Policymakers and terrorism scholars are debating whether al Qaeda or Islamic State is the more dangerous threat to the United States and the West.
After the various bombings and attacks across the West, many experts insist Islamic State is the more serious problem.
That is a mistake. Al Qaeda presents the gravest long-term problem to the West.
Al Qaeda’s ruthlessly pragmatic approach has placed it in a far better position to achieve its strategic objectives. It has proved more effective in taking advantage of U.S. policy in the Middle East, primarily in Syria, to legitimize itself as an armed force and, increasingly, as a viable political player.
The al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, since rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or JFS, is quietly morphing into a mainstream option in the broader panoply of rebel groups operating in Syria, even as Islamic State’s caliphate continues to shrink and the United States and Russia spar over mistaken targets.
If Jabhat Fateh al-Sham successfully embeds within the Syrian opposition, it could prolong the conflict in Syria. Even more worrisome, with a concerted political and military strategy, it could attain the long-term success that Hezbollah has achieved in neighboring Lebanon. With a highly capable, well-trained and well-armed franchise group on the periphery of Europe, al Qaeda would be even more dangerous than Islamic State.
Al Qaeda’s current strategy reveals a group determined to learn from its past mistakes. The group offers a strong political component, and no longer focuses solely on violence.
Since being forced out of Afghanistan, al Qaeda has evolved to include not only a core group based in South Asia but also franchises and affiliates throughout North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. These branches were formed as a response to al Qaeda’s post-9/11 struggle to assure its survival.