U.S. strikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State have had an unintended beneficiary: al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda has exploited the strikes and gained strength, and that has created a growing rift within U.S. national security circles about where the coalition should aim its strikes. Some American intelligence and defense officials and counterterrorism experts are worried that the intense focus on defeating ISIS has blinded the U.S. to the resurgence of al Qaeda, whose growing potency has become more apparent as ISIS becomes weaker.
The American air campaign has notably not targeted al Qaeda in Syria, known as Jabhat al Nusra. With its foe, ISIS, under daily coalition bombardment, al Qaeda has been thriving, continuing to re-align itself with local forces, and re-emerging as the world’s enduring terror group.
“Now, al Nusra Front and [ISIS] don’t get along… I guess you could say to the extent that we’re weakening [ISIS], maybe it benefits al Nusra Front,” Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. commander in the war against ISIS, conceded in a recent briefing with reporters.
In recent days, al Qaeda’s standing in Syria has come under attack in the city of Aleppo, that nation’s commercial hub. U.S. officials now are watching Aleppo to see if al Qaeda’s close relationship with local Syrian forces can endure, even when its fighters are forced to flee the front lines.