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World

How Other Terrorist Organizations Could Benefit From ISIS' Loss Of Raqqa

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For four years, the Islamic State used the Syrian city of Raqqa as its base, a de facto capital. Now, that changed this week. And among the many questions raised by the fall of Raqqa is this one. Might other terror groups profit from the Islamic State's loss? Specifically, does al-Qaida stand to gain?

We've called on Ali Soufan to take on that one. Soufan investigated al-Qaida attacks back in his FBI days, and he's author of the book "Anatomy Of Terror." Ali Soufan, welcome to the show.

ALI SOUFAN: Thank you.

KELLY: Start with the relationship between al-Qaida and ISIS, which is complicated. How do they view each other these days - as rivals, as enemies, as frenemies, what?

SOUFAN: Well, they are mostly rivals, and they continue to be rivals. If you remember, ISIS used to be the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida, and it was a Syrian civil war that created the division and the global jihadi movement where ISIS separated from al-Qaida and declared its own caliphates.

And for a long period of time, al-Qaida basically was taking advantage that most of the counterterrorism focus has been on the Islamic State. That allowed al-Qaida to focus locally in conflict zones, places like Syria, Libya, North Africa, Somalia, Yemen. It allowed them also to rebuild their network. And al-Qaida grew way stronger today than it used to be before 9/11.

KELLY: Yeah, I know your group, The Soufan Group, just put out a report describing these last few years as a honeymoon period for al-Qaida.

SOUFAN: It has been. I mean, if you look at the organization on the eve of 9/11, they had 400 members. Today, al-Qaida in Syria alone has more than 20,000. You know, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which is known as al-Qaida affiliates, have a lot of different groups and organizations that operates under its banners.

KELLY: What about the current al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri? The consensus on him has been that he lacks the charisma of bin Laden. Do we know what his vision for the network is?

SOUFAN: Well, Ayman Zawahiri is an interesting figure. Many core members of al-Qaida, the original members of the organization, do not like him. They did not think that he should be the second in command. However, they voted for him anyway just because bin Laden put him as his number two. So he has a problem in maintaining the loyalty of the leadership of the organization.

KELLY: And yet this same new report from your group goes on to note that Zawahiri is seeking to consolidate the network. He's seeking to return the group to its heyday. Is there any evidence that persuades you he will be able to succeed at that?

SOUFAN: Well, al-Qaida will try to unify the global jihadi movement under its command, and I believe they have a strategy to do so. I believe that after the total collapse of ISIS, there is a possibility that we see Zawahiri stepping down and giving the leadership of the organization to another bin Laden, to Hamza bin Laden, a millennial, more charismatic leader that might be able to unify the global jihadi movement under the command of al-Qaida again.

KELLY: Well, that brings us up to this week where we have seen the fall of Raqqa, the collapse, for the most part, of the state that Islamic State set out to build. How might al-Qaida view this week's developments?

SOUFAN: I think al-Qaida will say, we told you so. One of the biggest issues between them and ISIS - when is it appropriate to declare a caliphate or declare it a state? Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri continue to maintain that we cannot declare a state because the moment you declare an emirate or a caliphate, the West can come and destroy it. And I think they have a perfect example that they are right.

KELLY: Ali Soufan - he's a former FBI agent, now CEO of his own national security consultancy, The Soufan Group. Ali, thanks.

SOUFAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.