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Opinion Why the rivalry between ISIS and al-Qaeda may lead to attacks on America

As al-Qaeda splits and morphs and into different affiliates and offshoots, U.S. counterterrorism officials worry about what one calls a “potential competitive dynamic” in which different factions — including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now sowing civil war in Iraq — seek to bolster their credibility by attacking the United States. This new danger of attacks on the U.S. homeland is what concerns the Obama administration most about the splintering process that has created ISIS, a group so extreme that it has been denounced by Ayman Zawahiri, the nominal leader of the core al-Qaeda group.

The battle between Islam's two major branches began centuries ago and is threatening Iraq's path to a stable democracy today. The Post's senior national security correspondent Karen DeYoung explains. (Video: Davin Coburn and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

ISIS has seized control of the Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq in recent weeks — and this success has fueled its rivalry from Zawahiri. The two groups are, in effect, competing for recruits among militant young Muslims. Because of its recent, brutal success, ISIS now looks like the more potent organization — which may enhance its appeal and accelerate the cycle of violence. A senior administration official sums up the toxic rivalry this way: “Who can make the biggest attack? Who signs up for Team Zawahiri? Who signs up for Team ISIS?” The competition, ultimately, is about who will succeed Osama bin Laden as the world’s leading terrorist.

Zawahiri, although a deadly adversary of the U.S., appears to have followed the logic of his mentor Bin Laden, who concluded in his final years that al-Qaeda in Iraq and its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had grown so toxic with their wanton killing of Muslims (especially Iraqi Shiites) that it had lost its appeal for many Muslims. The al-Qaeda name had become tarnished enough that bin Laden’s inner circle debated whether the group rebrand itself with a different name that didn’t have such violent connotations. “Zawahiri has learned the lessons that bin Laden tried to impart,” says the senior administration official, and in that sense is seen as less extremist than some of the offshoots. ISIS and other ultra-violent splinter groups have not tempered their attacks. They follow Zarqawi’s super-militant path. They still see violent attacks, especially on the U.S., as their best recruiting card — which pressures Zawahiri to keep pace.

In framing its counterterrorism policy, the official said, the administration has tried to focus on this broad jihadist struggle, and the potential threat to the U.S. homeland, rather than the dynamics inside each group. The U.S. strategy is premised on creating partnerships that help individual countries—such as Iraq, Syria, Libya and Lebanon—cope with the extremists inside their borders. The U.S. also wants to work more closely with its traditional allies, such as France and Britain, to bolster the global counter-terror partnership.

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This comprehensive approach isn’t a quick fix, the senior official stressed, noting that “it will take a long time to train up” potential partners. The situation is further complicated by internal political turmoil in nearly all the countries that surround war-torn Syria and Iraq, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.

The ISIS surge in Iraq appears to have concentrated the administration’s focus. It’s been coming for months. Derek Harvey, an Iraq specialist who teaches at the University of South Florida and advises CENTCOM, says that ISIS had effectively taken control of Mosul two months ago. What happened this week, as ISIS captured the city and pushed south, was “pushing over a dead tree,” he says.

The administration’s short-term priority is stopping ISIS before it takes Baghdad, the senior official said. This means working with Maliki, even though he’s seen by Sunnis as a proxy controlled by Iran. There was no indication from the official whether the U.S. might consider direct or indirect counter-terrorism liaison with Iran—which shares America’s interest in curbing violent Sunni extremism.

There is a risk if Sunnis perceive the U.S. as acting in tandem with Iran in helping Maliki. One key former U.S. official remarked bluntly in an email message Friday: “American air cover operations for Quds Force {an Iranian special forces unit} in Iraq? It seems so.”

Obama’s political problem is that this renewed challenge of violent extremism comes at a time when, by most accounts, he is weak at home and abroad. The bitter partisan bickering of U.S. politics is daily fact of life. And abroad, Obama’s America is seen as both arrogant (as in the scandals surrounding the National Security Agency) and as a weakened nation in retreat after a decade of unsuccessful wars in Muslim countries. It’s a dangerous combination at a time when the American homeland is threatened anew.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda splinter group that has seized a huge chunk of northern Iraq, is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a relatively unknown and enigmatic figure. (Video: The Washington Post)