BEIRUT — The Islamic State has stolen the spotlight from its forefather, al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda-linked groups have escalated the fight to take it back.
In recent months, the older group’s affiliates have stepped up attacks on Westerners, expanded control over territory in war-torn countries and used propaganda and reprisal killings to weaken their adversary, analysts say.
The moves not only reflect the global threat still posed by al-Qaeda, they also signal an intensifying rivalry with the Islamic State that is fueling conflicts and breeding radicalism from South Asia and Africa to Paris.
That competition has helped further destabilize countries such as Yemen and Syria, where the extremist Sunni organizations have exploited unrest to capture sprawling tracts of land with the goals of indoctrinating local populations with extremist ideologies and possibly staging attacks against the West, analysts say.
“It’s a race of destruction, and it’s clear the battlefield for jihadists is expanding dramatically,” said Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based expert on Middle Eastern security issues.
After splitting with al-Qaeda more than a year ago, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, has gone on to steal hearts and minds of would-be militants.
It declared a caliphate last year after seizing vast territory in Iraq and Syria. It dazzles potential supporters with slick propaganda of its grisly attacks, including mass executions and the group’s alleged downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt in October. Some al-Qaeda militants have since joined the Islamic State, which is forming affiliates beyond its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
But far from defeated, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been trying to respond to the Islamic State challenge more forcefully in a bid to show off their militant bona fides, said Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics.
The Nov. 20 attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital of Bamako, in which militants took 170 hostages, 20 of whom were killed, serves as one example, Gerges said. Al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, asserted responsibility for the assault, which in coordination with allied militants targeted a Western symbol days after the Islamic State claimed an attack in Paris that killed 130 people.
The Mali attack triggered a flurry of praise on social media among al-Qaeda supporters.
“What al-Qaeda has been doing is to try to carry out spectacular attacks on its own and show capacity,” Gerges said, describing the group as having “much life in its global veins.”
Like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda affiliates have adopted a strategy of grabbing territory in war-torn Middle Eastern countries. In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has made sweeping advances amid the unrest caused by nine months of war between rebel forces and a Saudi-led military coalition.
U.S. officials consider AQAP to be a particularly dangerous affiliate, linking it to attempted attacks on Western targets. The group asserted responsibility for a January assault in Paris that killed 12 people, including journalists from a French satirical newspaper.
While U.S. drone attacks have killed its leaders, AQAP still has managed to capture much of Hadramaut, Yemen’s largest province. In recent weeks, the group also seized key towns in the southern Abyan province, where it briefly established an Islamic emirate in 2011 and has a strong following.
The move into Abyan is an attempt to blunt competition from an Islamic State affiliate that has gained strength in the Arabian Peninsula country, according to Yemeni officials and journalists. That affiliate, they say, has tried to recruit disaffected AQAP members, demonstrating its growing power and ample resources with recent attacks on crowded mosques and Yemeni officials linked to the Saudi-led coalition.
“There is a sense among al-Qaeda that they had to act now in order to forestall any attempts by the Islamic State to seize the area,” said the journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern for his safety.
Another Yemeni journalist said AQAP has sought to control institutions in Abyan, including security apparatuses and mosques, to counter the Islamic State threat.
“Their members are coming out with a campaign in the mosques to warn people not to join the Islamic State,” said the journalist, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
In Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda affiliates have avoided imposing the hard-line tactics of the Islamic State – such as large-scale killings of fellow Muslims and harsh applications of Islamic law – that have alienated many people living under its control, analysts say.
Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has repeatedly denounced the Islamic State for its indiscriminate killing of Muslims. In an audio message released in September, he repeated that message and urged the Islamic State to join al-Qaeda in focusing attacks on enemies such as “crusaders,” a term used for Westerners.
The group even released a 17-minute video this month that shows its members providing aid to people affected by a cyclone that struck Yemen in November.
Al-Qaeda appears to be playing the long game, taking a relatively soft approach in imposing its ideology as a way to integrate the group into local populations, said Aaron Zelin, an expert of militant groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The al-Qaeda model is enduring, and I think a lot of people underestimate it,” he said. “The issue here is that because of the rise of the [Islamic State], al-Qaeda, in turn, could become seen as more palatable to local populations and even governments in comparison.”
But the group appears to be showing little mercy toward Islamic State militants. Al-Qaeda and its allies have stepped up reprisal killings of their extremist rivals, said Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. think tank.
In Libya, large parts of which are controlled by an Islamic State affiliate, al-Qaeda-aligned militants declared a holy war in October and escalated attacks on members of the rival group. Somalia’s al-Shabab militant group, which has declared loyalty to al-Qaeda, also is carrying out a sweeping purge, threatening to kill members who are suspected of defecting to the Islamic State.
“These sort of attacks are happening on both the ideological and military levels,” Jones said. “Al-Qaeda isn’t seen as the sexy, winning horse, but it’s by no means defeated.”
Ali al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report, which was originally published in The Washington Post.
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