Al-Qaida has been trying to win over extremists from Islamic State, while the Isis “caliphate” collapses amid heavy losses of men, material, territory and prestige.
The recruitment campaign started last summer, even before Isis had lost its final strongholds, underlining the importance al-Qaida attach to winning over fighters and resources from its rivals.
One such effort was launched by al-Qaida militants in Algeria in August. Ten fighters who had been with the small Isis affiliate in the country switched allegiance after debates with Islamic scholars loyal to al-Qaida, local security sources reported. A second was launched in Syria in September.
In the Sahel region of north Africa, senior al-Qaida officials are believed to have reached out to the extremist commander whose men are thought to have ambushed and killed four US special forces in Niger in October.
Around the same time, a pro-al-Qaida news wire in Yemen boasted of the “repentance” of many Isis fighters who had been discouraged by their leaders’ religious approach, behaviour and by “mistreatment”, and who had recently joined its ranks. In Afghanistan a group of Isis fighters in the remote but strategically important central province of Ghor defected to the Taliban.
Such reports are being studied by western security officials hoping to understand the evolution of the threat posed by Isis in coming months and years.
Some analysts believe it will now lever its extensive network of allied groups and factions around the world to launch further attacks on the west, and to maintain its vanguard role among extremists.
The affiliates – once known as “governorates of the caliphate” – may also offer a safe haven to fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria, officials fear.
The loyalty of those who switched to Islamic State from al-Qaida, as well as further recruits not from al-Qaida, is a key indicator of the resilience of Isis as it evolves in the aftermath of the failed attempt to construct a new territorial power.
So far western officials say only a handful of fighters and groups among the network established since Isis launched its first major offensives appear to be reconsidering their allegiance.
“It’s definitely a trickle not a flood,” said one.
One group being watched closely by analysts is Boko Haram, which emerged as an independent group in north-east Nigeria six years before it pledged allegiance to Isis in 2015. It is now split, though both main factions appear still loyal to Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi, the leader of Isis.
Analysts said groups such as Boko Haram are unlikely to be influenced substantially in the short term by events in the Middle East.
Al-Qaida is believed to be trying to win back the loyalty of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the commander whose men are thought to have killed four US special forces in Niger in October. Isis has not claimed responsibility for the attack, suggesting to some analysts that the group is uncertain of Sahrawi’s allegiance.
One western official said some “data points” indicated that Sahrawi, whose 2015 declaration of loyalty to Isis was only accepted in 2016, is now shifting his allegiance aback to al-Qaida.
In Yemen, Isis has struggled to establish itself, owing in part to al-Qaida’s dominance there. A year ago, US officials say the two groups were cooperating in Yemen “on the tactical level in terms of their pushing back against their common domestic enemies”. More recently, Isis factions have been absorbed byal-Qaida, observers said.
Groups which were “major local players” and had little need of additional resources would be unlikely to abandon Isis in the short term, said observers, whereas those with less of an ideological or personal commitment could seek alternatives sooner.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said: “The danger to Isis is acute. I don’t think there will be a quick break but … at some point the pool of money is likely to run out … and for those jihadis who are committed but mercenary nonetheless … then the relationship is likely to break.”
Isis earned vast sums from looting, extortion and taxation in the territories it controlled in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017, but there were increasing signs of a cash crunch in the aftermath of the collapse of its “caliphate.
Western security officials say the impact of Isis’s losses on the threat posed by Islamist militants to the west is difficult to predict. Isis continues to inspire attacks and may still be organising ambitious terrorist operations in Europe or the US.
Al-Qaida has not launched strikes on the west for some time but this is a strategic choice, rather than evidence of weakness, western officials believe.
“It’s early days as yet but it’s pretty clear that an IS with less territory, prestige and cash will find it harder to attract recruits and pull together resources for major operations …. If the people who gain from that are al-Qaida, I don’t think anyone would describe that as an ideal outcome,” said one, speaking on condition of anonymity.