BEIRUT — The death of leader Osama bin Laden did not end the spread of al-Qaeda, say analysts. It may have even helped it.
The chaos of the Arab Spring revolutions, al-Qaeda's shift to a more bottom-up structure and a perceived pullback of U.S. influence in the Middle East are behind the spread of America's No. 1 enemy in the world, say several analysts who study the core group in Pakistan and affiliates who swear allegiance to it.
The latest and most stark example came this week in Iraq, where al-Qaeda militants seized control of government buildings and districts of Fallujah and Ramadi, cities that were liberated from jihadist control by American troops during the Iraq War.
"This is a very worrisome development for the entire region," says Aviv Oreg, former head of the Israel Defense Force's military intelligence on al-Qaeda and global jihad.
The killing of bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, by a team of Navy SEALs ended the threat from the man who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, which killed more than 3,000 Americans, and other terror bombings in the Middle East.
But it did not represent the end of al-Qaeda. The Islamist terror group that bin Laden formed in the early 1990s to rid the Middle East of Western influence and usher in global Islam based on his stringent Wahhabist beliefs has spread and notched notable successes recently.
GAINING NEW FOOTHOLDS
In Algeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has conducted several attacks, including on a gas plant in January 2013 that left more than 35 hostages dead. Somalia's al-Shabab controls swaths of the country and threatens to retake the capital despite the efforts of an African force backed by the Pentagon.
In Yemen, the central government, aided by the U.S. military, has been battling al-Qaeda militants across several provinces since 2010. Ansar al-Din extremists captured the entire north of Mali in 2012 and were dislodged only after invading French troops arrived.
Forces aligned with Ansar al-Sharia are accused of taking part in the Sept. 11, 2011, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Jabhat al-Nusra Front have taken over parts of northern Syria during the country's civil war. In Lebanon, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham are accused of recent car bombings and suicide bombings.
Katherine Zimmerman, senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, says one main reason for al-Qaeda's spread is its shift from an organization that was run from the top to a collection of loose affiliates that act as they see fit.
"The al-Qaeda human network is an extremely important component of the group's resilience and effectiveness, but it is not the sole component. The concept of leaderless jihad minimizes the significance of the core al-Qaeda group, emphasizing decentralization and bottom-up operational initiative instead," Zimmerman says in her most recent report.
BLACK FLAG OF RESILIENCE
This shift has allowed al-Qaeda to survive significant losses over the past 12 years. In the past three years alone, the United States has killed four of the top five leaders of the organization, including bin Laden, Sheik Said al Masri, Atiyah Abd al Rahman and Abu Yahya al Libi.
Besides bin Laden's chosen successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, few individuals who served directly under bin Laden remain at large. The United States described the deaths as a "crippling blow," and President Obama and his Cabinet have said the operations showed that al-Qaeda was on the path to defeat.
Yet those who have taken up the black flag of al-Qaeda outside the core group of al-Qaeda in Pakistan have adapted and improvised, funding operations through smuggling and taking advantage of the failed governments that have arisen out of the Arab Spring, which wiped away longtime dictatorships that repressed Islamist movements, Zimmerman says.
"The al-Qaeda network thrives in areas with low or poor governance and the challenge to the state in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and now Syria has forced the area under state control to contract significantly," she says.
The breakdown in security across North Africa over the course of the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions facilitated the outpouring of arms and munitions from Libya. These weapons are resurfacing in areas where al-Qaeda affiliates or associates are active, such as Syria and Mali, according to AEI's Critical Threats program.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took advantage of the decisions by Yemen's regime to redeploy forces from the fight against the group and of fractures within the Yemeni security forces. It fielded an insurgent arm in south Yemen. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, al-Qaeda's affiliate in West Africa, benefited from the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya by gaining access to his weapons, which are surfacing in al-Qaeda arms caches.
"The network remains far from crippled, and there is little evidence indicating that the network on the whole is on the decline. Al-Qaeda's affiliates actually strengthened their positions in 2011 despite the death of bin Laden," according to Zimmerman.
Efraim Karsh, a professor of Middle East Studies at Bar Ilan University and Kings College, London, predicted the phenomenon of global jihad will only grow, especially in Iraq, now that the U.S. is out of the picture.
"America managed to calm down the situation, but the Iraqi government hasn't kept a lid on the problem," Karsh says. The problem "is that Americans and the West don't realize that this is a very devout region and values like nationalism and liberalism aren't deeply entrenched."
UPRISINGS LEAVE NATIONS VULNERABLE
Since the tumultuous uprisings swept across the region starting in 2010, struggling governments have failed to control vast swaths of land that are now bursting with militant activity, says Frederic Wehrey, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"In eastern Libya or in Sinai you have a weak state that is unable to govern, that is unable to administer an area," says Wehrey. "You have a set of festering grievances, tribal grievances, and you have al-Qaeda able to exploit those."
In Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, a neglected stretch of desert and mountain terrain that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, some groups have claimed affiliation to al-Qaeda. The peninsula has remained largely lawless since the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak and has been host to continuous deadly attacks against government and security outposts.
After the summer military coup that overthrew Islamist president Mohammed Morsi — the nation's first freely elected leader — attacks in the Sinai, and elsewhere, escalated.
"You have al-Qaeda the organization and al-Qaeda the ideology," says Omar Ashour, a non-fellow resident at the Brookings Doha Center and a senior lecturer in Middle East politics and security studies at the University of Exeter.
After the coup, the ideology that arms and violence are the ultimate determinant of politics in Egypt was reinforced, he says. And poor government is being exploited by local militants who are from the region, not at the direction of al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
"At the bottom of all this, and especially in the Sinai region … you have decades of injustices and repression," he says. "So you have enough grievances to foster mass anger," which groups like al-Qaeda can capitalize on.
That is what is happening in Lebanon now and raising the threat levels there, according to Lebanese political analyst Kassem Kassir, a specialist in radical organizations.
"The weakening of the Lebanese central government, the rivalry between Lebanese sects and the general state of chaos guarantee organizations such as al-Qaeda a stronger foothold in Lebanon," Kassir says.
INROADS IN IRAQ AND SYRIA
The United Nations reports that 8,868 Iraqis were killed in 2013, the highest death toll since the height of the sectarian killings of the Iraq War in 2008. Many of these deaths are from car bombings and suicide bombings that the Iraqi government blames on al-Qaeda.
Dozens of Palestinians and Lebanese Sunnis have followed this call by fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria.
"These men who have witnessed wars and massacres will come back to Lebanon with a different outlook on life and a greater willingness to be killed in
the name of Jihad," warns Kassir.
From Tripoli, Salafist Sheikh Nabil Rahim admits that the events in Syria have translated to growing radicalism among Lebanese Sunnis.
"Al-Qaeda may not exist in Lebanon as an organization, per se, but its ideology is definitely spreading," he says.
It is Iraq and Syria where the Islamists may be planning their greatest successes to date. Obama pulled all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq in 2011 and in Syria has resisted calls to arm rebels against dictator Bashar Assad who are not aligned with al-Qaeda.
Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, testified before the House in December that al-Qaeda in Iraq has ambitions to dominate the terrorist scene in Syria, expand into Lebanon and the Mediterranean, Israel to the West and Turkey in the north.
He says al-Qaeda is clearly succeeding in convincing its adherents that Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are multiple fronts in one war to create an Islamic state in all three. But he says they can be stopped by helping the moderate Iraqis to again dismantle al-Qaeda networks and propaganda campaigns as was done five years ago.
Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, says the fact al-Qaeda militants are now crossing from Syria into Iraq is a sign of how the organization's strength has grown since U.S. forces left Iraq at the end of 2011, and how Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's alienation of Sunnis Muslims in Iraq's Anbar province has exacerbated the problem.
"When the Americans left Iraq, Islamic State of Iraq numbered in the low hundreds; now they are about 3,000," says Gerges.
"Al-Qaeda is a social parasite that breeds on instability and chaos. What has happened is that it has found an opening, a space in the Anbar region, which because of the alienation of the Sunni community, feels marginalized and voiceless."