Recent attacks inspired or executed by ISIS show how dangerous a militant organization in decline can be. But make no mistake: The group is in a state of decline.
ISIS, which is so proficient at making enemies that it has been fighting a war on at least five fronts for the past two years, has been losing ground in Iraq and Syria. The group is also on the verge of losing the Libyan city of Sirte, which is the capital of its Africa-based network.
But jihadism neither begins nor ends with ISIS, which itself is a bloodier offshoot of al Qaeda, whose 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, kicked off the current conflict in which the United States has been embroiled. And al Qaeda has masterfully used ISIS as a foil since the latter’s advance from Syria into Iraq in June 2014.
Since the onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings, al Qaeda has experienced sustained and alarming — but somewhat below-the-radar — growth. The group has accomplished this through a strategy of localization, portraying itself as an organic part of the population’s struggles in places like Syria, Yemen and Libya.
ISIS’s emergence has provided al Qaeda the opportunity to fly even further below the radar of counterterrorists and counterinsurgents, as governmental resources have disproportionately focused on the flashier and more overt ISIS. Further, al Qaeda has been able to “rebrand,” portraying itself as a more restrained alternative to ISIS’s over-the-top barbarity.
It can still carry out bloody and tragic attacks in places like Paris, Brussels and Istanbul, but ISIS’s network is losing steam. Al Qaeda’s is not. It has survived the ISIS challenge, and has a militant network that is on the rise.
We should hasten ISIS’s collapse and discredit the group. But the main thing we need to do now is look beyond ISIS.
Al-Qaeda, our original jihadist foe, may be the strongest it has ever been.