The proliferation of militant jihadi groups across the Arab world is posing a new threat to the region’s stability, presenting fresh challenges to emerging democracies and undermining prospects for a smooth transition in Syria should the regime fall.
From Egypt’s Sinai desert to eastern Libya and the battlegrounds of Syria’s civil war, the push for greater democracy made possible by revolts in the Middle East and North Africa has also unleashed new freedoms that militants are using to preach, practice and recruit.
The rise of militant jihadists in the region is one of the reasons that Western policymakers have been reluctant to arm the opposition in Syria as the country’s 19-month-old conflict intensifies.
Most of the new groups have emerged in response to local grievances, and there are few signs that they have established meaningful organizational ties with the global al-Qaeda terrorist movement or even have transnational ambitions, analysts say. But many of them embrace ideologies akin to those espoused by al-Qaeda and — as last month’s attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi illustrated — could threaten U.S. interests.
“The potential now for the globalization of these groups is there due to the fact that there is significant ideological similarity,” said Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadist movements at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The likelihood becomes greater if there is stigmatization of these groups as being part of al-Qaeda’s global jihad and if, in their own societies, they are pushed deeper into the fringes.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged the scope of the threat from such movements in an address Friday that outlined the challenges for U.S. policymakers in North Africa.
“A year of democratic transition was never going to drain away reservoirs of radicalism built up through decades of dictatorship,” she said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “As we’ve learned from the beginning, there are extremists who seek to exploit periods of instability and hijack these democratic transitions.”
Among the groups causing Western officials the most concern is the increasingly active Jabhat al-Nusra, which surfaced in Syria this year to assert responsibility for a string of mysterious suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo and is shaping up to be an energetic participant in the battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Its claims of responsibility are posted on one of the main — and tightly controlled — online forums used by al-Qaeda, suggesting at least some level of coordination.
Experts say there are also signs that the group is working more closely with the Free Syrian Army, the name used by rebel forces battling Assad’s regime.
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters operate openly at a headquarters in a mosque in the embattled northern city of Aleppo and have won praise from other rebel units for their bravery. On Friday, the group was identified as a participant in an operation to wrest control of an air defense base outside Aleppo that contained sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, according to a video posted on YouTube.
On the streets of Syrian cities, small signs are surfacing that the extremists are winning some sympathy. Early this month, protesters who marched through the streets of Aleppo interspersed their calls for weapons to be provided to the Free Syrian Army with chants of “Jabhat al-Nusra,” according to a video uploaded onto YouTube.
The longer the conflict persists, the greater the likelihood that support for the radicals will grow, said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London.
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.”
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.