Lost in all the controversy about the Benghazi attack is a basic fact that may be obscuring debate about the case: there has been a fundamental change in what might be called the "landscape of terrorism." In essence, nearly everything about the phenomenon is shifting away from the patterns that became familiar in the years after 9/11. The template used for counterterrorism strategy during much of the time since then has been overtaken by events.
First, there is the nature of society and governance in the areas of most immediate concern, principally South Asia and the Middle East. Beginning with the transition to civilian rule in Pakistan in 2008 and accelerating with the "Arab Spring" two years later, many of these countries have moved politically in directions that may ultimately more closely align them with our values, but many have simultaneously become less agile, capable, or united in combating extremism -- and less aligned with the United States.
Compare the current situation to the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks. Back then, we dealt with governments whose authoritarian character might have given us pause but whose control of and visibility into their societies was keen and deep. That control came largely through powerful intelligence services that today are either redefining their roles in pluralistic societies, competing for influence in them, or struggling to establish their priorities both in terms of targets and foreign relationships.
These trends are visible in different ways in countries ranging from Pakistan and Egypt, to Tunisia and Libya -- and pressures are building in other countries, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. For example, in Pakistan, the once all-powerful military -- and by extension the country's influential intelligence service -- is now under challenge from an increasingly assertive judiciary, which explicitly disputes the military's right to any role in politics. At the same time, the country's weak civilian government has to contend with public opposition to U.S. counterterrorism policy that under the previous military government was not as intense or could simply be ignored.
And in Egypt, in contrast to the pre-revolutionary situation, when the intelligence service chief was the country's second most powerful official, the military and intelligence services are having to feel their way through a transition of governance that, in the absence of a new constitution, is still far from complete. There are only glimmers of such trends in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but in the latter case a generational transition is underway with an uncertain outcome, amidst escalating protests by the Shiite Muslim minority in the Eastern Province.
Second, the "map" of extremist influence has changed dramatically. After the 9/11 attacks, the CIA had plans for attacking al Qaeda in dozens of countries globally, but intelligence led us to focus primarily on Afghanistan, the settled areas of Pakistan, and the Arabian Gulf, principally Yemen -- areas where we rapidly registered substantial progress.
Today, tracing extremist influence on a map -- even acknowledging the diminished vitality of al Qaeda's core leadership -- would nonetheless show extremists present, dangerous, and influential in a broader swath of geography than in the middle of the last decade.