The Cipher Brief, Dec. 8, 2016

Al Qaeda is re-emerging as a growing force in the Middle East because the Obama Administration ignored the organization’s rebranding, counterterrorism analysts agree.

The al Qaeda network is now “present in about three times as many places as it was in 2008” when President Barack Obama was elected, said terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman.

“Al Qaeda loyalists are heavily involved in the political process, control more territory, and organizations that have sponsored al Qaeda are able to operate openly,” added Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Cipher Brief expert and Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

He warned: “At some point people will wake up to this rebranding as being big news and a big strategic problem.”

The President acknowledged al Qaeda’s broadening geographical presence during a speech on Tuesday at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. “Even as al Qaeda has been decimated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the threat from terrorists metastasized in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.”

“The Obama administration’s evaluation of the decline of al Qaeda’s core was, in my judgment, not correct,” said Gartenstein-Ross.

The new al Qaeda threat stems from Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya, he said.

“That’s where things really went off the rails. The Libya intervention ended up creating more regional chaos and has remained a jihadist hotbed since Muammar Qaddafi’s fall.”

Analysts also question the Obama Administration’s initial approach to the Islamic State (ISIS), a group that the President infamously referred to as a “jayvee team” in January 2014. A mere six months later, ISIS had cemented its status as a powerful terrorist movement by taking control of Mosul–Iraq’s second largest city–overtaking a significant number of Iraqi forces, and declaring a caliphate across the territory it occupied in Syria and Iraq.

Since then, the Obama Administration has focused its attention on beating ISIS back, pummeling the group with more than 16,000 airstrikes and working with allies and partners in the region to root ISIS out from its bases in Syria and Iraq.

Despite this concentrated campaign, ISIS continues to hold swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq, has felt little pressure on its Syrian capital of Raqqa, and continues to disseminate propaganda that has been utilized as motivation for lone-wolf attacks in the U.S. and abroad.

The Bottom line: Both al Qaeda and ISIS are far from defeated and the problem now rests with the incoming Commander in Chief, Donald Trump.

— Bennett Seftel, deputy director of editorial at The Cipher Brief.