The sheer brutality of the Syria conflict is likely to further radicalize many people who joined the initially peaceful uprising with no goal other than to topple the governing regime, he said.
In addition to Jabhat al-Nusra, a number of smaller and perhaps more radical jihadi groups have surfaced, including the Mujaheddin al-Shura, which appears to have lured a number of foreign fighters, including Britons, to northern Syria and is thought to have carried out the kidnapping of two European journalists in July.
No Syrian group has yet expressed any interest in or affinity to the wider global jihadi movement and its obsession with targeting America, but that could change if the conflict drags on, Lister said.
“Those numbers could increase to the point where those groups become more stabilized and gain genuine footholds in Syria, and then we could see them adopting more of an internationalist outlook,” he said. “We haven’t seen any of that yet, but the longer the conflict goes on, the more likely it is that outlook will develop.”
A regionwide phenomenon
In Libya, as the state is being reinvented after 42 years of Moammar Gaddafi’s repressive rule, jihadists and Islamist militias are trying to decide whether to align themselves with the emerging status quo or fight it.
Some former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group have run for congress and headed to Tripoli, including the brother of Abu Yahya al-Libi, a top al-Qaeda leader. Others are suspected of involvement in the attack on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi.
There are still others who fall somewhere in between. Even the leaders of some of the Benghazi militias that helped Americans escape on the chaotic night of Sept. 11 do not seem fully committed to operating within the confines of the Libyan state. A State Department cable sent just hours before the attack warned that the leaders of the Libyan Shield and Rafallah al-Sehati militias had told American diplomats only days earlier that they would not guarantee security in Benghazi if the secularist Mahmoud Jibril became Libya’s prime minister.
“There’s no government, it’s all us,” said Fatih al-Obeidi, the leader of an elite Libyan Shield squad that escorted Americans from the annex where they had taken refuge to the airport from where they escaped Benghazi.
Leaders of the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya did not take credit for the attack, suggesting that it was not planned at a senior level, said William Lawrence, an analyst at the International Crisis Group who oversees the think tank’s research in North Africa.
“On the spectrum of a long-planned attack on a U.S. embassy and a spontaneous crowd attack, this incident is on neither extreme,” Lawrence said. “It’s somewhere in the middle.”
U.S. intelligence officials have said that there are some links between militants in Libya and members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North Africa offshoot of the global terrorist movement, citing intercepted communications. Lawrence said that is not surprising.
“All the bad jihadists know each other,” he said. “They all have each other’s numbers.”
In Tunisia, a wing of Ansar al-Sharia has taken root under the leadership of Seifallah Ben Hassine, an al-Qaeda affiliate who uses the nom de guerre Abu Iyad al-Tunisi. Members of the group mobbed the U.S. Embassy in Tunis two days after the Benghazi attack, but the group has not carried out complex attacks or formed public alliances with larger groups.
In Yemen, meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has begun to use Ansar al-Sharia as an alias, U.S. officials say. The State Department this month added the alias to its list of designated terrorist organizations.
The appeal of jihadist ideology also has marred Egypt’s democratic transition as militant groups along the border with Israel have taken advantage of vast pockets of lawless territory to establish training camps and launch attacks against the neighboring country.
Sly reported from Beirut. Michael Birnbaum in Benghazi contributed to this report.