Obama on the future of terrorism after bin Laden raid

Story highlights

  • Coordination between military, law enforcement, intelligence has "hardened the homeland," Obama says
  • Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his ideology lives on, Obama says
  • Obama says future terror fight will require working with partner countries

Washington (CNN)On the fifth anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, President Barack Obama sharply defended his targeted approached to fighting terror -- and said the next president would most likely follow his lead rather than his predecessor's.

"The kinds of Special Forces and intelligence-gathering that we saw in the bin Laden raid is going to be, more often than not, the tool of choice for a president in dealing with that kind of threat," he said.
    "The ideology has not been extinguished," Obama acknowledged in an exclusive interview with CNN's Peter Bergen on Monday night. "The world is still dangerous. In many ways, the Middle East is in a more chaotic situation."
    But -- without directly referring to President George W. Bush's decisions to send U.S. troops into Afghanistan and then Iraq -- Obama said such large-scale operations, which continue to reverberate in the current presidential race, would only make the fight against extremism harder.
    Obama said the idea of "sending 100,000 troops to invade every country where an organization like this appears going be counterproductive and, in some ways, feeds the kinds of ideology that we're fighting."
    Obama offered the assessment as part of three hours of conversations Bergen had with the President and his top circle about details of the raid that killed bin Laden for the Anderson Cooper 360 special "'We Got Him,' Obama, Bin Laden and the War on Terror."
    While Obama spoke with confidence of the decision to launch the raid despite the odds being "probably 50/50" that that the U.S. was correct that the target in the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound it was tracking was bin Laden, he did speak about the difficulty in making wrenching decisions, especially with the expanded use of drones during his presidency.
    Unmanned aircraft have become an invaluable tool in areas tough to reach with U.S. soldiers, Obama said. Within the first two years of his presidency, though, Obama said he felt the legal architecture and control systems in place to use them weren't enough.
    "It became so easy to use them without thinking through all the ramifications," he said. "What we've tried to do is make sure that we are accountable at the highest levels for how we're using Predators."
    The standard is of "near certainty" that the target is an active terrorist threat and that civilian casualties are being avoided, the President said.
    "Having said that, you always lose sleep because you know there's always the possibility in a kinetic action that somebody who shouldn't be killed is killed," he said.
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    And he spoke of the risks of the bin Laden operation in the shadow of U.S. history.
    Reminded that former President Jimmy Carter had lost a chance at a second term because he'd taken a similar risk in trying to free U.S. hostages from revolutionary Iran -- and failed -- Obama responded, "if I hadn't thought of it on my own, it was raised by a number of my advisors."
    Still, Obama said that he didn't consider aborting the mission, even when it started with a downed helicopter.
    "My initial concern there was extraction. That if something happened to the helicopter that we could make sure that we got our guys out," he said, pointing to the backup helicopters that had been prepared as part of their "plan B."
    "Nevertheless, it gave you a little jolt," Obama said. "I think it reminded you that no matter how well you plan, there's always going to be something that comes up."
    Obama said U.S. Special Forces had developed a deep capacity during years in Iraq and Afghanistan that meant this wasn't completely foreign terrain for them.
    "It was uniquely complicated because the stakes were so high," Obama said, "and we were operating inside of Pakistan. But these guys had been through a lot of harrowing moments."
    "One thing about having been through a lot of this previously, and everybody sitting around this table had been through the ups and downs of any wartime situation," the President said. "It's interesting the degree to which nobody cheered or nobody high fived, because we couldn't be sure at that point."
    Obama said it wasn't until the helicopters had landed in Afghanistan with bin Laden's body "that all of us breathed ... a sigh of relief."
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    Obama and his team said that now, any future terror-fighting formula will have to include working with allies to address the political resentment and economic frustration that give extremist groups such fertile ground.
    The case of Pakistan has proved particularly thorny. There has continued to be speculation that the government was aware of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad.
    Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN that she believes that senior Pakistanis knew bin Laden was there.
    Clinton said it was "just too much of a coincidence ... that that house, that unusual-looking house would be built in that community near the military academy, surrounded by retired military professionals," even though "we couldn't prove it."
    "There was never any evidence that we could uncover that led directly to the top of the Pakistani military and intelligence service," Clinton said. "I believe Pakistanis knew.
    Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, will have to evaluate what's needed to continue the fight against al Qaeda should she take the White House. But Obama's aides stressed that the next commander in chief will for sure need a blend of the fine-grained intelligence work and surgical force that defined the lethal 2011 strike against al Qaeda's mastermind.
    In the years since the raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, the U.S. has worked systematically to degrade core al Qaeda and go after its leadership, Obama said. Meanwhile, the ability of organizations like ISIS or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to carry out a catastrophic attack is much lower, he said.
    But Obama and his advisors acknowledged that the fight against terrorism didn't end with bin Laden's death. If anything, they said that despite their efforts, that battle is now more complex with social media fueling the proliferation of groups and extending their reach.
    The President praised the "incredible structure of cooperation" between intelligence, military and law enforcement "that has hardened the homeland," but he didn't directly mention the controversy surrounding measures such as National Security Agency surveillance and the use of drones, though both are central to Obama's terror-fighting approach.
    John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said that "if counter-terrorism is going to be effective and you're going to take offensive action, you need to have the care and the precision of a surgeon's scalpel."
    Obama said the scalpel has only gotten sharper and more precise since he took office. He said that U.S. intelligence gathering as well as the accuracy and lethality of Predator drone strikes have "increased significantly" in the past eight years.
    The next president, whether Republican or Democrat, will have to think strategically about the battle against terrorism, Obama said, a long-term undertaking that doesn't involve just force, but ideas.
    While he didn't address the current presidential race directly, Obama and his officials offered an indirect criticism of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump's proposal that American Muslims be denied entry to the U.S. if they leave the country.
    "We have to make sure that we're not engaging in the kind of knee-jerk anti-Muslim sentiment that we've heard from some politicians," Obama said. American Muslims' success and integration has insulated the U.S. from some of the terrorism Europe is seeing, he added. Broadly speaking, the U.S. should "not react in ways that make the problem worse rather than better," Obama said.
    The current occupant of the Oval Office dismissed the possibility of Trump taking over from him, saying, "I don't expect that to happen."
    Obama concluded with his belief that the American people can draw a reassuring lesson from the raid that will endure beyond his tenure.
    "We've got really effective people and a government that knows how to do this," he said. "And as long as we operate from a position of confidence and strength and are true to who we are, groups like this or individuals like this can't defeat us."