ISIL’s rejection of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership weakened the latter group’s grasp on foreign fighter flows and donor cash. By striking both ISIL and Al Qaeda’s official arm in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, the United States may be encouraging ISIL and Al Qaeda to return to coordinating rather than competing against each other. There are already hints of this happening elsewhere.
Last week, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, two Al Qaeda affiliates losing manpower and momentum to the hot new kid on the block — ISIL — called for unity among jihadi groups in the fight against America. If Nusra and ISIL, rather than eroding each other’s support and competing for resources, join forces to combine ISIL’s resources and skill at insurgency in Iraq and Syria with Al Qaeda’s international terrorism knowhow, the danger to the United States and its interest around the world could multiply rapidly. In other words, the United States could win some tactical victories by hitting both groups hard in Syria, but might be committing a massive strategic blunder by uniting a jihadi landscape it desperately sought to fracture over the past decade.
Eli Lake heard a version of this argument earlier in the week.