Al-Qaeda didn't disappear after Osama Bin-Laden's death in 2011, it just evolved into something new — call it Al-Qaeda 3.0.
The terrorist group has become an ideology more than a specific group of leaders, an ideology that continues to cause mayhem in hot spots like Syria, Libya and growing numbers of African nations.
Experts who study terrorism say Al-Qaeda has had several distinct generations: pre-9/11 when it was an under-the-radar (at least to the U.S. public) group organized in Afghanistan by bin Laden. The second phase was when it resurfaced after 9/11 in Pakistan and then other parts of the Muslim world like Yemen.
But now, experts say there's a third phase that has emerged after bin Laden's death and the "Arab Spring" of revolutions that toppled dictators across the Arab world.
In this third phase, the focus has shifted from attacking targets in the United States or Europe to gaining power and forming alliances with local radical Islamic groups. Even though dozens of Al-Qaeda leaders have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan and Yemen in the past several years, that doesn't mean we don't have to worry anymore.
"In terms of threats to the United States, (Al-Qaeda) are diminishing," said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former advisor to both the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency during the war in Iraq on counter-terrorism. "These groups are concerned with local concerns.
"The United States is a rallying point. But over the long term we're repeating the same mistakes of the 1990s by ignoring a growing local threat that has transnational pretentions and international capabilities."
Hoffman notes that half of Mali is now controlled by Al-Qaeda linked groups that have taken over from a former democratic government. There are similar Islamic radical groups in Nigeria, Somalia and Mauritania. The Global Post recently published a special report on the growing links between various Al-Qaeda groups in each country, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamc Maghreg in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia.
So why should the U.S. care about such far-off and resource-poor nations? Hoffman says it's not likely that these groups will remain content within their borders.
"Even if these groups are narrowly locally focused, they see the United States as an impediment to their goals. They have regional and global pretentions. Also historically, it's rare that any terrorist campaign remains localized."
In the Arab world, remnants of Al-Qaeda are still active in Syria and Libya, according to Valentina Soria, a counter-terrorism analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.
Soria says the democratic revolutions that swept across much of the Arab world in the past two years have also provided opportunities for Al-Qaeda.
"The developments in the Arab world are providing ungoverned areas to pretty much relocate and connect between themselves and exploit the advantage," Sora said from her office in London. "Their actual capability to conduct terrorist operations around the world has been greatly degraded. But the threat remains in the kind of ideology that still resonates with militants."
Soria says Western terrorism and military analysts are carefully watching Mali right now to see if it becomes another Al-Qaeda hub, like Afghanistan or Pakistan in the past. While France is sending drones to the region, the United States and its allies are reluctant to get involved. African nations have discussed intervening, but a plan send 3,300 troops to oust the terror groups has been delayed until late 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times story.
Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria is also giving Al-Qaeda groups there time to organize, according to Georgetown's Bruce Hoffman.
"Al-Qaeda's obituary has been written for past 11 years," Hoffman said. "We are closer, but not there yet."
Photo: "To the Struggle Against World Terrorism" was conceived as the events
of 9/11 unfolded by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli, in Bayonne, New
Jersey. Credit: Corbis