Since they first caught the attention of the world in late 2013, ISIS (or ISIL) seems to have taken over as the ones to hate in the world of terrorist organizations. Not to say that the others are not out there, but a combination of media attention and ruthless tactics have helped thrust ISIS into the spotlight, and that is exactly where they want to be. In taking their place on the terror stage, they have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet with al Qaeda to dethrone their former ally as the symbol of the global jihadist movement. For whatever reason, AQ has decided to remain mum on the topic, but the question has to be asked: Is the silence from al Qaeda based on intimidation, or is it part of a strategic plan to further its own goals?
The September 11, 2001 attack on the United States “outed” AQ on the word stage, although they had been on the radar of the U.S. military and intelligence since the 1990s with the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and the suicide bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen. Since then, the U.S. and her allies have battled AQ (and Taliban, Haqqani, Abu Sayyef, and a host of others) on open battlefields, in jungles, and in back alleys all over the globe. Along with the above named, anyone who poked their head up to perform a terrorist act, from the attempted car bombing in Times Square to the massacre at Fort Hood in November of 2009, was in some way, shape, or form affiliated (accurately or not) with AQ. In fact, AQ often released a “congratulatory” video following successful and failed attacks, never taking credit but not denying any affiliation, either.
Not so in the case of ISIS. During its nascent stages, the group and its founder, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, were known for their ruthless tactics, including the beheading of Iraqis and Westerners, as well as having developed a reputation for being the “wild child” of radical Islam. In September 2005, despite Zarqawi’s professed allegiance to Osama bin Laden and AQ a year earlier, a letter was sent to him from bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, expressing concern that his seemingly reckless tactics, specifically the shooting, bombing, and beheading of other Muslims, was causing AQ to lose support in the Islamic world. Zarqawi chose to not only ignore the warning and calls to simmer down, he stepped up his attacks. After his death by U.S. forces in June of 2006, AQ released a video praising his jihad against the West, but since then, there has been silence, except a very public “firing” and disavowing of ISIS by Zawahiri in the spring of 2014.
Since the death of bin Laden in May 2011, AQ seems to be content with allowing its affiliates (including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; AQAP in Yemen; al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; AQIM mostly in North Africa; al-Shabab, mainly in Somalia; and al-Nusra Front in Syria) to carry out attacks in their name, and to do so with their explicit or assumed backing. Ayman al Zawahiri does not seem to be as attention hungry as bin Laden was, possibly out of fear of suffering the same fate as his former leader, but could it be more than that? Could it be that the current al Qaeda leader has determined that, for the time being, it is best for the organization and the movement to let “little brother” ISIS, have the spotlight? Let’s consider what some of the pros and cons of staying out of the game right now might mean: