WASHINGTON, DC — Al-Qaeda, the primary target of the U.S. war on terror that followed the 9/11 attacks, has evolved and grown stronger mainly in Syria where it has set the conditions to establish an Islamic emirate while America primarily focuses on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), some analysts tell House lawmakers.
“ISIS has strengthened al Qaeda,” argued Katherine Zimmerman from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in written testimony, adding, “Should ISIS’s global network collapse, al Qaeda will be able to capture the remnants and incorporate ISIS’s capabilities into its own organization.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Seth Jones, the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, argued in his prepared remarks that al-Qaeda “has been in decline,” failing to “conduct or inspire many attacks in the U.S. homeland.”
The al-Qaeda experts testified before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence during a hearing Thursday titled, “The Persistent Threat: Al Qaeda’s Evolution and Resilience.”
Zimmerman and Jennifer Cafarella from the Institute for the Study of War agreed that Syria serves as al-Qaeda’s primary base.
They pointed out that the group has capitalized on the international community’s single-minded focus against ISIS to grow stronger and remain a prominent threat to the United States.
ISIS has suffered significant losses in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the coalition and its local partners.
US strategy is setting the stage for al Qaeda to lead the Salafi-jihadi movement again when that movement is the strongest it has ever been globally. Al Qaeda has adapted and evolved as America focused myopically on retaking two cities [Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria] from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Al Qaeda has become more resilient and ready to exploit our own strategic weaknesses.
Amid the ongoing U.S.-led efforts to defeat ISIS, some analysts and news reports predicted that al-Qaeda would eventually be positioned to establish its own Islamic state in Syria.
Cafarella explained in her written testimony:
Al Qaeda’s main effort is in Syria, which has become the world’s largest jihadist incubator. Al Qaeda’s intent in Syria is to embed within the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and to transform that uprising into a global religious insurgency… Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, announced its formation in a video on January 2012 but did not state its goal to establish an al Qaeda emirate in Syria that could become a future component of a global al Qaeda caliphate.
Although Jabhat al-Nusra claimed in July 2016 it was no longer al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Voice of America (VOA) reported that most Western experts had dismissed the offshoot’s break with the jihadist organization as deceptive.
“Al Qaeda is strongest in Syria, where it has used the conditions created by the Syrian civil war and [the U.S.-led coalition’s] Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS to establish deep sanctuary in the northwest and position itself to expand farther into the Syrian theater,” Zimmerman told lawmakers.
“Al Qaeda has set conditions for the future establishment of an Islamic emirate—not necessarily under al Qaeda’s name—that will secure al Qaeda’s objective to build an Islamic polity in Syria,” she reiterated, adding, “The Syrian al Qaeda network is one of the best-resourced nodes in al Qaeda because of Syria’s primacy in the global theaters for jihad. Syria remains a top destination for al Qaeda’s foreign-fighter flow, creating a large foreign recruitment base.”
Zimmerman accused both Qatar and Turkey of lending support to al-Qaeda, noting that the jihadist group also generates funds from kidnappings for ransom, taxation, and commercial enterprise.
Contradicting the assessments from Zimmerman and Cafarella, Jones from the Rand Corporation testified:
Al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Algeria, and Mali also consistently failed to hold territory because of poor leadership, incompetent governance, limited local support, excessive violence, internal tensions, and other factors. Another problem has been a lack of overall Muslim support.
Nevertheless, he conceded that “the Islamic extremism that al-Qaida represents will not go away soon.”
Zimmerman notes that al-Qaeda has intentionally avoided attacks against Western targets to fuel the “false narrative that it was weak.”
“Al Qaeda is not in decline; it is preparing to emerge from the shadows to carry forward the Salafi-jihadi movement,” she told the Houe panel.