Before al-Qaida made the United States and the West its principal targets, the terrorist group's top priority was to topple regimes in the Arab world. Now, with revolution rocking the Middle East and North Africa, intelligence officials are watching to see if al-Qaida seizes the opportunity to return to its original mission.
As this year began, European capitals issued terrorism alerts. The U.S. was investigating a plot out of Yemen to bomb U.S. cargo planes. And then, the Arab world got its first taste of people power.
What the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will mean for al-Qaida is now being debated.
"What this current environment may be doing is shifting the ground under al-Qaida's feet," says Juan Zarate, former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration. "That is to say that al-Qaida has been very good at focusing attention of their constituents and the world on this idea of the far enemy. That is that all the world's problems, all of the angst and grievances of the Middle East can be blamed on the United States or can be affected by attacking the United States."
Over the past several weeks, nonviolent demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo have affected more change in a matter of days than al-Qaida has by targeting the West for more than a decade.
Analysts say al-Qaida is aware of the problem and will change its strategy accordingly.
"Al-Qaida has always been ambidextrous," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "And that's part of the opportunism that accounts for its longevity and its ability to survive the two-plus decades it has existed. It will exploit whatever issue is served in front of it and do so adroitly so now it will focus on the near enemy."
The near enemy — the regimes closer to home.
Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, the director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism program at CSIS, says al-Qaida is likely to target the near enemies in Yemen and Libya first — and put less emphasis on targeting the West.
"Both those countries obviously have longer-standing ties with al-Qaida's senior leadership and are probably best positioned to exploit the weakness in those countries," he says.
Al-Qaida already has an arm in Yemen. That group was behind the attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner two Christmases ago — and the cargo bomb plot last fall.
And one of al-Qaida's top leaders is from Libya and continues to have ties with violent Islamists there.
If the new governments in Tunisia and Egypt don't provide their citizens with the changes they want, that could provide al-Qaida with an opportunity, too.
"If the grievances are not addressed and they demonstrate that peaceful means did not bring about the peaceful change they wanted, they can go back and say, 'See, you did need violent means to do this,' " says Nelson.
Focusing on the near enemy in the region could mean less of a threat to the U.S. — but not necessarily.
Hoffman says as popular movements sweep the Middle East, people have been too quick to count al-Qaida out.
"Al-Qaida is in it for the long haul," he says. "And even if we don't hear from them now, it doesn't mean that they are not plotting and planning to use what they would see as a golden opportunity to their advantage. So I would say it is just too soon to tell how what is going on in the Middle East and North Africa today will affect al-Qaida in the long run."
Hoffman says analysts are always underestimating al-Qaida's ability to adapt.
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