Rival fighters join ranks of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
Spy agencies have begun to see groups of fighters abandon al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen and Africa to join the rival Islamist group being targeted in American airstrikes, U.S. officials said.
For counterterrorism analysts, the movements are a worrisome indication of the expanding appeal of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has overwhelmed military forces in the region and might be headed toward direct conflict with the United States.
“Small groups from a number of al-Qaida affiliates have defected to ISIS,” as the group is also known, an official with access to classified intelligence assessments said. “And this problem will probably become more acute as ISIS continues to rack up victories.”
Officials said the defections to the Islamic State have come primarily from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based group noted for several bombing plots targeting the United States, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which seized territory in northern Mali before being targeted in strikes by France last year.
“It's not to the point where it's causing splintering within the affiliates,” said a senior counterterrorism official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The defections have accelerated in recent months, officials said, and involve fighters from groups in Libya and elsewhere that are not formally part of al-Qaida.
The influx has strengthened an organization that's regarded as a menacing force in the Middle East, one that has toppled a series of Iraqi cities by initiating assaults so quickly and in so many directions that security forces have so far been unable to respond with anything but retreat.
Officials attribute the Islamic State's rapid emergence to psychological and tactical factors. Its core group of fighters honed their skills against the armies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the United States when it occupied Iraq.
The group has used raids and ransoms to stockpile weapons and cash. And its merciless reputation triggered rampant defections among Sunni members of Iraq's security forces who were disenchanted with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
Counterterrorism analysts at the CIA and other agencies have so far seen no indication that an entire al-Qaida node or any of its senior leaders are prepared to switch sides. But officials said they have started watching for signs of such a development.
America's airstrikes in Iraq raised new questions, including whether the bombings will hurt the Islamic State's ability to draw recruits or elevate its status among jihadists.
“Does that increase the spigot or close it?” asked the senior counterterrorism official, who noted that military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere have crippled al-Qaida while serving as rallying cries against the United States.
Longer-term, officials expressed concern that the Islamic State, which so far has been focused on re-establishing an Islamic caliphate, might place greater emphasis on carrying out attacks against the United States and its allies.
The group has not been linked to any known plot against the United States, but Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified in January that the group “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”
Officials have said about 100 Americans have traveled to Syria or tried to do so. Among them was a former Florida resident, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who returned undetected to the United States for several months this year before departing again for Syria and detonating a suicide bomb. Abusalha was not tied to the Islamic State, but officials believe that as many as a dozen Americans have linked up with the group.
The Islamic State traces its origin to al-Qaida in Iraq but broke from the terrorist network this year when it was criticized for its tactics — including the slaughter of civilians — and refusing instructions to cede the fight in Syria to a separate al-Qaida ally known as al-Nusra.
Greg Miller is a writer for The Washington Post.