Matthew Schofield

WASHINGTON: A year ago, U.S. Navy SEALs slipped into a heavily fortified compound in Pakistan and killed the face of international terrorism. There is a growing fear, however, that Osama bin Laden’s death didn’t even seriously wound the international terror threat.

This past decade — as al-Qaida’s core leadership was hunted, scattered and disrupted in Afghanistan and Pakistan — a number of sympathetic groups and individuals sprang up around the world. In the year since his death, their importance in this shadow world has grown.

Richard Fadden, head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said this many-headed beast is expected to strike more frequently in coming years, and he cited the difficulty of identifying “lone wolf” terrorists — small groups or individuals who self-radicalize.

“It’s not easy,” he told a Canadian Senate committee last week. “These individuals seem to be a mix of terrorists and people who simply have very big personal problems.”

An example emerged in a Norway court: Anders Behring Breivik, the anti-immigration nationalist on trial for the murders of 77 people, admitted he closely studied al-Qaida’s methods. He called the group “the most successful revolutionary movement in the world.”

Anti-terror experts see the al-Qaida influence extending even as the core of the organization is thought to be down to 100 or fewer followers in its traditional home of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas. A Pentagon spokesman said that even that estimate could overshoot the total number who sleep in Afghanistan on any given night, which might be no more than a few dozen.

Throughout the world, offshoot groups have adopted the al-Qaida label. They’ve pledged cooperation, shared money and weapons, often trained together or advised each other on al-Qaida methods, and shared both strict Islamist roots and a fervent hatred for the West.

Rather than waiting for orders from above, these groups act first, then give credit to the mother organization, which in turn often offers praise that bolsters the affiliate group’s standing. U.S. and international forces have battled al-Qaida in Iraq for years, and the group is thought to be trying to make inroads in the uprising against President Bashir Assad in neighboring Syria.

Other dangerous groups

Experts said five other such groups are considered the most dangerous, or the most capable: al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen; al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, based in Algeria and Mali; Lashkar-e-Taiba of Pakistan; al-Shabaab of Somalia; and Boko Haram, a young Nigerian militancy.

They organize on the Web and use social media to communicate and recruit. They’re in contact with each other, offering advice, money, weapons and planning. They’ve been involved in attempted attacks in New York’s Times Square and aboard a Detroit-bound jetliner, as well as assaults in London, Mumbai and Fort Hood, Texas.

The groups appear to have direct ties to al-Qaida’s central organization. One founder of the Arabian Peninsula group was close to bin Laden. President Barack Obama called the group “al-Qaida’s most active operational affiliate.”

As such, they are hunted. An airstrike this month in northeastern Yemen killed Mohammed Saeed al-Umda, considered an original member and leader of the Arabian Peninsula fighters. The source of the strike was unclear, but U.S. and Yemeni forces cooperate closely on counterterrorism.

“What we’re facing today is a much, much larger global threat,” said Seth Jones, an expert at the Rand Corp. who has advised the Pentagon on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “It’s a more dispersed threat. The threat is decentralizing to a broad network of groups. Al-Qaida inspires, but doesn’t control, and they work with locals.”

The meaning of that threat: Massive attacks such as those on 9/11 are unlikely to be repeated. But expect smaller-scale attacks — the “strategy of a thousand cuts,” it was called in Al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula’s slick online propaganda magazine Inspire.

A deadly example may have come in 2009 with the rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, allegedly radicalized online by the Yemen-based terrorists, is accused of shooting dead 13 soldiers.

Localized agendas

Experts note that these groups have largely localized agendas. Generally, they’re looking to impose Islamic Sharia law and, if not overthrow a local government, carve out a space in which to operate in their home country.

But the al-Qaida model encourages ideological hybridization: Think locally, act globally.

As Jones pointed out, attacks that shake the United States can help further local goals. An attack that causes the United States to look inward can allow a terror group more room to operate elsewhere. And, problematically, even failed attacks can turn out to be seen as successes: The Christmas Day 2009 attempt to blow up a jet as it neared Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Faisal Shahzad’s alleged 2010 attempt to set off a car bomb in Times Square both attracted international attention.

Al-Shabaab, which began in 2006 as the militant wing of a group of Islamist courts that briefly ruled southern Somalia, has also shown global ambitions — recruiting dozens of youths, mostly from Minnesota but also from Alabama, California and Ohio, to fight an insurgency against Somalia’s weak government and an African Union peacekeeping force.

But Tom Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threat Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said one of the most puzzling questions for those who track international terrorism is why al-Shabaab — so far — hasn’t lashed out at the United States.

Experts agree that the main emerging danger is these localized groups expanding their ambitions outside their homeland. One year after bin Laden’s death, international terror may no longer have a face, but its teeth are still sharp.