By Paul Cruickshank
Intelligence committee leaders in Congress warn that al Qaeda's network has strengthened over the past two years, creating new concern over the terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that the United States was no safer today than in 2011, despite the death of Osama bin Laden and the removal of senior al Qaeda operatives in drone strikes.
Their warning reflects growing concern among Western intelligence agencies about al Qaeda's growing strength in the Arab world.
While al Qaeda and groups that link to it have suffered setbacks in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, Somalia, Mali and other "Jihadist fronts," al Qaeda has taken advantage of the political turmoil caused by the Arab Spring to build its operations across North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.
"People think that, well, we've got this thing beat," Rogers said. "And that's just not the case."
Syria has been crucial to al Qaeda's restored fortunes. The civil war has seen the emergence of two al Qaeda affiliates each with several thousand men under arms. They control swaths of territory across the country.
The conflict has helped al Qaeda repair a brand tarnished in Muslim countries by the previous violent excesses of its affiliate in Iraq, because al Qaeda fighters in Syria have presented themselves as protecting Sunnis from a brutal "Alawite" dictatorship.
Syria has emerged as the new "Jihadist cause célèbre" across the Arab world, energizing that movement and providing a melting pot for foreign fighters from across the region to create personal ties that will underpin future terrorist networks.
By the measures of manpower, weaponry and territory, it can now be argued that the broader al Qaeda network is stronger than at any time since the peak of the Iraq insurgency half a decade ago, and perhaps even than at any time since 9/11.
The shutdown of more than 20 U.S. embassies across the Arab and Muslim world in August dramatically demonstrated the scale of the ongoing threat.
The closures followed a communication intercept suggesting al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen - AQAP - was planning to carry out a major attack.
Despite being forced to retreat from a number of towns in Yemen's tribal areas last year, the group still has significant resources at its disposal, including an unmatched team of bomb-makers adept at building devices which threaten Western aviation.
Groups linked to al Qaeda have also built a significant presence in Algeria, Libya, and the Sinai region of Egypt.
Nearly 1,000 people are now dying in terrorist attacks in Iraq in some months, many at the hands of al Qaeda suicide bombers.
Even Tunisia, previously the poster child for the Arab Spring, has a real and growing problem. In October, a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a hotel popular with Western tourists in the coastal resort of Sousse.
In Egypt, the overthrow of an elected Islamist president and the return of the security state have made a significant number of younger adherents believe al Qaeda was right all along - that only their brand of violence works.
The idea of al Qaeda was forged in part in Egypt's repressive jails and the concern is the same grim facilities will now produce a new generation of embittered zealots.
All this worries intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic. But al Qaeda's revived fortunes in the Arab world have not yet resulted in a spike in plots against the United States and other Western countries.
The main reason for this is that al Qaeda and its affiliates simply have bigger priorities. They believe the political turmoil produced by the Arab Spring has given them a historic opportunity to achieve what has always been their central aim: creating Islamic states in the Arab "heartland."
This has been the overriding priority, even for AQAP, the group that has targeted the United States most consistently in recent years. Its leader, Nasir al Wuhayshi - recently appointed al Qaeda's global No. 2 - has until now only assigned a fraction of the group's resources and manpower to "external operations."
There has also been a shift in strategic vision at the top. Whereas Osama bin Laden was determined to find a way to strike inside the United States once again, his successor Ayman al Zawahiri, has prioritized hitting U.S. interests in the Arab and Muslim world.
In recent years, instead of orchestrating major plots against the West, Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders have urged sympathizers there to carry out terrorist attacks in their name and posted bomb-making instructions online to help them.
Exhibit A: the Boston Marathon bombing last April.
But the fear is that at some point in the future a strengthened al Qaeda may reprioritize and launch its own terrorist attacks inside the West.
If past history is a guide, al Qaeda and its affiliates will eventually lose ground in Syria and other Jihadist fronts in the Arab world because of the unpopularity of their mediaeval ideology and their harsh treatment of the local population. In fact, a backlash is already underway in Syria.
Once the al Qaeda dream of creating Islamic theocracies starts to fade, it is possible the leaders of the various al Qaeda affiliates will blame the West, and – just like bin Laden on 9/11 – lash out at the powers they believe are blocking their goals.
Al Qaeda's affiliates in Syria poses the greatest potential threat. Well over 1,000 Europeans have travelled to fight in Syria, many with Jihadist groups – an unprecedented number.
This has provided the terrorist network with opportunities, if attacking the West again becomes the priority, to provide recruits with terrorist training and send them home. Because Europeans do not require visas to enter the United States, these recruits could also be used to attack America.