans (45%/45%) on the question of which party is better able to protect the U.S. from terrorism, according to Gallup.12 This 7% increase was the largest one-year increase the Democratic Party has seen in the 21st century.
However, this equitable footing on national security was short-lived as the party’s brand on national security plummeted with the rise of ISIS. In 2014 the Democratic Party was 23 points behind Republicans in Gallup’s poll, a wider margin than at any point in the 21st century.
The reasons for the decline are now clear: (1) Voters forgot about bin Laden and were reminded, almost daily, of ISIS advances in Iraq and Syria. Third Way saw evidence of this first-hand during a focus group conducted in Iowa in September 2014, when a college-educated respondent was trying to recall Democratic successes on national security and said, “that guy, they made a movie about him. You know, the skinny guy with the beard. What’s his name?” And, the rest of the focus group could not even remember the name Osama bin Laden. (2) Democrats stopped talking about national security, which means that, (3) the national security story is now completely in the hands of critics of the Administration.
Promote the Successes
For the week of May 2, Members should highlight the achievements of President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy in the five years since the U.S. killed bin Laden. The President’s tough and smart strategy has prevented any major, Brussels-sized terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and increased the pressure on al Qaeda, ISIS, and related groups. Focusing on this Administration’s successes will serve as an important reminder to the public of what the U.S. is doing to protect Americans and illustrate that Democrats are tough and smart on national security issues.