(CNN) — When President Barack Obama said that U.S. strategy to combat the terror group ISIS could follow the models of strikes in Yemen and Somalia, it drew a swift rebuttal from some top Republicans.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona took to the Senate floor Thursday to say the administration’s tactics in both of those countries had not succeeded and would be even less effective when used against ISIS.
“That is so disturbing, to think that a strategy against ISIS would be the same as against al Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen,” said McCain. “Yes, we have been killing with drones. But we have by no means defeated them,” he said.
He was responding to Obama’s speech Wednesday night: “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
Another Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, told CNN Thursday that not only had the administration’s strategy in Yemen and Somalia come up short, but also that it was not the right template to apply to Syria.
“ISIL poses a risk very different from the risk posed by terrorists in those two countries,” Rubio told CNN, using an alternate acronym for the militant group. “ISIL is a terrorist group, but it has insurgent elements to it. They are working with people on the ground. They control territory. They’ve got funding, and they carry out military-style operations. They pose a much different risk.”
But the White House defended the comparison, saying that there have been some successes against both groups, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“There is still more work to do in those countries. But what has been put in place is a counterterrorism strategy that has succeeded in degrading the threat, and making those organizations less capable of threatening the American people,” said spokesman Josh Earnest.
“In both of those situations, the President has selectively and strategically brought American military might to bear in support of those ground troops to mitigate and counter the threat.”
Over the past few years, the amount of territory that extremists control in Yemen and Somalia has indeed been rolled back. And several terrorist leaders in both countries have been killed by American strikes, including Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane, and AQAP’s No. 2, Said Ali al-Shihri, and top propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki.
But Thomas Joscelyn at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies maintains the fight against AQAP has been no success story.
“AQAP is still planning attacks against the U.S. homeland,” Joscelyn said.
And the group’s top leadership is still mainly intact, he said.
“Naser al-Wahishi, who was groomed by Osama bin Laden to run an al Qaeda branch, has in fact been the emir with that organization for years now. He is still in place,” he said. “Many of his top lieutenants are still in place, including the chief theologians and the chief military officers.”
Also still at large is AQAP’s master bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri. He is believed to be behind the nearly successful printer-cartridge bombs placed on American-bound planes in 2010, and the underwear bomb on a plane to Detroit in 2009.
“There’s concern now he may be sharing his bomb-making technology with jihadist groups in Syria,” said terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.
Carrying out air strikes against ISIS could be even more difficult than against AQAP and Al-Shabaab, because while the governments of Somalia and Yemen have complemented American airstrikes by deploying ground forces against extremists, the U.S. has no such partner in Syria’s government. And according to Cruickshank, ISIS fighters are more inextricably mixed in with civilian populations in Iraq and Syria.
But he added that military action against extremists can be successful, even if it does not produce total victory.
“The more you can shrink the space they can operate, the more you can take out training camps so they can’t provide bomb-making instructions to Western recruits, you’re clearly then limiting their ability to plot terrorist attacks against the West.”
Still, he warned, “It’s going to be a long time before that capability to theoretically plot attacks against the West is going to be wiped out.”