Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Did Obama Declare Terrorist Threat ‘Gone’?

In an interview on Fox News, former Vice President Dick Cheney went too far with his claim that President Obama “has stated repeatedly the terrorist threat is gone.”

To be sure, Obama, at times, has declared al Qaeda to be “on the run,” “decimated” and “on their heels” — all phrases, not incidentally, used by Cheney or his former boss, President George W. Bush, to describe al Qaeda. But Obama and Bush typically followed up those declarations with warnings that terrorism remains a threat, not only from al Qaeda but its affiliates and other extremists.

Cheney made his comment while appearing on Fox News with his daughter, Liz, to talk about a controversial op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which the two wrote about Obama’s actions in the Middle East. “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” the Cheneys wrote.

The op-ed has been criticized by some as an attempt to revise history, and, indeed, Cheney found himself facing some tough questions from Fox News’ Megyn Kelly about his culpability for the situation in Iraq.

Cheney contended that Obama shoulders some blame for the latest battles between Islamist militants and Iraqi security forces because he failed to keep U.S. security forces in Iraq after the war ended.

Cheney, June 19: Barack Obama has stated repeatedly the terrorist threat is gone, we got bin Laden. That’s clearly not the case. That’s not the truth.

We found no evidence of Obama saying the threat of terrorism is “gone” – let alone “repeatedly” saying it. In fact, in his speech announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama warned that the U.S. needs to “remain vigilant” because “al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.”

Obama, May 1, 2011: The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda. Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort.  There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.

Since that time, Obama has repeatedly warned of the ongoing terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Some examples:

“Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth.” — Obama at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013.

“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable.” — Obama delivering the commencement address at West Point on May 28, 2014.

“Violent extremism is still out there, and we have got to stay on top of it.” — Obama on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” Aug. 7, 2013.

“The fact is, that danger remains. While we have put al Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world.” — Obama in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2014.

“We’ve decimated al Qaeda’s top leadership in the border regions around Pakistan, but in Yemen, in Libya, in other of these places – increasingly in places like Syria – what you see is these elements that don’t have the same capacity that a bin Laden or core al Qaeda had, but can still cause a lot of damage, and we’ve got to make sure that we remain vigilant and are focused on preventing them from doing us any harm.” — Obama at the University of Miami on Sept. 20, 2012.

“Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. It’s true, different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged — from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy other nations. Instead, we’ll need to help countries like Yemen, and Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.” — Obama in his State of the Union Address on Feb. 12, 2013.

Cheney has zeroed in on Obama’s comments that al Qaeda’s top leadership was “decimated” and “a shadow of its former self.” In his op-ed, Cheney mocked Obama for comments, such as one on Aug. 9, 2013, in which the president said, “[C]ore al Qaeda is on its heels, has been decimated.” (That’s a line Obama had used several months prior.) In the speech referenced by Cheney, however, Obama went on to say that “al Qaeda and other extremists have metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers” and warned of the need to remain vigilant.

Obama, Aug. 9, 2013: What I said in the same National Defense University speech back in May that I referred to earlier is that core al Qaeda is on its heels, has been decimated. But what I also said was that al Qaeda and other extremists have metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers.

And I’d refer you back to that speech just back in May where I said specifically that although they are less likely to be able to carry out spectacular homeland attacks like 9/11, they have the capacity to go after our embassies. They have the capacity, potentially, to go after our businesses. They have the capacity to be destabilizing and disruptive in countries where the security apparatus is weak. And that’s exactly what we are seeing right now.

So it’s entirely consistent to say that this tightly organized and relatively centralized al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11 has been broken apart and is very weak and does not have a lot of operational capacity, and to say we still have these regional organizations like AQAP that can pose a threat, that can drive potentially a truck bomb into an embassy wall and can kill some people.

And so that requires us, then, to make sure that we have a strategy that is strengthening those partners so that they’ve got their own capacity to deal with what are potentially manageable regional threats if these countries are a little bit stronger and have more effective CT and so forth. It means that we’ve got to continue to be vigilant and go after known terrorists who are potentially carrying out plots or are going to strengthen their capacity over time — because they’re always testing the boundaries of, well, maybe we can try this, maybe we can do that. So this is a ongoing process. We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism. What we can do is to weaken it and to strengthen our partnerships in such a way that it does not pose the kind of horrible threat that we saw on 9/11.

On the campaign trail in 2012, Obama wasn’t always as quick with qualifiers about the continuing threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates. For example, at a campaign event in Miami on Oct. 11,  Obama said simply, “Today, al Qaeda is on the run and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, was asked about that comment during a press conference on Aug. 5, 2013. Carney responded that “the President has been clear, that the threat from al Qaeda very much remains.”

Reporter, Aug. 5, 2013: And, finally, on al Qaeda, I want to go back to what Jim was asking you about the President’s previous comments. You’re correct that you and other officials have said that there’s a difference between al Qaeda core and its affiliates and the threat from each. But on the campaign trail, the President rarely made that distinction. October 11th, 2012 — “I said we’d refocus on the people who actually attacked us on 9/11. And today, al Qaeda is on the run and Osama bin Laden is dead.” Did he give the full picture to the American people in the campaign about the threat from al Qaeda when that was his talking point again and again?

Carney:  I think it’s indisputable that the elimination of Osama bin Laden was a major accomplishment in the effort against al Qaeda. We have been clear, and the President has been clear, that the threat from al Qaeda very much remains. And I think, in answer to Jim’s question, I was trying to convey that any fair assessment of the actions this administration takes and this government takes, and our extraordinarily capable men and women in uniform and men and women in the intelligence community — the actions they take in order to continue the fight against al Qaeda and al Qaeda’s affiliates demonstrates how seriously we continue to take the threat.

And nobody should be under any illusion that that threat still exists. I think that we have numerous conversations in this room and around Washington and around the country about what we need to do continually as a nation to protect ourselves against the threat posed by terrorists who want to do us harm. And the fact that we continue to do those things demonstrates that the threat is real and we have to be ever vigilant.

So as I said earlier, I don’t think there’s any fair reading of the efforts we’ve made in the fight against AQAP and other al Qaeda affiliates.

Obama’s language in describing the decline of al Qaeda is not very different from the language used by Cheney and President Bush during the previous administration.

Cheney, March 24, 2008: I think if you look, for example, at what we’ve been able to accomplish in terms of the people captured and killed in the al Qaeda organization, and the fact that we put them on the run …

Bush, April 6, 2006: We have done a good job of dismantling the operating structure of al Qaeda — Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, Ramzi Binalshibh — a series of these folks that have become the operating element of al Qaeda.

Bush, June 13, 2008: With the terrorists on the run and freedom on the rise, it is in the interests of every nation on this continent to support a stable and democratic Iraq.

Bush, July 31, 2008: Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq — but the terrorists remain dangerous, and they are determined to strike our country and our allies again.

Bush, Feb. 8, 2004: There’s a — I know there is a lot of focus on Iraq, and there should be, but we’ve got thousands of troops, agents, allies on the hunt, and we’re doing a pretty good job of dismantling al Qaeda — better than a pretty good job, a very good job. I keep saying in my speeches, two-thirds of known al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed, and that’s the truth.

In fact, Bush has used the very words, “on their heels” and “decimated” — the same words from Obama cited by Cheney.

Bush, to troops in Iraq, Sept. 3, 2007: If we don’t want to hear their footsteps back home, we have to keep them on their heels over here. And that’s exactly what you’re doing, and America is safer for it.

Bush, May 5, 2003: Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly, but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they’re not a problem anymore.

Bush, Cheney and Obama have all used the phrase “on the run” to describe the impact of the U.S. attacks on al Qaeda and its leaders.

As Bush and Cheney once did, Obama has sought to highlight the progress American troops have made against al Qaeda and its capabilities. But, also like Bush and Cheney, Obama did not declare the threat of terrorism from al Qaeda and its affiliates “gone.”

— Robert Farley, with Lauren Shapiro and Carolyn Fante