Al-Qaeda Capitalizes on Islamic State Collapse in Raqqa

Syria's Idlib province is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group led by Al-Qaeda's former affiliate, which ousted more moderate rebels in recent months
AFP/File Mohamed al-Bakour

Al-Qaeda in Syria, considered the global group’s most prominent branch, is capitalizing on the U.S.-led coalition’s significant gains towards annihilating the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), urging jihadists from its collapsing competitor to defect and join its resurgent ranks as it continues to grow stronger.

The Associated Press (AP) learned that many jihadists have defected in droves from the disintegrating ISIS group in Syria to join al-Qaeda (AQ) at the behest of the jihadist group’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Al-Qaeda has already set the conditions in Syria to establish an Islamic emirate, courtesy of the U.S.-led coalition’s insistence to primarily focus on destroying ISIS’s so-called caliphate, Katherine Zimmerman from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) told lawmakers in July.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has identified Syria’s northwestern Idlib province as al-Qaeda’s stronghold, warning of “grave” consequences if the group is allowed to perpetuate its control over the region and expand its presence.

Referring to an estimated 10,000 men, women, and children who fled Islamic State (IS)-held areas in Syria over several days in September to reach the al-Qaeda stronghold, the AP reports:

For an untold number of battle-hardened jihadis fleeing with the civilians, the escape to Idlib province marked a homecoming of sorts, an opportunity to continue waging war alongside an extremist group that shares much of the Islamic State’s ideology—and has benefited from its prolonged downfall.

While the U.S.-led coalition and Russian-backed Syrian troops have been focused on driving IS from the country’s east, an al-Qaida-linked insurgent coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee has consolidated its control over Idlib, and may be looking to return to Osama bin Laden’s strategy of attacking the West.

Citing two anonymous Iraqi intelligence officials, AP reports that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri deployed an envoy to Syria to recruit ISIS fighters by convincing them “to defect and join his group.”

This month, ISIS terrorists retaliated against Syria’s al-Qaeda group in what AP described as an apparent revenge attack linked to the defections.

Nevertheless, ISIS militants have heeded al-Qaeda’s call to change allegiance despite Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi allegedly ordering his jihadists on the ground late last month not to “retreat, run away, negotiate or surrender.”

A faction has reportedly emerged within ISIS that blames Baghdadi for the group’s unrelenting losses in recent months.

Since at least 2016, the American military has conceded that the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS had helped Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate to gain strength and capture more territory.

While acknowledging in June 2016 that ISIS was in a downward spiral, Brett McGurk, then-former President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the U.S.-led coalition, designated al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing as the “largest” al-Qaeda affiliate “in history.”

By July of this year, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate had become the jihadist group’s “strongest” wing in the world, courtesy of the U.S.-led coalition’s single-minded focus to destroy ISIS.

Nevertheless, AP reports that the U.S. and its allies may soon shift their attention to attacking al-Qaeda once again now that ISIS is on its last legs in Syria.

“The honeymoon period for al-Qaida, in which the so-called Islamic State absorbed most of the counterterrorism focus while al-Qaida’s affiliates grew stronger, is coming to an end,” reports the Soufan Group security consultancy.

“It now appears [AQ leader] Zawahiri is seeking to consolidate the terror network and return the group to its heyday as the vanguard of a global movement,” it continued, noting that such a move may place the jihadists in the crosshairs of the U.S.-led coalition.

In Syria, Al-Qaeda has emerged as a jihadists coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee, which has “consolidated its control over Idlib, and may be looking to return to Osama bin Laden’s strategy of attacking the West,” reports AP.

Al-Qaeda is absorbing the remnants of the dwindling ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria and incorporating the capabilities of its fighters, warned Zimmerman in July.

ISIS has nearly lost all of its so-called caliphate that once covered vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.


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