After bin Laden was killed in May 2011, senior U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta described the group as being on the verge of strategic defeat. Since then, a series of unexpected developments have extended the network’s life span.
In particular, al-Qaeda franchises have gained strength in regions touched by the Arab Spring. The popular uprisings that toppled autocratic governments across the Middle East also weakened the grip of security services that had kept extremist forces in check. Civil wars in Syria and Libya provided local militants with weapons, experience and popular legitimacy.
“What we’re seeing in North Africa and Syria is an unfortunate result of Arab Spring,” said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. analyst and former consultant to the Pentagon on counterterrorism.
Islamists in those countries are only nominally tied to al-Qaeda, and most are focused on local causes. But their resurgence threatens Western interests in the region and perhaps beyond, Jones said.
Western governments already are warning of increased threats to embassies, businesses and tourists in the region. In France, where 10 percent of the population is of North African descent, security officials are bracing for the possibility of retaliatory strikes in response to its military action in Mali against militants linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the affiliate in North Africa’s Sahara and Sahel regions.
The Arab Spring “freed up people, resources and energy” while attracting foreign jihadists who gave local organizations a more international character, said Mike Shurkin, a former CIA analyst.
“We’re seeing evidence of internationalization of these local groups, particularly AQIM,” Shurkin said. “They are evolving rapidly and perhaps finally becoming the thing that people were fearing: a group with an international agenda.”
Among U.S. counterterrorism officials, a surging al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria is a source of particular concern. The group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is backed by al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq and has become one of the most potent groups in a broader insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-