opinionBy Oren Dorell
Washington DC — Shortly before leaving the Capitol following President Obama's inauguration Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was asked about an al-Qaeda affiliate's recent attack on an Algerian gas plant in which three Americans workers were among the 37 dead.
"I'm glad we were able to get some rescued," Panetta said. "That just tells us al-Qaeda is committed to creating terror wherever they are, and we've got to fight back."
As U.S. forces have largely left Iraq and plan a withdrawal from Afghanistan, intelligence experts see a global threat emerging on a continent that has frustrated foreign forces for much of the past century and provided the world's bad actors a refuge from international justice.
Indeed, less than two years after the death of Osama bin Laden, recent events have shown that global terrorism is alive and well. As the fractured terrorist networks with shifting alliances adapt to this new world, counterterrorism experts say the United States and its allies need to craft a strategy to counter this ever-changing enemy.
Though al-Qaeda might be "on its heels," as Obama declared during the presidential campaign, the terrorist organization that launched the 9/11 attacks a dozen years ago from its haven in Afghanistan is finding new life -- and a new base -- in North Africa and Syria. Among its most recent advances:
Terrorists with ties to al-Qaeda were involved in attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen has gone from a few hundred fighters to several thousand despite the threat of American drones.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was advancing on Mali's capital until French troops joined the fight.
Much of Somalia is in the hands of al-Shabab, the sharia-imposing ally of al-Qaeda.
The "core al-Qaeda" group overseen by bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahri has not conducted a successful terrorist attack in years, according to the global intelligence consulting firm Stratfor in a recent report. Its financing and communications have been seriously hampered.
However, in North Africa, al-Qaeda-aligned operatives are thriving and creating an "arc of instability" that stretches from the coast of West Africa into the Horn of Africa, says NATO Allied Command's Civil-Military Fusion Center, which provides military data to civilian groups.
The intelligence challenge
The United States has worked to counter extremists in Africa and the Arabian desert for more than a decade, and the Obama administration emphasizes that it remains committed to relentlessly defeating terrorism wherever it festers.
The White House has "always said that we need to remain vigilant about any al-Qaeda affiliates, in particular AQIM in its efforts to exploit unrest in the region," Tommy Vietor, spokesman for Obama's National Security Council, said Tuesday.
"We have worked closely with countries across Africa to build up their capacity to fight terrorists and to address the political and economic instability that allows countries to become terrorist safe havens," Vietor said. "We've also been in close touch with international partners like the French who share our goal of denying terrorists a safe haven."
The efforts include support for the African Union Mission in Somalia, a multinational force that pushed the al-Shabab movement from the capital of Mogadishu in 2011.
U.S. Africa Command, established in 2007, works with military units of African countries such as Kenya and Uganda to help them fend off threats. The Obama administration supports a similar force in West Africa to take back northern Mali from Islamist extremists who overran the area last year. Drone strikes have hit targets in East Africa.
Yet just as Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, Obama's nominee to head the CIA, notes that al-Qaeda is weaker than ever, analysts watching the global terrorism picture say the recent attack in Algeria and the drumbeat of incidents elsewhere illustrate the need for a new kind of "global war on terror" that focuses not on all-out invasions but on superior intelligence-gathering followed by military strikes.
"The key is to keep improving our analysis and intelligence capability," says J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. "Things are shifting, and we need to be agile, able to shift personnel, expertise and resources to where the hot spots are."
Experts in counterterrorism echo Pham's assessment that when it comes to combating a more diffuse terrorist network in the 21st century, the starting point is better intelligence. The controversial U.S. drone program is often lauded for precision strikes and the elimination of high-value terrorists, but many strategists say picking off terrorists in this manner has a clear downside.
Joshua Foust, a former senior intelligence analyst for the U.S. military and a political analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Yemen, says the administration should monitor militants longer before killing them with drones. He says the United States needs to focus more on human intelligence and social media to pull back the curtain on terror networks -- then break them up
"We don't have human assets inside those organizations," says Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project. "That requires a rewrite of the rules of gathering clandestine information."
Joe Wipple, who served 30 years as an operations officer in the CIA's National Clandestine Service, says U.S. intelligence agents are bound by laws that limit their effectiveness.
"I do not believe we would allow a source to engage in a terrorist act in order to establish his credibility with a terrorist organization," he says. "That's what it would likely take for someone to infiltrate up the ladder in a terrorist organization." Instead, agents look for people in a terrorist organization's support network, who provide money, explosives or transportation, he says.
If there are no such sources in the difficult environment of North Africa's deserts, Wipple says, it's because the United States has focused elsewhere during the past decade.
"Good (human intelligence) takes years and decades of development and recruitment, not a U.S. strong suit," Wipple said.
Human vs. mechanical
Foust recommends that Congress and the White House craft rules that would allow the U.S. intelligence services to do more to penetrate terror networks in Africa and beyond with human spies as opposed to mechanical ones in the air or electronic surveillance.
Others say Obama should revive parts of the detainee and interrogation program in effect during President George W. Bush's administration when the CIA employed "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding to wrest information from captured terrorists.
"With every drone strike, we're vaporizing intelligence about what they intend to do in East Africa, the Islamic Maghreb and elsewhere," says Marc Thiessen, a former White House official under George W. Bush.
"There are times you have to (use drones), but anytime you can get somebody alive rather than killing them, you ought to be doing it."
Thiessen says Obama should issue an executive order to revive parts of the Bush-era program. Such a program would require legal guidance to enable holding detainees and facilities for long-term detention and interrogation, he says.
Reviving the harsh interrogation techniques of the Bush era is not necessary, Thiessen says, but "we need to be doing something to get intelligence, and that involves talking to people."
Targeted killings have removed half the top leaders of the centralized terrorist network once based in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the Obama administration. But al-Qaeda has grown stronger in places such as Libya and Syria.
In northern Mali, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) joined forces with other Islamist militias last year to take control of arid territory the size of Texas. The United States is providing a French invasion force with aerial intelligence and transportation close to the battlefield.
An AQIM offshoot that calls itself "Signers in Blood" attacked an Algerian gas facility last week in Amenas and took hundreds of hostages over a five-day onslaught. Thirty-seven workers were killed, including three Americans.
Threat to the U.S.?
Pham and others say AQIM's threat to the U.S. homeland is remote, for now. But the group is a danger to U.S. interests in an area that the United States and much of the world relies on for energy.
Brennan's assessment? He has called al-Qaeda's vision of global domination through a violent Islamic caliphate "absurd" and said U.S. strategy is not organized "against a feckless delusion that is never going to happen."
He says the Obama administration will frustrate al-Qaeda leaders' hopes "to bleed us financially by drawing us into long, costly wars that also inflame anti-American sentiment" by ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and not deploying large armies.
"Going forward ... our best offense won't always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us," Brennan says.
Some experts say a soft response to the growing threat will come back to haunt the United States, just as it did during the 1990s when bin Laden and his associates were seen as a dangerous, but limited, nuisance rather than the mammoth threat that launched 9/11.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operative at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, points out that there has been no U.S. retaliation after al-Qaeda-linked terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. The restrained reaction creates the perception that "the United States is weak," which will embolden more jihadism, he says.
When the consulate was attacked, Gen. Carter Ham, leader of U.S. Africa Command, didn't have a regular fighting force under his command and couldn't launch a quick rescue, Pham says. He still doesn't.
"We're fighting unconventional asymmetric challenges across the globe, but we're constantly fighting using conventional means -- fighting the last war and not the current one," Pham says.