The classical example of this happened in Iraq where al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) controlled Anbar Province, about a third of the country in 2006. AQI cadres ruled with an iron fist and imposed their ultrafundamentalist rule on their fellow Sunnis, who they killed if they felt they were deviating from their supposedly purist Islamic precepts.
This provoked the "Sunni Awakening" of Iraqi tribes that rose up against AQI. These tribes then allied with the U.S. military and by the end of 2007 AQI went from an insurgent group that controlled vast territories to a terrorist group that controlled little but was still able to pull off occasional spectacular terrorist attacks in Baghdad.
Jihadist violence still a threat
The collapse of core al Qaeda and a number of its key affiliates does not, of course, mean that jihadist violence is over. Such religiously motivated mayhem has been a feature of the Muslim world for many centuries. Recall the Assassins, a Shia sect that from its base in what is now Iran dispatched cutthroats armed with daggers to kill its enemies around the Middle East during the 12th and 13th centuries. In so doing the sect gave the world the useful noun "assassin."
And so while core al Qaeda and several of its affiliates and like-minded groups are in terrible shape, there are certainly groups with links to al Qaeda or animated by its ideology that are today enjoying something of a resurgence.
Most of these groups do not call themselves al Qaeda, which is a smart tactic, as even bin Laden himself was advising his Somali affiliate, Al Shabaab, not to use the al Qaeda name as it would turn off fundraisers because the shine had long gone off the al Qaeda brand, according to documents recovered at bin Laden's Abbottabad compound.
One such militant group is the Nigerian Boko Haram, which bombed the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria in 2011 and has also attacked a wide range of Christian targets in the country. However, the group has shown "no capability to attack the West and also has no known members outside of West Africa," according to Virginia Comolli of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies who tracks the group.
Ansar al-Sharia, "Supporters of Sharia," is the name taken by the militant group in Libya that carried out the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September in which four Americans were killed. Similarly, in Yemen militants that are aligned with al Qaeda have labeled themselves Ansar al-Sharia.
But this new branding hasn't done the militants much good in either country. In Libya, shortly after the attack on the U.S. consulate, an enraged mob stormed and took over Ansar al Sharia's headquarters in Benghazi. And, as we have seen, in Yemen the jihadists have now been forced out of the towns in the south that they had once held.
One strong foothold in Syria
The one country where jihadist militants have a serious foothold and are likely to play an important role for some period in the future is in Syria. That is because of a perfect storm there that favors them. The Sunni militants in Syria are fighting the regime of Bashir al Assad, a secular dictator who is also an Alawite, which many Muslims believe to be a heretical branch of Shiism.
For the jihadists, Assad's secularism makes him an apostate and his Alawi roots also make him a heretic, while his brutal tactics make him an international pariah. This trifecta makes funding the Sunni insurgency highly attractive for donors in the Gulf.
And for the Arabs who form the heart of al Qaeda the fight against Assad is in the heart of the Arab world, a contest that happens to border also on the hated state of Israel. Also Syria was for much of the past decade the entry point for many hundreds of foreign fighters who poured into Iraq to join Al Qaeda in Iraq following the American invasion of the country. As a result, al Qaeda has long had an infrastructure both in Syria and, of course, in neighboring Iraq.
The Al Nusra Front is the name of arguably the most effective fighting force in Syria. In December the State Department publicly said that Al Nusra, which is estimated to number in the low thousands and about 10% of the fighters arrayed against Assad, was a front for Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Al Nusra certainly seems to have learned from AQI's mistakes. For starters, it doesn't call itself al Qaeda. Secondly, it hasn't launched a campaign to crack down on social issues such as smoking or listening to music and so has not alienated the local Sunni population as AQI did in Iraq.
Barak Barfi, a journalist and fellow at the New America Foundation who has spent several months on the ground in Aleppo in northwestern Syria reporting on the opposition to Assad, says Nusra fighters stand out for their bravery and discipline: "They are winning over the hearts and minds of Aleppo residents who see them as straight shooters. There is a regimented recruiting process that weeds out the chaff. Their bases are highly organized with each person given specific responsibilities."
Arab Spring countries seen as an opportunity
The chaotic conditions of several of the countries of the "Arab Spring" are certainly something al Qaeda views as an opportunity. Ayman al-Zawahiri the leader of the group, has issued 27 audio and video statements since the death of bin Laden, 10 of which have focused on the Arab countries that have experienced the revolutions of the past two years.
But if history is a guide, the jihadist militants, whether in Syria or elsewhere, are likely to repeat the mistakes and failures that their fellow militants have experienced during the past decade in countries as disparate as Somalia, the Philippines, Yemen, Iraq, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and now, Mali.
That's because encoded in the DNA of al Qaeda and like-minded groups are the seeds of their own destruction because in power they rule like the Taliban, and they also attack fellow Muslims who don't follow their dictates to the letter. This doesn't mesh very well with these organizations' claims that they are the defenders of Muslims.