In the past five years, only one attack in a Western country — the Kouachi brothers’ attack against Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 — can be connected to al-Qaeda. Why did the once infamous and feared group halt its terror campaign in the West? Part of the explanation is that al-Qaeda has indeed suffered from targeted killings of senior operatives, making it harder for the group to plan and execute international attacks, and that regional events in the Middle East have enhanced the attractiveness of a local focus as opposed to conducting attacks in the West. Equally important to understand al-Qaeda’s changing priorities, however, is the rise of the Islamic State as a competing jihadi outfit and its ensuing terror campaign in the West. Intra-jihadi dynamics affect rival jihadi groups’ priorities for attacks. I outlined this argument in a recent article, Jihadi Competition and Political Preferences, which contends that intra-jihadi competition has played an important role in the changing enemy hierarchies of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State since 2014. Now, with the decline of the Islamic State, will al-Qaeda once again focus on launching attacks in (and not just against) the West?
Before 2014, al-Qaeda was considered the primary jihadi threat against the United States and its Western allies, based on its history of organizing and supporting terrorist attacks in the West and its continuous rhetorical emphasis on these countries as its number one enemy (e.g. al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri’s most recent speech “America Is the First Enemy of the Muslims”). But in 2013, the Islamic State emerged in Syria and eventually began to challenge al-Qaeda. The period between 2014 and 2016 saw a record number of jihadi plots in Europe, and in the West more broadly, but these were controlled, guided, or at least claimed almost exclusively by the Islamic State and not al-Qaeda. This came as something as a surprise because before 2014, the Islamic State’s predecessor organizations (al-Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State in Iraq, and ISIS/ISIL) were known to have a national, or to some extent regional, geographical focus, prioritizing the local Shiite enemy over the more diffuse “far enemy.” In their speeches, the groups’ leaders usually identified the Iraqi government or local Shiite groups as the main enemy, and actions were directed against these actors. For instance, as Cole Bunzel has explained, in a 2007 speech the group’s former leader, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, argued, “The rulers of Muslim lands are traitors, un-believers, sinners, liars, deceivers, and criminals,” while the following year he said similarly that “fighting them is of greater necessity than fighting the occupying crusader.”