The US Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States on September 11, 2012. Image Credit: Reuters

Spectacular terrorist attacks; talk of a “war on terror”; pre-emptive military action in faraway, politically unstable places. As the world watches the resurgence of jihadist activity, and in particular the unfolding of the hostage crisis at a remote gas complex in the Algerian desert, one can be forgiven for asking whether we ever truly made it out of the last decade.

It is not just the dramatic events of the past few days. Before Algeria and before Mali — where French fighter jets have been deployed against jihadists, who last week were advancing on the capital — there was Benghazi and the attack on the US Consulate. Then there is Syria, where a jihadist group has established itself as the strongest element in a loose rebel force fighting to topple the Bashar Al Assad regime. This all runs counter to received wisdom. How many times have we been told that Al Qaida has been defeated, that the US drones war was keeping any remnants in check? And has not the very ideology of a global jihad been blown apart by the powerful expression of peaceful resistance to dictatorships in the Arab world?

In many ways the answer is yes — and yet it tells only part of the story. Much as we might like easy explanations of how good can defeat evil and how a peaceful Islam can conquer the perverse interpretations of the jihadists, the apparent resurgence we are witnessing is different from the challenges of the past decade and the result of a set of complex factors. Indeed, it will require different responses to those deployed over the past decade. In the years following the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, the US-led anti-terrorism campaign focused on dismantling the Al Qaida network’s central command in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No one can deny the gains achieved, which culminated in the 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden.

However, nor can one ignore the fact that Al Qaida affiliates have survived — one based in Yemen, the other in the Sahara — and that these franchises have tried to evolve and have, to a certain extent, succeeded in maintaining their relevance. Whether there are direct links between these groups and what is left of the Al Qaida central command is a matter of debate. They might share intelligence and funding networks, but more likely, they operate on their own, according to their local environment. As Geoff Porter of north Africa Risk Consulting, says: “We are seeing Al Qaida-style sensational attacks from a decade ago, but it’s not Al Qaida [central].”

In Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the presumed leader of the group that launched the attack on the gas facility, had split from Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). His breakaway brigade’s assault on the In Menas gas site was possibly motivated by rivalry with AQIM as much as by the French intervention in Mali. Moreover, he has been at war with the Algerian authorities for two decades. It is Algeria’s gas industry, the regime’s lifeline, that is his main target — as much as his quest for a massive global media coup.

The other important factor is the jihadists’ exploitation of the security vacuum in north Africa that followed the Arab uprising. Jihadists were panicked by the sight of millions of young Arabs demonstrating to the world, not just that their grievances are with their own authoritarian regimes — not some foreign enemy — but also their commitment to non-violent struggle.

Sadly, extremists have found an opportunity for a comeback. Suspected terrorists who were in prison have been released. Dictatorial regimes and their all-powerful intelligence services have been replaced by weak authorities struggling to assert themselves.

In a curious and developing trend, from Yemen to north Africa, a range of new groups — unrelated to each other, but sharing the name of Ansar Al Sharia — have sprung up over the past year. Some say they are peaceful. All are committed to establishing Islamic law in the states that are reconstituting themselves.

Like Syria’s Jabhat Al Nusra, their objective appears to be more locally focused — unlike the global agenda of Bin Laden. Yet, they can turn their attention abroad, depending on the progress of their domestic battles.

The collapse of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya dealt a heavy blow to efforts to contain Al Qaida-inspired militants on the southern flank of the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the rebel Tawareq fighters, who have joined hands with jihadist groups in northern Mali, were recruited by Gaddafi in the past and became part of his ruthless security apparatus. After his demise they returned home, better trained and better equipped. Meanwhile, Islamist radicals based in Mali have benefited from a fresh source of weapons, shared or sold by Libyan rebels after the revolution.

“It is not that the jihadist groups are stronger today ... but the context has changed and they are taking advantage of it,” says Aaron Zelin, an expert on extremist groups who runs jihadology.net, a website that publishes and translates jihadist documents.

There are no easy answers on how to address this more diffuse and mutating threat, but just as the jihadists are evolving, so too must western policy. Ensuring better security and intelligence links with new governments is paramount, but so is a more tailored and locally-driven approach. Syrian rebels who are happy to cooperate with Jabhat Al Nusra, even if they do not share its ideology, say that no one else has come to help them.

Even if all jihadists look the same in terms of their actions, it is crucial to understand the rapidly changing local environments and the political and security circumstances that allow them to exist — if not to thrive. The alternative is that America risks being condemned to continue reliving the battles of the past decade.

— Financial Times