Moreover, some of the underlying trends in these areas, so far not very visible, enhance the prospects for intra-societal conflict and, by extension, the potential for extremist exploitation. For starters, many of these societies are acquiring a more overtly Islamic character, increasing the chance that sectarian disputes -- largely Sunni versus Shia -- will lead to violence. We already see this in aspects of the Syrian conflict. At the same time, tribal distinctions that had formerly been muffled, as in Libya, are bursting into the open. These are the kind of conditions that al Qaeda oriented extremists love to encounter.
Fifth, in the absence of Bin Laden, and his obsession with spectacular attacks on the U.S. homeland, we are likely to see terrorists focusing more on "soft targets," like the U.S. mission in Benghazi. This has long been a feature in the playbook of new al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. It is also favored by powerful al Qaeda affiliates, such as Yemen's al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with its strategy of "death by a thousand cuts."
None of this means the U.S. homeland is off limits, but it probably does mean that smaller attacks are unlikely to be shelved in favor of a 9/11-style spectacular, as apparently was the case in Bin Laden's time. The thinking in al Qaeda -- or at least in Bin Laden's circle -- seemed to be: why waste a shot on a small operation that still risks bringing the United States down on us? Extremists appear to be learning that smaller-scale operations, such as the failed Christmas bomber in 2009 and the recent successful attack in Benghazi, can have still have a profound effect on the United States.
What does all of this mean in terms of our understanding of terrorism and what we need to do about it?
There are three major implications. First, a large dose of humility is called for in estimating the threat; it will simply be harder to have a confident understanding of the scope and nature of extremism in areas of high concern -- or to confidently predict what might happen there. This is already true in the areas undergoing political revolutions, but it will soon be true also in Afghanistan and Iraq as our drawdowns inevitably reduce our visibility.
A second related implication is that the potential for surprise is going up. For some years, terrorists have been showing a capacity to adapt in the face of our successes. When we made it harder to get weapons on airplanes, they tried liquids in the 2006 airline plot detected in London. When we banned liquids, they devised weapons that were neither metal nor liquid -- the failed 2009 underwear bomber in a plane over Detroit. When we tightened access to the passenger cabin, they tried (and failed) in 2010 to plant a package bomb in cargo originating in Yemen. And there are reports that in 2011, al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate was toying with the idea of surgically implanting an explosive device in a suicide bomber.
It seems only reasonable to assume that the more fluid environment to which terrorists now have access will allow them to continue this kind of experimentation, with perhaps a greater chance that they will surprise us with something more effective -- or simply get lucky.
Third, there is growing urgency to preserve and nurture -- or in some cases the need to restore -- U.S. influence in all of these areas. Among the factors that made us successful up to now has been the broad anti-terror coalition our diplomats, military, and intelligence officers were able to establish and enhance over the last decade. Every effort must be made to keep those partnerships or to renew them in areas where they may be fraying or broken. Coping with this more complex threat is not something we can do alone.
Overall, the job will become even more labor intensive and painstaking for intelligence and our military and civilian policymakers. And in this so-called long war, it may be no exaggeration to invoke Churchill's 1942 phrase and consider ourselves only at "the end of the beginning."