Headlines such as one that ran in the New York Times recently that question whether the Islamic State (IS) group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, or the al-Qaeda franchise is more of a threat, demonstrates how much of an impact IS – the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq – has made within the last year and a half. However, despite the unique threat IS poses (primarily psychological as opposed to militarily as explained in greater detail below) and contrary to the statements by some top administration officials such as FBI Director James Comey that IS has eclipsed al-Qaeda as a bigger threat, U.S. military action proves otherwise.
Comey’s top concern is the presence and direction IS has been able to maintain on social media. “ISIL is reaching out primarily through Twitter to about 21,000 now English-language followers…and their message is two-pronged: come to the so-called caliphate…and if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are...[ISIL] is pushing this through Twitter so it’s no longer the case that someone who’s troubled needs to go find this propaganda and this motivation, it buzzes in their pocket. So there is a device, almost a devil on their shoulder all day long saying ‘kill, kill, kill, kill,’” Comey stated in recent congressional testimony. These types of small arms attacks perpetrated by lone actors all across the globe have become a hallmark for IS, which is quick to claim credit for such attacks even if not accurate. This tactic serves to own the social media sphere thus engendering more attention to the group.
Al-Qaeda has even begun to mimic this strategy to some degree, either by sheer coincidence or to piggyback IS’s success. For example, al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed credit for the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and has praised the recent tragedy that took place at a military recruiting center in Chattanooga, TN where an individual shot and killed several service members. And the group has called for more so called lone wolf style attacks in the U.S. It is still unclear if the perpetrator had any training overseas, to which he traveled frequently as he was born in Kuwait, or if he was just a disaffected individual.
Typically, the main difference between the two groups that were once brethren, as noted by several experts and news reports, is al-Qaeda has been focused on the spectacular attacks against the West waiting for extended periods of time to plan such attacks while putting their desires for an Islamic state on the back burner. IS, by contrast, has done the complete opposite – focusing on consolidating and defending territory it has gained while simultaneously trying to perform state building responsibilities.
Despite the high global profile IS has achieved, even dragging the U.S. back into Iraq and into Syria’s fractured messy and prolonged civil war, the fear of another spectacular attack from al-Qaeda is still concerning many in government – potentially to a greater degree than the threat of IS. In all the IS hoopla about its rapid territorial gains, disregard for internationally recognized borders, and seeming eclipse of al-Qaeda as the global jihad leader, some experts warned against dismissing al-Qaeda and its capabilities by focusing too intently on IS. “I’m more concerned that as we focus on ISIS we may lose focus on other Islamic extremist groups out there,” former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell told West Point’s Combating Terrorist Center in an interview this spring referencing AQAP, al-Qaeda’s central leadership, and a small faction of hardened leaders from al-Qaeda’s senior leadership that were dispatched to Syria to embed with their Syrian affiliate to focus explicitly on attacks to the West known as the Khorasan group. “All three of those groups have the capability to conduct attacks both in Western Europe and the United States. It is very important that we remain focused on those other threats, which, from a homeland perspective today, are still a greater threat than ISIS.”
As evidence that the U.S. top brass is still intently concerned about al-Qaeda’s capabilities, look no further than the regions in which it has struck the group as opposed to where the U.S. has struck IS. IS controls wide swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria, which the U.S.-led coalition – Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve – has been active in hitting the group, but IS’s leader has accepted pledges of fealty in various north African countries, Nigeria, Yemen, the Caucasus, and South Asia, specifically the Afghan and Pakistan region, among others. However, with the exception of strikes in Afghanistan taken at the behest of the Afghan government and some top U.S. military officials as to disrupt the nascent “Khorasan Provence,” as it is known, before it establishes a significant foothold, the U.S. has not struck IS anywhere else besides Iraq and Syria.
Since CJTF-OIR, the U.S. has struck al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Somalia. The most recent strike in Libya hit an al-Qaeda affiliated militant named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, described as “a veteran Islamist fighter, who is blind in one eye, affiliated with al Qaeda in North Africa.” Belmokhtar had been wanted for years, but it is suspected that the strike by manned aircraft was unsuccessful and he is still alive.
In Syria, the U.S. has struck members of the Khorasan group, which the administration describes as “a network of veteran al-Qaida operatives…who are plotting external attacks against the United States and our allies.” The administration has struck these members periodically since first raining down Tomahawk missiles in September of 2014. The U.S. recently claimed credit for killing this organization’s leader, Muhsin al Fadhli.
The administration continues its global strikes against al-Qaeda affiliated groups, even expanding the regions of strikes – such as Libya, which did not see U.S. strikes since the NATO operations to take out its former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi – and the scope of previous practices. In Somalia, the U.S. appears to be shifting tactics against al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate al-Shabaab striking members in support of African Union troops (AMISOM) by providing close air support. As noted by prominent legal scholars, the U.S. previously only hit members of al-Shabaab that held leadership positions in al-Qaeda’s central command. This shift has baffled such experts as there is no real legal change, international or domestic in the situation.
As the U.S. continues to escalate its coalition efforts against IS in Iraq and Syria, al-Qaeda is still a primary target for airstrikes and operations. Despite what many top officials say regarding the threat of IS, the U.S. has not taken its eye off al-Qaeda, regardless of how fractured the group might be.