Recent gains by its former Iraqi franchise could spur al-Qaida to launch attacks on the West in order to buttress its reputation, experts say.
Western security officials are worried that al-Qaida may feel the need to compete with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for funding and recruits, now that the former affiliate has gained so much territory in Iraq, the Daily Beast reported on Tuesday. Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri earlier this year cut ties with the extremist group over its indiscriminate targeting of Sunni civilians in the Syrian civil war and its feuding with another al-Qaida-aligned group.
Anonymous U.S. officials said the government is readying to tighten security measures at airports and has asked its Western partners to act similarly out of fear that al-Qaida could be close to wrapping up plans to send suicide bombers to attack passenger flights headed for Europe or the United States. U.S. officials would not disclose exactly how security would be tightened at airports.
"If al-Qaida wants to reclaim some semblance of legitimacy, it will desperately pursue a major strike," wrote Middle East academic Aaron Zelin in a report released by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The ISIS leader and self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has "opened up a lead on al-Qaida, which has a steep hill to climb just to stave off its own relative decline," Zelin said.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's recent claim that it had established a caliphate in newly seized territory "poses a huge threat to al-Qaida and its longtime position of leadership of the international jihadist cause," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center.
The authority and influence of al-Qaida's central leadership has been seen as declining for years following the 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden. Additionally, a number of U.S. drone strikes were said to have eliminated senior commanders in the group.
The analysts' portrayal of a potential terrorist turf battle comes as U.S. intelligence agencies have been hearing that extremists in the Middle East have been developing new kinds of explosives that are less likely to trigger airport security alarms.
Washington-based intelligence insiders said the most disturbing part of the al-Qaida threat is that its recognized Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and its Yemeni franchise, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, are now coordinating with each other. The Yemeni group in recent years has been more dedicated than any other jihadist organization to the goal of carrying out attacks on the United States.