Panelists also agreed that the American public is being misled to believe that Al-Qaeda is less of a threat now than it was during the past decade.
“What we do here at home as we address issues like our budget and problems here at home, or if we don't, the perception of deadlock, the perception that we can’t get anything done on those things that matter most to our own citizens here at home, it has an impact on our power, on our ability to actually shape those countries in the Middle East that we want to say we're a leader,” Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said during the hearing, which focused on the ongoing threat of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
“It sends a very negative message,” Katulis continued, "and here again, I'm not assigning blame to anyone. Here, it's just this sense that there has been this rancor, and it spills over overseas. It has this impact on our soft power, if you will. If 10 or 15 years ago there was great admiration for our democracy and our ability to get things done and our economic system, when I go to Egypt, when I go to Yemen, when I go to these places, people have tuned out because they see a lot of division and they see the United States not leading anymore.
"And yes, it comes back to our commander-in-chief and our president and how he talks about it, in part, but it's also a broader point about our system and the special role that we all play in trying to foster a dialogue that I think keeps America engaged in these problems in the world.”
“What I worry about . . . is less of a bipartisan focus on how we can educate the American public about these threats,” he added, “There’s no substitute for presidential leadership on this.”
Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute, emphasized that the “the threat presented by AQAP, the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda affiliate that has inspired many home-grown radicals in recent years, “has metastasized – it comes in various shapes, sizes, flavors, and form, ranging from Al Qaeda senior leadership... to its many affiliates.”
The message that must be conveyed to the American public is that Al-Qaeda members are “the ones who declared war – it’s not the other way around,” he added. “One thing I think we also need to acknowledge and recognize is U.S. credibility in the world, once we start coming up with red lines and the like.”
Agreeing with King’s statement that “the Al-Qaeda network is stronger today than it was before” the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Cilluffo added, “Yes, [Osama bin Laden] may be dead, but the witch lives on.”
He also noted that Al-Qaeda’s recruitment of jihadists poses a particular concern for U.S. homeland security because “you’ve got thousands of Western foreign fighters” active in Syria. “What happens when they go home?” he asked.
Katherine Zimmerman, senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the strength of the Al-Qaeda network “lies in interwoven connections between regional Al-Qaeda groups” rather than a centralized core. “This is no longer George Bush’s Al-Qaeda, “ she said. “The enemy has transformed, and if we want to win, our strategy must transform with it.”
Zimmerman recommended strategies to address governance and human rights issues, since “Al Qaeda groups thrive in areas of low or poor governance and are able to take advantage of grievances against the government” to recruit new members. Katulis concurred, noting that “Syria’s civil war has provided a magnet for both jihadists’ funding and recruitment.”