May 4, 2015 | Quote

In the Face of IS Successes, Al-Qaida Adapts, Grows Stronger

When al-Qaida overran the Yemeni port city of Mukalla last month, the group's commanders immediately struck a deal to share power with the area's tribesmen. No jihadi banners were raised. Al-Qaida even issued a statement denying rumors that it had banned music at parties or men wearing shorts.

Around the Middle East, prominent jihadi clerics to whom militants look for guidance have been split, lining up with one side or the other. The bitterness spills out on social media, where the two sides hurl insults at each other.

Al-Qaida backers gloated when Iraqi troops and Shiite militiamen retook the Iraqi city of Tikrit from the Islamic State group last month. “After all the blood spilled over the delusion of the caliphate, have you finally realized that declaring a nation and emirates only hurts Muslims and jihad?” asked one, with the Twitter handle Jabal al-Aiza.

Islamic State group supporters in turn accused al-Qaida of siding with enemies of Islam against the caliphate. A pro-IS figure on Twitter, Abu Khatab al-Yemeni, denounced al-Qaida's branch in Yemen for allying with anti-Islamist militias that “once were considered apostates.”

By building such partnerships, al-Qaida is essentially betting that IS will burn itself out and be weakened by bearing the brunt of the Arab and Western military backlash against its caliphate, while the terror network gains ground through its alliances.

Al-Qaida's approach hardly makes it more moderate, though. In a 2013 document called “General Guidance for Jihadi Action,” al-Qaida leader al-Zawahri underscored that the group's priority is to strike “the head of the infidels, the United States and Israel, and their local (Arab) allies.”

At the same time, the document urges al-Qaida militants to avoid bloody killings of civilians in order to build support among local populations. They are not to kill Shiite civilians — even though the group considers them infidels — or the families of opponents. They are not to harm Christians or bomb mosques or other places where civilians gather.

In Syria, al-Qaida's Nusra Front is the most powerful fighting force outside the territories held by the Islamic State group. Last month, it worked with other rebel factions, including ones backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, to capture the northwestern city of Idlib and territory in the south — the biggest victories in several years over President Bashar Assad.

In Yemen, al-Qaida has been boosted by the fight against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north and are fighting to take the south after driving the internationally recognized president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, out of the country.


Al-Qaida “has emerged as the only real fighting force countering the Houthis,” said Adaki Oren, an analyst with the Long War Journal, which monitors militant groups. “They have championed themselves as the vanguard of Sunni tribes.”


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Al Qaeda