By Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- North Africa and the Middle East are seeing a resurgence of terror groups more than two years after the death of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, and the U.S. has no clear plans to deal with what experts call a complex problem.
The surge of militants is not from al-Qaida's core, but rather groups linked to or inspired by the infamous organization that killed nearly 3,000 people during the 9/11 strikes on New York and Washington in 2001.
The resurgence comes in the wake of the Arab Spring, which has left behind a vast swath of unstable territory, from the West African Sahel and Libya through Syria and finally Iraq, with Yemen as another detached hub, noted Wayne White, former deputy director of the U.S. State Department's Middle East Intelligence Office.
"Amid this security and government vacuum, al-Qaida inspired affiliates... have found vast havens and recruiting grounds," White told Xinhua in an interview.
Some in Washington fret that extremists could launch a terror strike against the U.S. from areas where they have gained a foothold, just as al-Qaida operatives plotted the 9/11 attacks from a base in Afghanistan.
Former Senator Joseph Lieberman earlier this week told a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing that he does not see a " credible or coherent U.S. strategy right now for exactly those countries -- Syria, Iraq, and Libya -- that most threaten to emerge as al-Qaida's newest and most dangerous footholds -- places from which terrorist attacks against our homeland can and will originate."
House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul told the hearing that extremist groups are "spreading like wildfire across Northern Africa. Foreign fighters are pouring into Syria at an alarming rate," and that "our steadfast leadership is notably absent."
COMPLEXITIES ON THE GROUND
Experts said regional instability, along with a complex mix of armed forces on the ground with various goals, makes it difficult for the U.S. to address the issue.
"Taking sides far more actively against these al-Qaida affiliates, part of a mix of forces fighting government forces, is a dicey proposition," White said.
While many factions are focused on combating government forces and anti-government rivals and currently espouse domestic goals, some could re-direct their energies against the U.S. if Washington takes firmer, more high profile action, White said.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings institution, told Xinhua the increase in terrorist strongholds adds to an already existing problem.
"The more sanctuaries (terrorists) have to operate from, the more places you've got to watch," he said. "I wouldn't say it astronomically increases the odds against us, but it certainly is unfortunate."
But despite U.S. worries over the issue, some experts said the surge of militants might not pose a major risk to the U.S., but fret over the possibility that U.S. citizens could return to the U. S. from these regions as trained killers.
Steven Heydemann, a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told Xinhua that while anti-U.S. terror plots are always possible, in particular attacks against U.S. targets in the region, the groups that have emerged do not seem to have the capacity to plan or implement attacks within the U.S.
"What is troubling, for Europe more than the U.S., is whether European or American citizens who affiliate with al-Qaida will return home and engage in terrorism," he said.
While critics have charged the White House with simply declaring victory and putting terrorism on the backburner after bin Laden's death, some experts said the Obama administration has done much to combat al-Qaida central.
"The Obama Administration has done more damage to the core of al-Qaida's central command than has been accomplished since the very first blows against it during the U.S.-led 2001-2002 military campaign in Afghanistan," White said.
But while those efforts have been valuable, regional instability in the Middle East and North Africa not seen in decades is posing a formidable and complex challenge, he said.