While the Islamic State has engaged the United States and its Western partners in a protracted war in Iraq and Syria, al Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding its capacity to strike America, several terrorism experts testified Tuesday.
Officials predicted that al Qaeda's resilience in the Middle East will only escalate amid ISIS's ongoing territorial setbacks, creating the conditions for a merger of the two terrorist groups voluntarily or through force.
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Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, warned that any type of cooperation between the two groups would escalate the threat of terrorism worldwide, particularly in western Europe and the United States.
"Al Qaeda's presence in Syria should be regarded as just as dangerous and even more pernicious than that of ISIS," Hoffman testified before the House Armed Services Committee.
"This is the product of [al Qaeda leader Ayman] al-Zawahiri's strategy of letting ISIS take all the heat and absorb all the blows from the coalition raid against it while al Qaeda quietly rebuilds its military strength and basks in its paradoxical new cachet as ‘moderate extremists' in contrast to the unconstrained ISIS," he continued.
Hoffman cited the experience of American journalist Theo Padnos, who was held hostage for two years by al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. Writing for the New York Times in October 2014, Padnos relayed that the group's senior officials "were inviting Westerners to the jihad in Syria not so much because they needed more foot soldiers — they didn’t — but because they want to teach the Westerners to take the struggle into every neighborhood and subway station back home."
The strategy would mirror ISIS's success in carving out jihadist cells across Western Europe. The National Counterterrorism Center affirmed in August that ISIS had become "fully operational" in 18 countries since the United States launched its campaign to defeat the terrorist group. The number marked a nearly three-fold increase over a two-year span.
Though al Qaeda's global presence has also expanded over the past few years, Hoffman said al-Zawahiri deliberately kept the group from increasing its external operations like ISIS. He predicted al Qaeda would continue to "wait in the wings" as the U.S.-led coalition focuses on destroying ISIS before attempting to merge or take over the group's external capabilities.
"That would escalate this conflict onto a different level," he testified.
Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism and security expert at the RAND Corporation, warned that ongoing coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria would lead to sustained terrorist activity elsewhere.
Europe is particularly vulnerable amid ISIS's weakened territorial holds, given that an estimated 7,000 of the nearly 40,000 foreign fighters who traveled to Iraq and Syria are from Europe. Jenkins said the coalition strikes would not end the fighting, but would instead force militants "underground" where they likely would disperse to other jihadi groups or return home to carry out attacks.
"Some of them went to Syria … initially not to fight and die in Syria, but to gain the contacts and training and experience necessary to bring the violent jihad back home," Jenkins testified.