- The Washington Times - Monday, September 9, 2013

The current turmoil in the Arab world and in particular Syria’s 2½-year old civil war could revive the fortunes of a battered al Qaeda, according to a report from the former co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission.

“The civil war in Syria may provide al Qaeda with an opportunity to regroup, train and plan operations. Foreign fighters hardened in that conflict could eventually destabilize the region or band together to plot attacks against the West,” former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton and former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean wrote in a summary of the report’s findings.

Titled “Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment,” the report was published Monday by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

“It is too soon to predict the long-term threat posed by al Qaeda and allied groups as the movement is undergoing a transition that may end up proving to be its last gasp; but the right set of circumstances in the unstable Middle East could also revive the network,” the report says.

In the long term, the growth of democracy in the Arab world will be fatal to the group’s appeal, but the results could be quite different in the short term, it says.

“Much as the U.S. invasion of Iraq revitalized the network and gave it new relevance, [Syria’s conflict could offer a] long-term safe haven for Jabhat al-Nusra,” al Qaeda’s affiliate there, the report says.

It notes that al-Nusra “is widely regarded as the most effective fighting force in Syria,” adding that the militant group appears to have learned a lesson from its predecessors about how to exercise power in areas it controls.

“For the moment, al-Nusra is not imposing Taliban-style rule on the population as [al Qaeda in Iraq] did in Anbar province during the first years of the Iraq War,” which inspired a U.S.-supported backlash, the report says. Instead, al-Nusra “is operating in a Hezbollah-like manner as a large-scale provider of social services,” such as  food distribution, hospitals and Sharia courts.

“This is something of a first for an al Qaeda affiliate; developing a Mao-like ‘population-centric’ approach to implementing a successful insurgency,” the report says.

In addition to Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton, the report’s authors are Peter Bergen, an al Qaeda analyst and author; Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University; C. Michael Hurley, a former CIA counterterrorism officer; and former FBI agent Erroll Southers, now a terrorism scholar at the University of Southern California.

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