Small Wars Journal

Al-Qaida Gaining Strength as World's Focus Remains on IS

Al-Qaida Gaining Strength as World's Focus Remains on IS

Rikar Hussein, Mehdi Jedinia and Sirwan Kajjo – Voice of America

Despite major setbacks in recent years, the al-Qaida terror group seems to remain resilient and is slowly rebuilding its capabilities in many conflict-ridden countries around the world, while the world's focus is on the Islamic State (IS), experts warn.

Experts say the once-powerful jihadist group has been seeking to establish more ties with local extremist groups, particularly in some parts of Africa and the Middle East.

"For some time, al-Qaida has been working quietly in many places, forging new alliances, and re-establishing links with former affiliates," said Radwan Badini, a professor of political science at Salahaddin University in Irbil, Iraq.

The ongoing political and security instability in countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen has offered y"The fact that IS has been the main target of the United States and other powers has allowed al-Qaida to reinvent itself and to become a more decentralized terror network that attracts Islamist groups that are even slightly inclined to wage jihad against the West," Badini told VOA. 

In its 2018 Country Reports on Terrorism, the U.S. State Department last week asserted that al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen has managed to recruit new members, wage attacks and threaten the West.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has "released several videos reiterating its intent to attack the West," the report said.

U.S. officials say al-Qaida's affiliates in Libya have also established safe havens there, exploiting the fragile security climate in the North African country. 

In Syria, experts say, al-Qaida has maintained a presence through several local affiliates largely based in the northwestern part of the war-torn country, despite severed ties with its main Syria affiliate, the al-Nusra Front. 

Baghdadi's Death

While the recent death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria is widely seen as a major blow to the group, some experts warn his demise could provide opportunities to its parent organization al-Qaida.

IS was initially founded as an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq in 2004 by a Jordanian jihadist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As the group started gaining more influence in Syria and Iraq in 2014, it split from al-Qaida and the two groups engaged in a bloody competition over the leadership of the global jihadist agenda.

That competition, however, slowed in 2017 as both groups begun exploring coordination options for survival in a time when they were in a desperate position.

Iraqi officials in mid-2017 warned that they had information pointing to ongoing discussions and dialogue between messengers representing al-Baghdadi and al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

According to Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations, the prospects of an alliance or some tactical partnership between the groups are more likely following the death of the IS leader.

"I regard the deep personal enmity between al-Baghdadi and al-Zawahiri as the main stumbling block, and given that that has been removed, I think the possibility is certainly higher than it has ever been," Hoffman told VOA.

He added that the two organizations already have displayed their ability to cooperate in certain regions, such as coordinating the variety of factions already in northwest Syria where Huras al-Din is active.

Huras al-Din, an Islamist militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, emerged in Syria in early 2018 after several factions broke away from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) following al-Nusra's decision to sever ties with al-Qaida.

When the U.S. forces raided al-Baghdadi's compound in Idlib last month, they found him hiding in the town of Barisha near the Turkish border in an area controlled by Huras al-Din.

The raid raised speculations about undercover relations between IS and al-Qaida, with some reports suggesting that al-Baghdadi was taking shelter in a compound belonging to Huras al-Din's commander.

"This could mean that there has been a warming of these relations," said Hoffman, adding that al-Qaida can use this to draw sympathy of IS supporters to possibly call for a reunification under the jihadist cause. Such a unification, Hoffman argued, could ultimately reinvigorate al-Qaida at a time when world attention is transfixed on IS.

The Iran Factor

In addition to sponsoring its traditional proxy groups such as the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah, the State Department's report on terrorism this year said Iran harbored al-Qaida leaders for years. 

"Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qaida (AQ) members residing in the country and has refused to publicly identify members in its custody," it said.

The report added that, "Iran has allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria."

Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst in Washington, says the Iranian government has a long history of complex relations with various terrorist groups.

He said the Shi'ite-majority Iran has relied on Sunni militant groups to carry out its objectives in the region.

"Tehran uses terrorist groups in a very pragmatic manner and tends to ignore ideological differences when it comes to serving its interests," Nafisi told VOA.

But Fatemeh Aman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, believes that Iran would not risk relying entirely on terrorist groups such as al-Qaida to further its Middle East expansion.

"It is true that Iran uses terrorist groups … on a practical basis and tends to turn a blind eye to ideological differences, but it is very hard to accept that Iran is using AQ elements against its own goals and objectives," she said.