When it released its National Strategy for Counterterrorism back in June, the Obama administration had a lot to crow about. Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama Bin Laden had been killed a month earlier by U.S. special forces in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Persistent operations by the United States and its Coalition partners over the preceding year had succeeded in degrading the organization's capabilities in a number of key theaters (including Afghanistan and Pakistan). And counterterrorism operations then underway would net major gains in the months that followed, not least the late September death by Predator drone of influential Yemeni ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki.
But, as U.S. and European policymakers are discovering, it is far too soon to count the Bin Laden network out. Indeed, the past half-year has seen new signs of life to the terror cartel, as it seeks to capitalize on the turmoil generated by the multiple revolutions taking place in the Middle East and North Africa in order to expand its strategic reach. And in at least one geographic location—Israel's southern border—alarming signs suggest that the organization has begun to put down fresh roots.
Earlier this year, a radical group calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula sprang onto the political scene on the margins of post-revolutionary Egypt, carrying out a series of bombings against the Egyptian-Israeli gas pipeline and participating in the bloody August ambush of a tourist bus outside the southern Israeli city of Eilat. Most recently, on December 20th, a second jihadist outfit—this one dubbed Ansar al-Jihad in the Sinai Peninsula—issued an online manifesto announcing its formation, and pledging allegiance to the al-Qaeda creed.
How did we get here? For years, the desert region that separates Egypt from Israel was both stable and peaceful. Demilitarized as part of the 'cold peace' concluded between Cairo and Jerusalem at Camp David in 1978, it served as a critical strategic buffer for both countries in the more-than-three decades that followed.
Over the past year, however, the so-called 'Arab Spring' has changed all that. The ferment which brought down aging Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak this spring also left the Sinai increasingly lawless and ungoverned. Criminality quickly filled the void, drawing radical elements into the area in the process. By May, Egyptian military officials were warning that more than hundreds of al-Qaeda members had made their way to the Peninsula, creating a real threat to both Egyptian and Israeli security.