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.
Cairo's caretaker government has done its best to combat the problem. With Israel's quiet acquiescence, it inserted more than 1,000 troops into the area this fall in an attempt to reestablish a semblance of security. But the region has nonetheless remained unstable, punctuated by repeated attacks on energy infrastructure and widespread disorder. As a result, Israel has been forced to take matters into its own hands and erect a new fence along its southern border to minimize the fallout.
The situation, moreover, is poised to get much worse. Since Mubarak's ouster, Egypt has headed in an increasingly dangerous geopolitical direction. The country's economic fortunes have plummeted, ethnic and sectarian tensions have risen, and Islamist factions—long relegated to the margins of national politics—have emerged ascendant. Indeed, the radical Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party dominate the electoral process now underway in Egypt, guaranteeing them a deciding voice in the next parliament—and control over the drafting of the country's new constitution. As a result, Egypt's traditional status quo, from amicable (if cool) relations with neighboring Israel to strategic cooperation with the United States, is increasingly uncertain. So is whether the Egyptian government will be both willing and able to fully shoulder the burden of securing the Sinai.
All of which is a boon to the radical elements now flourishing on Israel's southern border. And while it is still too early to tell whether the Sinai will emerge as a real front in al-Qaeda's war against the West, the way North Africa and the Persian Gulf now are, it is already clear that the Bin Laden network is working to exploit the Sinai's strategic vacuum—and Egypt's Islamist ferment. If it succeeds, it would mark a giant step backward for Middle Eastern stability, and for our progress in the war on terror.