By: Daniel L. Byman
Prepared testimony before the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Chairman King, Ranking Member Higgins, distinguished members of the subcommittee, and subcommittee staff, thank you for the opportunity to testify today.
The Islamic State’s influence and model are spreading. Even in many Muslim countries where the Islamic State does not have a strong presence, its rise is radicalizing their populations, fomenting sectarianism, and making a troubled region worse.1 The Islamic State’s successes in Syria and Iraq alarmed many observers in Washington and prompted the Obama administration to overcome its longstanding hesitation to become more militarily involved in Iraq and Syria. But there is one person for whom the Islamic State’s rise is even more frightening: Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although the Al Qaeda leader might be expected to rejoice at the emergence of a strong jihadist group that delights in beheading Americans (among other horrors), in reality the Islamic State’s rise risks Al Qaeda’s demise. When Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rejected Al Qaeda’s authority and later declared a caliphate, he split the always-fractious jihadist movement. The two are now competing for more than the leadership of the jihadist movement: they are competing for its soul.
Who will emerge triumphant is not clear. However, the implications of one side’s victory or of continuing division are profound for the Muslim world and for the United States, shaping the likely targets of the jihadist movement, its ability to achieve its goals, and the overall stability of the Middle East. The United States can exploit this split, both to decrease the threat and to weaken the movement as a whole.
My testimony today will focus on comparing Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. I argue that Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain a threat to the U.S. homeland, while the Islamic State’s danger is more to the stability of the Middle East and U.S. interests overseas. Much of their rivalry involves a competition for affiliates, with both trying to spread their model and in Al Qaeda’s case to ensure its operational relevance. For now the Islamic State’s focus is primarily on Iraq and Syria and to a lesser degree on other states in the Muslim world, particularly Libya. In the United States and in Europe it may inspire “lone wolves,” but it is not directing its resources to attack in these areas, and security services are prepared for the threat. Al Qaeda is weaker and less dynamic than the Islamic State, but the former remains more focused on attacking the United States and its Western allies.