Reuters A flag belonging to the Islamic State fighters is seen on a motorbike after forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad recaptured the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate in this handout picture provided by SANA, March 27, 2016.

The Coming ISIS–al Qaeda Merger

It's Time to Take the Threat Seriously

“You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!”

Thus in 1917 Leon Trotsky consigned the Mensheviks, the non-Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, to perennial insignificance—a fate from which they never recovered. Only five years ago, al Qaeda’s downfall appeared similarly imminent. Its founder and leader was dead. A succession of key lieutenants had been eliminated. And the region was transformed by the Arab Spring. Civil protest, it seemed, had achieved what terrorism had manifestly failed to deliver—and al Qaeda was the biggest loser. As John O. Brennan, then deputy national security advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and assistant to the president, told an audience gathered at a DC think tank in April 2012, “For the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al Qaeda core is simply no longer relevant.” Less than a month later, on the first anniversary of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s killing, U.S. President Barack Obama proudly proclaimed that, “The goal that I set—to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild—is now within our reach.”

How completely different it all looks today. In February, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper painted a singularly bleak picture of a newly resurgent al Qaeda alongside an ambitiously expansionist Islamic State (ISIS) in his annual worldwide threat assessment. Al Qaeda and its affiliates, Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “have proven resilient and are positioned to make gains in 2016…. They will continue to pose a threat to local, regional, and even possibly global interests….” More alarming still was the rise of an even more extreme offshoot. ISIS, he explained, “has become the preeminent terrorist threat because of its self-described caliphate in Syria and Iraq, its branches and emerging branches in other countries, and its increasing ability to direct

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