There’s an unintended beneficiary emerging from the U.S.-led campaign to crush the Islamic State: the extremist group’s main rival, al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida is no friend of the Islamic State, whose rapid expansion in Iraq and Syria gave it the lead in the struggle for primacy in the global jihadist movement. But the international attacks on the Islamic State also have lent urgency to al-Qaida’s appeals for fighters and cash to confront “the crusaders,” according to analysts of international jihadi groups, even as airstrikes ravage its primary rival.
As a militant Islamist group, al-Qaida can’t cheer on Western military intervention in Muslim nations. But analysts predict that the U.S.-led coalition’s presence will result in more cash, recruits and operating space for al-Qaida, particularly in Syria. The affiliate there, the Nusra Front, is the vanguard of a rebel movement that’s been steamrolled by the Islamic State, which also is known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
While al-Qaida loyalists must condemn the strikes in public, analysts say, they also recognize that the operations against the Islamic State offer the chance for a renaissance.
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“Their preferred outcome is that it chews up the leadership (of the Islamic State), leaves the foot soldiers and they can get the foot soldiers to come back,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who researches al-Qaida as a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Gartenstein-Ross warned in a Foreign Policy article last month that the U.S.-led bombing campaign risks giving al-Qaida “a new lease on life.”
Counterterrorism specialists note that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born doctor who succeeded Osama bin Laden, has issued no public remarks on the U.S.-led campaign to dismantle the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
“He’s been neutral and above the fray,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
The silence is especially odd because the first U.S. aerial attacks on Islamists in Syria hit not only Islamic State positions but also bases belonging to al-Qaida’s Nusra Front, with around 50 fighters reported killed. U.S. officials identified the target as the “Khorasan group,” a unit of senior al-Qaida figures who’d been dispatched from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria for the purpose of plotting international attacks.
So far, that’s been the only al-Qaida target in a military effort that includes hundreds of airstrikes against Islamic State strongholds. And as long as the battle remains focused on the Islamic State, analysts don’t foresee much in the way of retaliation from al-Qaida, despite the Nusra leader’s pledge to exact vengeance from Westerners in “the hearts of your homes.”
“I have to think Zawahiri is somewhere sitting in his lounge chair, just watching all this,” said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who monitored the Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq, and was on the team that hunted bin Laden. “He’s letting those guys take a beating like al-Qaida has for so many years.”
Meanwhile, Bakos added, al-Qaida “can get back to business.”
With the battlefield heat directed elsewhere, analysts say, al-Qaida has doubled down on fundraising and recruiting, shrewdly capitalizing on the Islamic State’s success at goading a reluctant President Barack Obama back into Iraq.
Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corp. research institute, said recent jihadist statements signal an al-Qaida “welcoming of the U.S. engagement,” with reports of a groundswell of support for the renewed fight against the Americans and their Arab and European allies.
Al-Qaida affiliates also have signaled an interest in what Jones called “patching up the differences,” with some loyalists even expressing support for the Islamic State’s broader contributions to jihad. Many al-Qaida trackers suspect the unification calls are less about showing solidarity with the Islamic State and more about capitalizing on the jihadist revival it has inspired.
Maintaining goodwill is also important for wooing fighters into the al-Qaida fold if the Islamic State – so far resilient – loses its senior leadership.
“There’s a great danger to having so much disunity in the broader movement,” Jones said of al-Qaida’s line of thinking. “The more fissures there are among jihadist groups, the more opportunity there is for Western agencies to try to break apart those groups.”
The Islamic State’s success in creating its dystopian fiefdom has aggravated tensions within and among the world’s jihadist organizations. The Islamic State has managed to peel away individuals or blocs from al-Qaida-linked groups in countries that include Algeria, Pakistan, Yemen, Indonesia and the Philippines. Analysts who closely study such groups describe the moves as disruptive on the local level but not yet indicative of a collective shift in loyalties.
Gartenstein-Ross and other extremist watchers say it’s still too early to gauge the overall impact of the Islamic State on militant Islamists across the Muslim world. The picture is clouded by a jumble of contradictory statements and postings on social media, which, analysts complained, are sometimes translated hastily and without the nuance that better explains a group’s position.
“I see this less as an example of fissures and more a recognition of the most successful jihadist campaign of some time,” Jones said of the complexities of how the Islamic State has been received among its ostensible comrades.
Jihadist groups that unquestionably have sided with the Islamic State include Jund al-Khalifa, made up of Algerian extremists who beheaded a French hiker last month, and Abu Sayyaf, the Filipino extremist group that’s threatened to execute two German hostages unless Germany withdraws from the anti-Islamic State coalition.
But loyalties aren’t as defined with most other jihadist groups around the world; analysts note that many groups appear to be gambling on al-Qaida’s longevity over the current popularity of the Islamic State.
Militant Islamists in Indonesia, for example, are split, with one stream heading off to fight with the Islamic State in Syria and another urging loyalty to al-Qaida. And counterterrorism specialists have noticed a different type of schism among jihadists in Libya and Tunisia: commanders who are pro-Qaida but are now confronted with followers who’ve returned from jihad in Syria with a softer stance toward the Islamic State.
And for all the recent tumult in Yemen, where an Iranian-aligned insurgent group now controls the capital, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s command structure remains intact, with only a couple of senior operatives drifting to the Islamic State, Gartenstein-Ross said. The commander of Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremist group seems to be hedging, praising the leaders of both al-Qaida and the Islamic State in a recent address. And rumors that the Pakistani Taliban had joined the Islamic State turned out to be greatly exaggerated; analysts say the group’s Islamic State crossovers are few.
In all this jihadist disarray, analysts said, al-Qaida senses the chance to project itself as the more seasoned, more strategic group, whose brand of jihad will outlast the Islamic State’s headline-grabbing tactics. If the U.S.-led coalition goes after the Islamic State with no follow-up al-Qaida strategy, analysts caution, then Zawahiri’s forces in Syria could receive the gift of ungoverned territory to use for a comeback.
“If you take ISIS out, what are you going to fill it with?” said Bakos, the former CIA analyst. She said the Obama administration was making the same mistake as the Bush administration when it dismantled Saddam Hussein’s military and ended up with a highly skilled insurgency that became the precursor to the Islamic State.
Once again, Bakos lamented, “we don’t have an after plan.”