- - Tuesday, June 28, 2016


They wave a menacing black banner, behead American hostages in slickly produced videos, entice hardened jihadis and thrill-seeking wannabes alike to their ranks, bust a border to establish a state and claim provinces from West Africa to Southeast Asia. Their insidious reach into every state in America is unnerving, their propaganda machine with online cheerleading is overwhelming, their apocalyptic goals alarming.

But do we have Islamic State tunnel vision?

While ISIS is consistently trying to out-shock their last shocking video, while they’re thinking of gory new ways to murder infidels, while they’re raping and pillaging their way through towns, al Qaeda has been quietly moving forward with their operations and solidly positioning themselves to seize upon the ISIS flame flickering out.

ISIS may be the bluster of the jihad, but al Qaeda remains the brains of the jihad.

This is underscored by reading the competing English-language magazines published by each group. Dabiq, published by ISIS, is heavy on Koranic verse, bragging about attacks and rambling on the necessity of jihad. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine teaches its reader how to perform jihad. The style of the magazine is engaging, the tone actually speaks to Westerners and the step-by-step photo tutorials on bomb-making are user-friendly with deadly precision. This is where the Tsarnaev brothers got their pressure-cooker bomb recipe for the Boston Marathon.

Both groups count on lone operatives to spread their jihad on foreign soil. But while Dabiq tries to shame Muslims into coming to the Islamic State to bulk up their population and standing army, Inspire stresses that the “open-source jihad” is in a would-be terrorist’s backyard.

Investigators probing the Orlando nightclub shooting have called confusing Omar Mateen’s admiration for groups that are at odds with each other: ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah and the al-Nusra Front are not natural bedfellows, but that means little to a jihadi far removed from the squabbles that are often less about Shiite versus Sunni and more about conflicting leadership personalities, strategy disagreements and turf wars. And when it boils down to the roots of jihad, you can be sure that your average American jihadi — Mateen included — got schooled by the words of infamous al Qaeda recruiter and New Mexico native Anwar al-Awlaki, no matter which flag he flies at the end.

At a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, CIA Director John Brennan was asked about the “other than ISIS” threat — “something that we continue to have to devote a lot of resources to.” AQAP alone has “several thousand adherents and fighters.” Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri “continues to put out audio statements and other things exhorting his followers.”

It’s not just al Qaeda staying relevant by chiming in with a Shariah ruling of the day, it’s what they say that shows they’re focused on having staying power.

For all those watching ISIS barnstorm through territories with indiscriminate violence toward the Muslim population, al Qaeda followers swoop in with a message that they’re supposedly the ones in accordance with Islamic law — that ISIS is the frat boy while they’re the professor.

When ISIS, which is trying to muscle in on Afghanistan, conducts an attack, the strengthened alliance of the Taliban and al Qaeda condemns the targeting of women and children. As ISIS has copied the al Qaeda assassination method of hacking infidels to death in Bangladesh, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) lashed out at their competitor for killing a policeman’s wife and a Christian grocer — actions not, AQIS argued, in line with their own Shariah-compliant murders of “purveyors of depravity.”

The group that brought us Sept. 11 is trying to win over Muslims who are jihad-sympathetic — but have grown disgusted by ISIS’ methods — with a kinder, gentler jihad.

The insistence that the root of al Qaeda’s power is cave-bound on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is simply terror strategy stuck in a 2001 state of mind. The figurehead remains important in al Qaeda, but their evolution into a more global and less centralized outfit is more important — and Zawahiri knows this.

The persistence of al Qaeda despite years of administration protests that the “core” is either decimated or on the run seems to be Washington’s dirty little national security secret. Chapters are often dismissively referred to as al Qaeda “offshoots” when they really represent an expansion plan. A spokesman for U.S. operations in Afghanistan said this spring that they’re most worried about how good al Qaeda is. With their “very special skills” and capabilities, they’ve moved in to “assist and train the Taliban so that the Taliban is more effective.”

And the training that the United States worked so hard to disable after Sept. 11 is still there. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has not only taken advantage of Saharan and Sahel security vacuums to train jihadis. It has pulled off massacres this year at a Grand-Bassam resort in the Ivory Coast and a hotel and cafe in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

It’s as if al Qaeda leaders read a relationship guide that stressed slow and steady wins the race, then appointed themselves architect and arbiter of the rules for jihad.

When Boko Haram decides its dalliance with ISIS isn’t a long-term relationship, who will be waiting patiently for their return? When the internal al-Shabab loyalty debate is settled, will those who wanted to bail for ISIS still feel that way? As world powers focus on crushing ISIS into the ground, where will those who still harbor the jihadi mentality find a home?

They’ll come back to the group that has been guiding them all along. Al Qaeda, which has been enhancing its business model while ISIS steals the headlines, is ready to welcome them to the post-Osama era.

Bridget Johnson is a fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center.

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