Oren Dorell, @OrenDorell,USA TODAY
The continued closure of 20 U.S. embassies across the Middle East and parts of Africa amid increased al-Qaeda activity in the region is the latest example showing that U.S. counterterrorism strategy has failed to adapt to the terrorists' spread, analysts say.
Despite the decimation of al-Qaeda's core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, "Al-Qaeda has been able to morph over the past decade as a function of U.S. strategy countering it," says Hassan Mneimneh, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund.
"It moved from a centralized organization to a series of local-actor organizations and (now) it's trying to reassert itself as a network of local-actor organizations that are trying to connect to each other."
U.S. forces have killed dozens of al-Qaeda's top deputies, and Navy SEALs killed its former chief Osama bin Laden, prompting President Obama on the campaign trail last year to declare that al-Qaeda is "back on its heels" and no longer much of a threat.
John Brennan, Obama's then-counterterrorism chief who now runs the CIA, had said the network's local franchises proliferating across North Africa and the Mideast were more focused on regional concerns than attacking the West.
Obama's aggressive campaign of drone strikes against al-Qaeda's senior leaders in Pakistan meant increasingly long spans before new leaders emerged and for the core organization to recover, "but I think we overestimated how well it was working," Mneimneh said.
While focused on "core al-Qaeda" leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. officials failed to address the threat inherent in al-Qaeda's quasi-independent operations in North Africa, East Africa, Sinai, Yemen and Iraq - and they lost sight of how al-Qaeda would evolve in reaction to U.S. pressure and the Arab Spring, Mneimneh said.
"What we had succeeded in doing was defeating one model of operation of al Qaeda but we did not defeat the organization itself," he said.
Mark Jacobson, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who was deputy NATO representative in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, said he was surprised that al-Qaeda still remained such a threat.
After all the effort expended by the U.S. military to weaken core al-Qaeda and its strongest affiliates, "to see one part of this group is gathering transnational or trans-regional reach again is very disturbing," Jacobson said.
The threat shows that al-Qaeda continues to be a fractured terrorist organization based in regional groups and conflict, but it adapts and still represents a global threat to the United States, said Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush who's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"We're witnessing another chapter of the terrorist threat and we'll be living with this for years to come," Zarate said.
Al-Qaeda's networks are adapting to new opportunities and to pressure put on them by the U.S. and others, Zarate said.
"They're also taking advantage of the political, security and geographic space they operate in. We don't control all aspects of that so it's unfair to blame U.S. policy entirely," he said.
Zarate credits the Obama administration for its aggressive war on al-Qaeda leaders but says other policies are evidence of short-sightedness. Pulling troops out of Iraq without leaving behind a significant U.S. garrison, plans for a significant or total withdrawal from Afghanistan and a failure to take significant action in Syria show an administration acting "without looking at how those moves affect those countries in the future," Zarate said.
Al-Qaeda activity has mushroomed in Iraq and in Syria, which Zarate said is as much about toppling Assad as about blocking the al-Qaeda movement. That would require U.S. pressure on allies to block foreign fighters, and making sure the victors are democratic Syrians who are not Jihadists.
"That requires resources and political will," Zarate said.
Administration officials have "not been as strategic as they could in terms of how the landscape is shifting ... (and asking) how do we prevent these groups from coming back in the future," Zarate said. "Longer term strategic thinking is what I think has been missing."
In the past year alone, Islamic radicals, many of whom are affiliated with al-Qaeda, have injected its fighters into several conflicts throughout the Middle East and Africa, and mounted numerous attacks.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq was decimated by the end of the Iraq war in 2009, according to the Institute for the Study of War. But it has regained control of many of its former staging areas and the ability to launch weekly waves of multiple car bomb attacks, say Jessica Lewis and Ahmed Ali at the Institute.
More than 1,000 people were killed in Iraq in July, the highest monthly death toll in five years, says the United Nations. Most of the attacks are against Shiites, considered apostates by the Sunni Muslim-led al-Qaeda.
In Syria, al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra is a combat force that has been fighting with some success in several battles against the regime of Syrian dictator Assad. The force reports directly to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri, according to Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has mounted terror attacks from Algeria for years but has expanded its operations in the wake of the overthrow of strongman Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, Kagan said in testimony before Congress in July.
Two al-Qaeda associated groups in Mali - Ansar al Din and the Movement for Tawhid (Unity) and Jihad in West Africa - took control of northern Mali and began a drive on southern Mali that was eventually halted by French forces.
Jihadist violence has also spread to Mali's neighbors, including Niger.
In Libya, al-Qaeda affiliated terror groups have been blamed for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consultae in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead.
In Yemen, al-Qaeda leaders in strongholds in the country's south have not been vanquished by a Yemen military backed by U.S. forces and drone strikes.
"Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and West Africa have dramatically expanded their operating areas and capabilities since 2009 and appear poised to continue that expansion," Kagan testified.
"They are by no means all actively working to attack the United States at this time, and some have denied that they intend to attack the U.S. at all. But how much stock can we put in those facts?"