Many felt that the death of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and numerous other key members of the al-Qa'ida leadership had stemmed the tide of the movement and the global jihad. But as terrorism issues appear to be slipping down the hierarchy of perceived risks in much of the Western world, the trends that are emerging from the Syrian conflict remind us that al-Qa'ida is in this campaign for the long term.
Recent reports in this newspaper of the numbers of Australians involved in the conflict in Syria provide further evidence, if it were needed, of the significance of Syria from a counter-terrorism perspective.
The Arab Spring early last year caught most governments off guard, as it did al-Qa'ida, which was still recovering from the death of its leader and very much in disarray. But before the emergence of a popular movement against the Assad regime, which can be traced back to March last year, al-Qa'ida's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had called upon pious Muslims to support an insurgency against the Syrian leadership. Zawahiri's message was released in an eight-minute video in February last year and was pitched predominantly at Sunni Muslims living in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Since then, the message has spread further afield and the lure of joining the jihad in Syria against a Shia dictator is drawing in young men from around the world.
Within the complex web of armed civilians, defected soldiers, paramilitary units and militias, the dynamic of growing numbers of foreign militants joining the fight is providing further confusion and danger as they disperse within the different groups present, including the Free Syrian Army, Liwa al-Islam, Katibat al-Ansar, Ahrar al-Sham, and most concerningly Jabhat al-Nusra, which has close links with al-Qa'ida in Iraq. Accurate estimates of the number of foreign fighters in the country are difficult to come by but there are somewhere between 1500 and 2500. Of course, not all of these are battle-hardened warriors; many have travelled to the region to experience the "thrill" of a war zone, provide assistance in non-combat roles or want to help because of family ties to the region. But many make the trek with the goal of helping to overthrow the Assad regime.
In this context, it's hard not to draw parallels with the situation in Afghanistan during the mid to late-1980s when foreign fighters poured into the country to assist in defeating the Soviet forces there. Although they only made up a minority of the jihadis within the fighting force, they capitalised on the training, both ideological and practical, to create the beginnings of the al-Qa'ida narrative and sow the seeds of the global jihad. One among them became the group's figurehead. When focusing on the situation that has developed in Syria, we'd do well to learn from the mistakes that were made when al-Qa'ida went about its business relatively unwatched and unconstrained.
There's evidence jihadis from Chechnya, Algeria, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang province in China, Afghanistan, the US, Europe (about 20 Swedes, 10 Danes, 13 Norwegians and unspecified numbers from Britain, France and Belgium), Indonesia and Australia have been active in Syria. The report in The Weekend Australian by Paul Maley and Cameron Stewart confirmed about 100 Australian men had been to or were in Syria and involved in the conflict in either combat or combat support roles. There are obvious security issues for Australia as those individuals return.
Some of these cases have come to light in the press when individuals have been killed and were already known to Australian counter-terrorism authorities. Yet many more remained unnamed and presumably there could be many more who remain unmonitored: the figure of 100 could well be a conservative estimate.
The Australian government, aware of nationals travelling to Syria, provided a statement by the Australian Federal Police in August stating that it was illegal for Australians to engage in fighting for either side in Syria, to fund, train or recruit someone to fight, or to supply or fund weapons for either side. It appears this warning has not stopped those most highly motivated.
Those individuals who gain frontline combat experience in Syria and the ideological extremes and motivations that they bring back with them are likely to concern Australian authorities. These skills and motivations create a potent magnetism to others interested in the violent jihadist message.
Even if the Assad regime falls sooner rather than later, the jihadist element might already have influence in a post-Assad era. The longer the battle rages within Syria, the more influence the jihadist element will gain.
The bottom line is that while governments are busy downgrading the terrorist agenda, new spheres of influence and radical messaging emerge. For al-Qa'ida and its affiliates, it is a long-term battle in which a decade is but a fraction of the timescales required to fulfil its objectives. The warning to be heeded is that before any cuts to established counter-terrorism capabilities are applied, a greater understanding of the long-term aims of terrorist groups is needed.