The ISIS terror attacks against France on November 13 were the worst acts of violence that the nation suffered since the end of World War II.
The attacks, which involved coordinated bombings, shootings, and hostage-taking, ultimately left 129 people dead and many more seriously wounded.
The terror attacks in France followed ISIS bombings on a funeral procession in Baghdad, Iraq on the same day and twin bombings in Beirut, Lebanon the night before. ISIS’s Egyptian franchise is currently the most likely suspect in the potential bombing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai peninsula that killed 224 people.
These attacks have been both deadly and highly sophisticated. But in the long run, they may ultimately play into the hands of ISIS’s primary jihadist competitor: al Qaeda.
France has pounded ISIS positions throughout Syria with airstrikes following the Paris attacks. French president Francois Hollande has said that he will meet with President Obama and Russian President Putin in an effort “to join our forces” in further operations against ISIS.
The fact that international attention is so focused on ISIS actually means that al Qaeda could emerge with the better position globally. The fight against ISIS has attracted global intelligence and security resources while making Al Qaeda appear to be the less urgent threat. The politics of the fight against ISIS — in which rival jihadist groups have sometimes limited ISIS’s ground-level spread — may also favour Al Qaeda in the long run.
“ISIS has clearly complicated efforts to fight al Qaeda,” J.M. Berger, a nonresident fellow at Brookings, told Business Insider through email.
In Syria in particular, the ISIS threat has helped align some of the objectives of Al Qaeda and the broader international community.
Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra has fought against ISIS since top al Qaeda leadership formally disavowed any connection to the Islamic State in February 0f 2014. And while ISIS has carried out a brutal campaign to form a caliphate in Syria and Iraq in which it seeks to exterminate any opposition, Nusra has been far more insidious — and arguably more effective — in how it has spread its influence, which it’s done in part by drawing a contrast to ISIS.
“In Syria, [al Qaeda affiliate] Jabhat al Nusra is deeply embedded with the rebels fighting Assad, and when we have targeted them in the past, it has created discontent with the moderate rebels we wish to support,” Berger told BI.
In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has consolidated its control of large segments of the country, while creating a safe haven for some of Al Qaeda’s core leadership. AQAP is believed to be the Al Qaeda branch with the greatest external attack capability, and was responsible for carrying out the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January.
As in Syria, the complexities of the multi-sided war in Yemen, in which multiple foreign-sponsored factions are battling for control, has played into al Qaeda’s hands. Although ISIS has tried to establish cells in the country, AQAP has arguably benefited from the conflict more than any other jihadist group.
“Our ability to hit AQAP right now is very much complicated by the many moving parts in Yemen, so this may ultimately work to their benefit,” Berger noted to BI.
Al Qaeda has attempted to build local support, establish safe-havens, and position itself in ways that could protect it from anti-ISIS states. This strategy has worked in Syria and Yemen, but it has even broader implications.
According to Berger, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri wants to put in place “more limited rules of engagement” for the global terrorist network. This included minimising attacks on non-Sunni Muslims and not attacking religious minorities in Muslim countries as long as those groups did not seek to attack al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s end-goals are every bit as extreme as ISIS’s, but the group recognises the benefit of exhibiting a degree of tactical restraint at this particular moment.
That restraint might not last if ISIS continues its large-scale attacks. Berger notes that it’s still an open question whether al Qaeda “will expand their targeting parameters in an effort to keep up” in the aftermath of a Paris-like assault, an attack which demonstrates ISIS’s grim ambitions and advanced operational capabilities.
It is simply too early to say whether al Qaeda will attempt its own series of attacks in order to compete with ISIS on the global stage. But if al Qaeda continues its policy of insidious growth, it may end up becoming an unlikely beneficiary of the Paris attack, an event with the potential to entrench conditions to which Al Qaeda has already adapted.
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