But things have gone poorly for al-Shabab since the group won back control of territory. It completely mishandled the devastating drought that racked the Horn of Africa last year, which deepened into a famine in areas under its control. The group's dogmatic insistence on clamping down on humanitarian organizations, claiming they had a "Christian" agenda, certainly made the crisis deeper. Nor did al-Shabab do itself favors with its heavy-handed tactics during this period.
African Union peacekeepers, joined this time by Kenyan forces, went on an anti-Shabab offensive following the drought. As a result, al-Shabab's experiment in governance seems to be over for the time being as it returns to the role of the insurgent force.
Whether al-Shabab will be able to regain its fighting capabilities is, of course, an open question. There are some promising differences between 2012 and 2007. For one, the Ethiopian role has moved to the background. Of all the countries that might try to occupy Somalia, predominantly Christian Ethiopia has particularly poor prospects, given the historical rivalry between the two countries. It is no coincidence that two of the most towering figures in Somali history, Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi and Muhammad Abdille Hassan, both fought against Ethiopia. A second positive factor, frankly, is that al-Shabab has actually had the opportunity to govern. Somalis have tasted its oppressive rule and seen a humanitarian disaster take far too many lives under its watch, and may strongly resist its return to power. Finally, unlike the quick defeat of the ICU in 2006 and 2007, al-Shabab has experienced significant losses over the past several months and may therefore have more difficulty recovering.
But the country's transitional government, on the other hand, does not inspire much hope. It has never been able to govern effectively, and just like in 2007, it is being protected by a foreign army. These two deficits may be sufficient to allow an insurgency to gain strength in Somalia. If one does, its early growth will largely be out of sight -- the occasional bombing or attack on African Union or transitional government forces the only sign that al-Shabab remains a force to be reckoned with.
AQAP did not manage to control and govern territory in Yemen for nearly as long as al-Shabab did in Somalia, nor did it preside over as large a region. As noted Yemen specialist Gregory Johnsen has written, the United States increased its airstrikes in Yemen following Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi's ascension as president in February, and a major offensive from May to June "forced AQAP to abandon overt control of the towns it had captured." Hadi has proved very willing to accept counterterrorism assistance from the United States, including publicly praising drone strikes. Johnsen notes that AQAP seems to be at a crossroads, faced with the choice of returning to what it had been -- a militant group that moved in the shadows -- or trying to reclaim its lost territory and "once again position itself as a governing authority."
It is not yet clear which of these routes AQAP will try to pursue, though there are signs that it is experiencing somewhat of a rebound. In mid-September, for example, gunmen affiliated with AQAP front group Ansar al-Sharia captured an entire security unit in Yemen's al-Bayda governorate. As with the other two groups, AQAP will keep its organization out of public view as much as it can, meaning that much of what we learn about it will be from its militant actions. To that extent, if AQAP did play a role in the Benghazi attack -- even one limited to financing a key perpetrator -- it tells us something new about its expanding regional influence.
The United States must be on alert as these al Qaeda affiliates move into a new phase of their evolution. These groups are done with the business of trying to govern, at least for now, and are back to doing what they do best: operating in the shadows, fighting as insurgents, and engaging in terrorist attacks.