Arab Spring Provides Opportunities For Al-Qaida

The Pentagon's top lawyer has talked about how the U.S. would deal with terrorism after al-Qaida's core was defeated. But experts say the talk is premature. The Arab Spring has helped al-Qaida affiliates proliferate over the past year. And while they might not be able to pull off large scale attacks, they are still a very real threat.

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The war on terror had a clear beginning. It was America's response to the attacks on September the 11th, 2001. The question has long been whether the war will ever have a clear end. Last week, the Pentagon's top lawyer predicted that one day al-Qaida would be destroyed and the conflict would be over. But events in the Middle East may derail any such talk. The Arab Spring has created new opportunities for al-Qaida and its affiliates. So while the group might not be able to pull off large-scale attacks anymore, it is still a very real threat, as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The Arab Spring has not turned out quite the way American counterterrorism officials had hoped. What began as a popular movement to make governments accountable has morphed into something much less predictable: an opportunity for al-Qaida to establish a foothold in the Middle East and Africa.

JUAN ZARATE: The reality is that the Arab Spring is giving way to a period of grand convulsions and potential revolution throughout the Arab world.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Juan Zarate is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

ZARATE: And in that revolution come political opportunities and openings for extremist groups and those who are politically aligned with them.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: The past year has actually been a particularly bad one. We've really seen an upsurge in al-Qaida-related activity.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a former scholar-in-residence at the CIA and a professor at Georgetown University. He offers this list of where al-Qaida is in the ascendance.

HOFFMAN: In northwest and east Africa, in Yemen. We've seen a return of al-Qaida to Jordan with a very serious plot that was just disrupted in the past few weeks. Escalation certainly of al-Qaida activity in Iraq, and unfortunately that has also crossed the border into Syria.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And Syria is of particular concern. One senior intelligence source tells NPR that six months ago there were hundreds of al-Qaida-linked fighters in Syria. Now they number more than a thousand. Again, Georgetown's Bruce Hoffman.

HOFFMAN: Syria is becoming something like Afghanistan was in the 1980s. It's becoming a magnet for foreign fighters, a cause celebre for jihadis.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And from al-Qaida's point of view, Syria is an ideal battleground for its fighters. It sits in the heart of the Middle East, it's an Arab country, and the same supply lines that al-Qaida used to get fighters into Iraq during the war with the U.S. are now being used in reverse, to get foreign fighters into Syria. Zarate says that's just one example of how al-Qaida is changing, and that's been a conundrum for counterterrorism officials. They've nearly won one fight against al-Qaida central and now they face another.

ZARATE: Al-Qaida now appears in insurgencies around the world, in regional and local cells.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which is why the speech last week by the Pentagon's top lawyer, Jay Johnson, came at an odd time. Johnson told an audience at Oxford University that there would be what he called a tipping point, in which al-Qaida was no longer able to launch a strategic strike against the United States and the war on terror would be over. Zarate says even if the U.S. succeeds in defeating the original al-Qaida, a new al-Qaida has taken its place.

ZARATE: The way I like to put it is that the al-Qaida of 2001 and the threat from 9/11 is very different from the al-Qaida of 2012 and the global terrorist threat we face. And I think it's very hard to talk about the tide of war receding when the threat of global terrorism continues.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Judging by the rise of groups linked to al-Qaida, the end of the war on terror is still a ways off. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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