Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) should be fought simultaneously. But that’s not what Al-Qaeda wants and so we’ve seen Al-Nusra cut its terror ties and re-brand. They’re waiting.

We’ve got ISIS in our crosshairs and have begun a campaign to ultimately diminish their capabilities and remove them from both the Iraqi and Syrian battlespace. We’ve been distracted by the abrupt nature of ISIL and have decidedly made the call to take them out. But, the dogs haven’t been released, so to speak. In a way, psychologically these two groups occupy the same space. They’re both Salafi-Jihadi groups who ultimately seek confrontation with the West and implement an Islamic caliphate.

ISIS has taken a step way forward and declared it’s occupied territory, the Islamic Caliphate and them the Islamic State. In turn, they expect and demand the allegiance of other organizations, such as Al-Qaeda who strive to implement an Islamist Caliphate. It’s an unusual and provocative move. It’s strategic. They’re eating Al-Qaeda’s lunch by putting a stake in the ground and declaring their land the Caliphate. It creates a problem and stifles Al-Qaeda’s recruiting.

But, these two groups are similar – and in many ways the same. The more you diminish one, you fuel the other. But Al-Qaeda and their proxy Al-Nusra saw this coming. As early as last year, 2015, Al-Qaeda leaders gave specific direction to Al-Nusra to not attack Western forces. This eventually leads to their re-branding and name change. They knew we would focus on ISIL. They also know that’s right for them. They’ve now positioned themselves to fade into the background and even disperse potentially. Their fall-back is to become mistakable with any other opposition group and gain training, equipment, men and funding from the anti-ISIL and anti-Assad coalition. Most ironic and alarming, there’s no doubt they’re planning a way to gain support from the U.S. After all, to appear moderate would be their ultimate long con on the West.

Al-Nusra or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the new name after they’ve cut off ties to Al-Qaeda, are the most active fighters on the ground. They share the battle space with the moderate rebels and, at times, cooperate and coordinate with one another. According to BBC news “despite differing ideologies, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the FSA have the shared goal of overthrowing President Assad and have fought together against both government and IS forces.” Making our decision to attack both Al-Nusra/Al-Sham and not ISIL simultaneously more challenging. Because one group is increasingly saying and doing the right things to dim the Al-Nusra blip on our terrorist radar.

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However, the simplicity of fighting ISIL, which is essentially an army that occupies territory, may distract us from the difficult balance that is both ISIL and Al-Nusra. ISIL has an undeniable presence, and they make their presence known.

However, Al-Nusra is cunning, and they may have spies and informants in virtually every Sunni group in Syria. Al-Nusra/Al-Sham are sometimes traveling and bunk mates with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). Al-Nusra is more powerful in battle than the FSA and is not outright enemies of one another as the FSA’s sole desire is to remove Assad. So, now, whenever we remove ISIL from an area Al-Nusra is positioned to fill the vacuum and occupy the space. They can gain the ground, the fighters, equipment, whatever is left behind. Most importantly, they can just take the real estate – the essence of the point of removing ISIL. In a lessened but still dangerous extent, we must remain suspicious of any FSA victory wherever Al-Nusra may have been. Equally so, whenever the FSA takes ground, are Al-Nusra and Salafi-Jihadis an ever-present undercurrent?

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