As now commonly remarked, these movements today pose more significant threats in North and East Africa, with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb having extended its influence south into Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria having matured into a serious threat. And in areas of traditional concern like Yemen, the al Qaeda affiliate has grown more powerful, innovative, and strategically savvy.
Then, we must add to this the imponderable futures of Syria and Egypt; in the former case, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) could well evolve into a full-scale al Qaeda affiliate. With increasingly clear links to al Qaeda and a growing role in the Syrian insurgency, JN is the most vivid illustration of a concern many expressed at the outset of the Arab uprisings: that eventually the turmoil would open opportunities for al Qaeda-related extremists, even though initially these movements drew little or no inspiration from al Qaeda ideology.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, the Sinai is becoming harder to monitor and more hospitable to terrorist sympathizers and adherents. In fact, with the increasing extremist raids on police and military forces and incidents along the Israeli border, the Sinai has become the chief post-revolutionary concern of Egyptian military and intelligence officials.
Third, the physical field of battle is undergoing the most important change since 2001, largely as a result of the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our substantial presence there over more than a decade, on the one hand, opened our forces to attack, but on the other, gave us platforms to aggressively monitor and pursue terrorists -- tasks that will now have to be accomplished more remotely and with less frequently acquired "ground truth." Additionally, it will place an added burden on intelligence collection, given the reduction in the number of physical outposts manned by Americans or allies and the reduced tempo of military operations, one of the best sources of actionable intelligence leads.
Some will insist that our reduced presence will diminish terrorist incentives to attack; others will argue that this possible gain is offset by the additional difficulty of detecting terrorist plots. At this point, it is impossible to determine where the balance rests between these two arguments. If there is any certainty here, it is simply that we will have to maintain a riveted focus on conditions in these two countries for many years to come.
Fourth, changes have been underway for some time in the way terrorists formulate and spread their narratives, and the opportunities they have to acquire and train recruits. The internet, with its capacity for rapid horizontal communication, long ago replaced the fixed vertical command-and-control path favored by al Qaeda's hierarchically-minded founders. But added to this now are opportunities for new training areas, safe houses, and "rat lines" used to clandestinely move people and information. Those opportunities have been opened up by the diminished reach of the newly emerging governments in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria, and the creeping, if patchy, acquisition of territory by extremists, especially in North Africa. There are more ungoverned -- or less-governed -- areas than there used to be.