Fighters for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al Qaeda affiliate, in Syria, July 2018
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

In its 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Trump administration announced that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism,” is the United States’ main national security challenge. The world’s oldest global jihadist group, al Qaeda, seems to have similar priorities. Although the group has not produced a strategic document on the matter, the activities of its affiliates suggest that it sees state-to-state conflict as critical to its near-term success.

Al Qaeda’s focus is partly the product of circumstance. Interstate competition is increasing across the Middle East. The U.S.-Iranian conflict has heated up under U.S. President Donald Trump, as has the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with both countries courting client states, engaging in proxy wars, and routinely threatening escalation. The competition between Iran and Israel perpetually risks blowing up, both figuratively and literally.

And Iran is not the only focus of regional interstate conflict. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia,

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