by Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
As presidential candidates prepare to debate foreign policy Monday night, Middle East analysts say that while extremists have been ideologically weakened by the Arab Spring, they are trying to take advantage of tumult in the region by pushing Westerners and their allies out of the way.
Through it all, American foreign policy under President Obama "was guided by only one factor, don't get involved," says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operator who's now at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "They were talking about Americans avoiding another conflict."
That attitude provides "the jet fuel for Jihadism that the United States is running, that the United States is weak," Gerecht says. "We should counter that perception" by being more active and visible in support of its friends and ideals.
In Libya, where a string of attacks on Western diplomats ended with a deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the withdrawal of most of the U.S. diplomatic staff there and in Tripoli, Gerecht says the U.S. diplomatic presence should be restored and expanded.
In Syria, where Obama says he supports but won't arm an opposition movement that has been fighting a civil war with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Gerecht says the U.S. should provide weapons to the rebels and support Turkey to end the conflict sooner.
Al-Qaeda has taken a beating since the end of the Iraq war and since the rise of democratic movements across the Arab world, which took away the Jihadi narrative of liberating Muslims from dictatorships. But that's not going to stop them from trying to take advantage of disorder, Gerecht says.
"If you see severe dictatorial systems collapse or be seriously challenged as in Syria, it's natural you're going to have a vacuum there and that small well-armed groups of men will have an opportunity."
Among the latest:
-- Jordanian authorities said Monday that 11 suspected al-Qaeda-linked terrorists have been charged with planning to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in the country, including the U.S. Embassy in Amman.
-- Three British Muslim men went on trial in London on Monday, accused of plotting to set off multiple bombs in terrorist strikes that prosecutors say could have been deadlier than the 2005 London transit attacks.
-- Fighting in Lebanon between Sunnis and Shiites widened in in Beirut and Tripoli as violence from the civil war in Syria spilled over into neighboring countries. A Jordanian soldier was killed in clashes with armed militants trying to cross the border into Syria.
Gerecht says the U.S. government should be visible and vigorous, especially in a place like Libya, where a pro-American government is struggling to rebuild, although that would not necessarily have stopped al-Qaeda from attacking.
When the attacks do come, however, the USA. should rebuild, "to make it very clear we're not going anywhere," he says.
"The administration would like to diminish its presence in the Middle East if not leave," he says. "That's not a good thing."
In Egypt, ultra-conservative Islamists vying for influence against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood rallied a mob to storm the U.S. Embassy over an American-made anti-Islam film last month. The U.S. should not apologize for free speech but speak against censorship and link its foreign aid to outcomes that support democratic ideals such as freedom of speech and protecting, he said.
U.S. inaction on Syria has allowed the situation to get much worse than it had to, resulting in thousands of excess deaths and the possibility of an all-out ethnic conflict between Sunnis and Alawites that could cost hundreds of thousands more lives, Gerecht says. U.S. anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and Turkish involvement could have brought a quick resolution to the conflict and sent a message to Syria's Alawites to abandon Assad, he says.
"You want to do that before bloodlust develops," he says. "Once bloodlust develops and young men start killing people, it's much harder for older men to put an end to it."
The Jordan plot was to be timed to the seven-year anniversary of hotel bombings that killed 60 people.
"They were plotting deadly terror attacks on vital institutions, shopping centers and diplomatic missions," government spokesman Sameeh Maaytah said. "They sought to destabilize Jordan.
Jordan's monarchy has been on good terms with the United States and the West in general, as well as Israel. But the Muslim Brotherhood has been making greater demands of the government for expanded democratic changes that would allow it to gain power in the country.
Abed Shehadeh al-Tahawi, who heads Jordan's Salafis, told the Associated Press that he "recognized at least half of the people shown on television. They are members of my group, but they have nothing to do with what is said to be a 'terror plot'," he said.
A statement by Jordanian intelligence said an investigation showed that the group "adopts the ideology of al-Qaeda" and that it nicknamed its terror plot as "9/11 the second" - a reference to the Amman hotel blasts, which happened on Nov. 9, 2005.
Since June, the suspects have been surveying targets across the country, bringing in rockets from Syria to use in the alleged plot, the statement said, adding that the group also planned to carry out suicide attacks using explosive belts. The militants sought to carry out their attacks in stages, it added, with initial attacks on shopping centers and foreigners in Jordanian hotels, followed by more deadly strikes with powerful explosives and chemicals on Western diplomatic missions and unspecified "vital national sites."
One attack involved firing rockets at a district in the Jordanian capital that houses the U.S., British and other diplomatic missions as well as housing for expats and Western diplomats.
In London, prosecutors say the three men on trial for terrorism were fired up by the sermons of a US.-born al-Qaeda preacher and hoped to cause carnage on a mass scale. But their plot was undone by mishaps with money and logistics, and ended in a police counterterrorism swoop last year.
Prosecution lawyer Brian Altman said Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali, both 27, and 31-year-old Irfan Naseer, were central players in a plan to mount a terrorist attack "on a scale potentially greater than the London bombings in July 2005." Fifty-two commuters were killed when four al-Qaeda-inspired suicide bombers blew themselves up on London's bus and subway network on July 7, 2005.
Prosecutor Brian Altman said the trio were the senior members of a home-grown terror cell inspired by the anti-Western sermons of U.S.-born Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen in September 2011.
Meanwhile, Lebanese troops launched a major security operation on Monday to open all roads and force gunmen off the streets, trying to contain an outburst of violence set off by the assassination of a top intelligence official who was a powerful opponent of Syria.
Sectarian clashes killed at least five people. Opponents of Syria have blamed the regime in Damascus for the killing of Lebanese Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in a Beirut car bomb on Friday. With Lebanon already tense and deeply divided over the civil war next door, the assassination has threatened to drag the country back into the kind of sectarian strife that plagued it for decades - much of it linked to Syria.
"The nation is passing through a crucial and critical period and tension has risen in some areas to unprecedented levels," the army said in a statement. It urged politicians to be careful not to incite violence "because the fate of the nation is on the edge."
Contributing: The Associated Press
Copyright 2012 USATODAY.com