WASHINGTON – Al-Qaida is using U.S. airstrikes in Syria as a reason to extend olive branches to the renegade Islamic State group, saying the two should stop feuding and join forces to attack Western targets — a reunification that intelligence analysts say would allow al-Qaida to capitalize on the younger group's ruthless advance across the region.
Analysts are closely watching al-Qaida's repeated overtures, and while a full reconciliation is not expected soon — if ever — there is evidence the two groups have curtailed their infighting and are cooperating on the Syrian battlefield, according to activists on the ground, U.S. officials and experts who monitor jihadi messages.
Al-Qaida is saying, "Let's just have a truce in Syria," said Tom Joscelyn, who tracks terror groups for the Long War Journal. "That is what's underway now. ... What we have seen is that local commanders are entering into local truces. There are definitely areas where the two groups are not fighting."
The Islamic State group has seized about a third of Iraq and Syrian territory and is terrorizing civilians to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Their advances led to airstrikes by the United States and a coalition of Western and Persian Gulf nations in both Iraq and Syria.
IS was kicked out of al-Qaida in May after disobeying its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. So far, IS has not publicly responded to al-Qaida's calls to reunite — the most recent on Oct. 17 from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based offshoot that denounced the airstrikes and called on rival militant groups to stop their infighting and together train their sights on the West.
Reconciling with al-Qaida senior leadership would let IS benefit from al-Qaida's broad, international network but would also leave it restrained in carrying out its own attacks. For its side, al-Qaida would get a boost from the Islamic State group's newfound popularity, which has provided an influx of new recruits and money. The Treasury Department said last week that IS has earned about $1 million a day from selling oil on the black market.
One school of thought is that if the two groups continue to spend time and resources fighting each other, it diminishes the terror threat to the West. Experts tracking terrorist networks say, however, that continued infighting also could incite a competition over who would be the first to launch a new attack against the West.
Jihadi groups across the world recently have rushed to proclaim a new allegiance to IS, either out of fear or because they want to be with the winning team. But Joseclyn notes that they are all "B-listers," not mainline al-Qaida affiliates.
"The Islamic State is the strongest jihadist group in Iraq and Syria, but the evidence thus far says that al-Qaida is much stronger everywhere else," he said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists around Syria, also said that Islamic State and Nusra Front, al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, have stopped fighting in parts of the country since the airstrikes began there Sept. 23. Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Observatory, said that in the Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon, the two groups have been cooperating for some time — even before the strikes. Moreover, Abdurrahman says, hundreds of fighters have defected from Nusra Front and joined the Islamic State group.
"Tens of fighters left Nusra over the past days," he said, citing increased sympathy for the group because of the airstrikes. "They believe that they are being attacked by what they call the infidel crusader enemy" — the United States — and should not be fighting against each other.
An activist in the central Syrian province of Hama who is in contact with rebels in Aleppo and Idlib in northern Syria said hundreds of militants have defected from Nusra Front as well as an ultraconservative group that had fought for months alongside Nusra Front against the Islamic State.
The activist, Bassil Darwish, also said infighting stopped after the U.S. said in August that it would launch airstrikes. Asked if the plans for airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition led to this undeclared truce, he said, "Yes, this is the main reason."
Rita Katz, the director and co-founder of the SITE Intelligence Group, which analyzes international terrorists' messages, said she sees no evidence that the infighting has stopped and cited fighting between the groups about 10 days ago in Aleppo. "I cannot believe that at this stage IS or Nusra are saying they are not fighting," she said.
Meantime, al-Qaida is worried about the Islamic State group's success in recruiting young jihadis — so much so that a pro-al-Qaida cleric from Saudi Arabia went online last week to chastise militant commanders, including ones affiliated with al-Qaida, for not doing more to stem the tide of recruits heading to IS. Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysini denounced IS for killing Muslims and for declaring a caliphate, or Islamic empire, "without consultation" among all Muslims. He said he planned to visit all the top jihadi leaders in Syria to again try to unify the groups.
Experts and intelligence officials say that's unlikely.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who sits on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees, said it was "likely" the two groups cooperate, at least tactically. But, he added, "they certainly don't agree with one another."
Mroue reported from Beirut. AP Intelligence Writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.