As Islamic State militants continue to lose territory in their declared caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, officials and analysts are expressing concern that al-Qaida is making efforts to turn those losses into gains for itself.
Al-Qaida had been largely eclipsed by IS in recent years, with IS militants grabbing headlines by seizing territory in Iraq and Syria and carrying out attacks in the West. But there are signs that al-Qaida may be re-emerging as a regional power.
"Al-Qaida in Syria is using opportunities to seize additional safe havens, to integrate itself into parts of the local population, parts of other forces, and bumping into other forces as well," said Joshua Geltzer, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the U.S National Security Council.
Tahrir al-Sham, an offshoot al-Qaida group originally known as the al-Nusra Front, has recently emerged as the most powerful Sunni insurgent faction in Syria after consolidating its control over most of the northwestern province of Idlib.
"Idlib now is a huge problem. It is an al-Qaida safe haven right on the border of Turkey," Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the U.S.-led global coalition to counter IS, said at the Middle East Institute in Washington on Thursday.
McGurk blamed the flow of weapons and foreign fighters into Syria for al-Qaida's gradual strengthening in Syria.
Measures under way
McGurk added that the U.S.-led coalition intended to work with Turkey to seal the northern Syrian border to prevent more recruits from joining al-Qaida affiliates in the region.
Hailing the progress of the Iraqi forces and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, McGurk said the coalition's priority was defeating IS. But now that priority also includes ensuring that foreign fighters do not leave the region to cause trouble elsewhere.
"We do not want any foreign fighters getting out of Iraq and Syria," he said during a panel discussion at the Middle East Institute on the Trump administration's counterterrorism policy.
Experts warn that as IS-controlled territory shrinks, the terror group's foreign fighters will inevitably be drawn to al-Qaida.
"You may see on a local level al-Qaida affiliates being opportunistic and pulling in ISIS units who kind of feel lost," Charles Lister, a Syria analyst for the Middle East Institute said, using another acronym for IS. "They [IS militants] don't have the same kind of grandeur, they don't have the same powerful leadership, and they don't have the same powerful brand that they had before."
Led by Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, IS was founded as an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq in 2004. But as IS gained influence in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the terror group split from al-Qaida, and the two groups engaged in acrimonious and at times bloody competition over the leadership of the jihadist cause. For years, IS has been siphoning off followers of al-Qaida. That trend seems to have begun to reverse.
Iraq's Vice President Ayad Allawi told Reuters in April that he had information from Iraqi and regional contacts that "the discussion has started now" concerning a "possible alliance" between the two terror groups.
Referring to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Allawi said, "There are discussions and dialogue between messengers representing Baghdadi and representing Zawahiri."
While some analysts raise concerns about the possibility of IS and al-Qaida joining hands, others like Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute downplay it, arguing that an ultimate rapprochement between the two groups is unlikely, given the history of animosity and their fundamental differences on "global jihad."
Lister, however, highlighted that al-Qaida could take an opportunistic approach to draw IS members into its ranks as the terror group faces defeats on several fronts in Iraq and Syria.
Lister said Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama bin Laden, who has recently appeared as a new face of al-Qaida leadership, has been trying to ease tensions with IS in an effort to encourage the merger of IS fighters into al-Qaida.
"Hamza has very purposely, I think, not spoken out against ISIS in all of his recent statements," Lister said.
Al-Qaida in a blind spot
Experts warn that as the U.S-led coalition is cracking down on IS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria, it should not allow al-Qaida to move to other areas and operate at ease. They say the group is trying to gain sympathy of the local Syrian population by showing itself as a moderate alternative to Islamic State.
"We continue to underestimate al-Qaida," said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. "While al-Qaida in Syria is currently not actively attacking abroad, they have built an army. It has consolidated control in Idlib, and is preparing to do the same underneath the U.S.-Russian cease-fire deal in Daraa to expand that model of first destroying the moderate opposition and then begin instillation of al-Qaida governance to transform population over time."
She said the strategy of the U.S.-led coalition after removing IS from Iraq and Syria needs to shift to the reconstruction of infrastructure destroyed because of war, and that should be coupled with addressing the grievances of Sunni residents who feel marginalized by Iran-backed Shi'ite militias.
"This is a very long war and we haven't won it yet. These tactical successes are important but can be temporary if we do not set adequate conditions, which is much more than a military requirement," Cafarella said.