Whatever happened to al-Qaeda? A decade-and-a-half ago, it perpetrated the single largest act of international terrorism to ever take place on American soil. Yet, these days, Osama bin Laden's terror network barely warrants a mention in the mainstream news media. Instead, it is al-Qaeda's onetime Iraqi franchise, now known as the Islamic State, or ISIL, which commands near total attention in both politics and the press. That has never been more true than on Iraq's bloodiest day of 2016 when bombs swept through Baghdad killing at least 93.
Perhaps that's understandable. Bin Laden was killed in a U.S. special operations raid in Pakistan in 2011. And over the past two years, ISIL's explosive growth in Iraq and Syria, its unparalleled brutality and its ability to mobilize disaffected Muslims have helped catapult the terrorist group to the status of global public enemy No. 1. Despite notable gains by the expanding military coalition being marshaled against it, the group for the moment remains a formidable and entrenched foe.
But recent days have also brought a timely reminder that ISIL's progenitor, too, is still alive and kicking. As Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute details in Foreign Policy magazine, al-Qaeda is poised to establish a proto state in northern Syria, where its regional affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, has managed to carve out a fiefdom of its own in the midst of the Syrian civil war.
That revelation is significant for at least three reasons:
Al-Qaeda is playing a long game. The "scorched earth" strategy and brutal tactics of ISIL, and international attention they have engendered, have bought al-Qaeda much-needed breathing room. The bin Laden network has used this time wisely, launching an extensive "rebranding" campaign and successfully positioning itself as the more reasonable Salafi alternative to ISIL in various jihadist theaters. And, as Nusra's advances in northern Syria showcase, its message is resonating.
Al-Qaeda's strategy is shifting. "The Islamic State and al-Qaeda use different tactics in Syria," Lister notes, "but their ultimate objective there is the same: the creation of an Islamic emirate." That hasn't always been the case. Before the rise of ISIL, al-Qaeda's ideologues talked in principle about the creation of a "caliphate" but eschewed territorial control in practice — and even warned other Islamist movements not to get caught up in the day-to-day drudgery of state-building. But since ISIL's declaration of a "caliphate" in June 2014, and the evident support for this idea in Islamist circles, the bin Laden network appears to have substantially revised its stance on the matter and is seeking a similar objective.
Al-Qaeda still has mass appeal. As Lister recounts, Nusra's successes in Syria have been made possible in large part by an influx of new recruits. That suggests our understanding of the "foreign fighter" phenomenon is woefully inadequate. U.S. and allied intelligence agencies now estimate that upwards of 27,000 foreign fighters have joined the jihad in Iraq and Syria. But their analysis tends to focus on tracking these foreign fighters and identifying their countries of origin. Far less attention is paid to with whom, exactly, these militants affiliate once they arrive on the battlefield. Nusra's expanding reach indicates that while ISIL is a major beneficiary of this influx, it is hardly the only one.
All of which, in turn, implies that al-Qaeda is finding opportunity within adversity. There can be no question that the group has been hurt by the rise of ISIL. But its most recent moves in Syria suggest strongly that having had both the time and the opportunity to regroup and restructure, the bin Laden network is positioning itself for a comeback.