Arab Spring: Jihadis finding new space to operate across the Middle East

From Egypt’s Sinai desert to eastern Libya and the battlegrounds of Syria’s civil war, the push for greater democracy made possible by revolts in the Middle East and North Africa has also unleashed new freedoms that militants are using to preach, practice and recruit.

The rise of militant jihadists in the region is one of the reasons that Western policymakers have been reluctant to arm the opposition in Syria as the country’s 19-month-old conflict intensifies.

Most of the new groups have emerged in response to local grievances, and there are few signs that they have established meaningful organizational ties with the global al-Qaeda terrorist movement or even have transnational ambitions, analysts say. But many of them embrace ideologies akin to those espoused by al-Qaeda and — as last month’s attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi illustrated — could threaten U.S. interests.

“The potential now for the globalization of these groups is there due to the fact that there is significant ideological similarity,” said Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadist movements at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The likelihood becomes greater if there is stigmatization of these groups as being part of al-Qaeda’s global jihad and if, in their own societies, they are pushed deeper into the fringes.”…

The sheer brutality of the Syria conflict is likely to further radicalize many people who joined the initially peaceful uprising with no goal other than to topple the governing regime, he said.