I see that the American government and its intelligence community are engaged in a debate over which terrorist group poses a greater threat to the US: Al Qaeda (and its affiliates) or the Islamic State (and its sorta affiliates). There are proponents on both sides of the ledger and good points are being made by each champion. While IS seems to most to have the upper hand, there are many who warn that AQ has not disappeared (see New York Times article here).
As veteran NYT security reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the argument is not academic. If the intelligence community and the military decide that one group is a greater danger, more resources and money will be dedicated to the battle against it. More money to one means less money to another, which might lead to some unfortunate consequences.
Quandaries such as this are not new to the world of intelligence. Notwithstanding public perceptions that spy agencies collect all and analyse all, security agencies are engaged in a constant process of priority setting and tough decisions. In an atmosphere of limited resources, decision makers are forced to weigh in on operational matters on a daily basis. For example: an agency is aware of ten people that want to go fight with IS, but it can only cover five. Which five and why? What happens to the five we can’t monitor? Another attack like the one that took place last year on Parliament Hill?
In an all too clear example of the tragic outcome of necessary triage, the leader of the July 7, 2005 bombings on the London transportation system was known to MI5 but deemed a lower priority in view of the then threat environment. Unwatched, he led a quartet that wreaked destruction and death (NB I intend no slur at MI5 or its leadership. MI5 remains one of the best security services in the world and one from which I learned a great deal in my career at CSIS).
So I can understand the angst that the US intelligence community is going through. Lives hang on the outcome of their deliberations. I wish them luck.
But on the other hand, in a way the debate is “academic”. Whether AQ or IS is more powerful at this juncture overlooks the point that, surface differences aside, the two are cut from the same cloth. The ideology of each stems from the same roots and one (IS) is essentially an outgrowth of the other (AQ). Both have had ups and downs (how many times has AQ been “on the brink”?). And both will eventually be assigned to the trashcan of history.
It is the ideology we need to worry about, not only the particular organisation that is front page news today. For it is the ideology that pre-dates and will post-date these groups. By eliminating, or weakening, group A, without undermining the ideology, group B (and C and D and E and…) will pick up where the latter ended. And we will have another discussion on which group poses the greatest threat. Like playing Whack-a-mole.
All to say that this is hard stuff. There is no silver bullet solution and never will be. Let’s just hope that our overtaxed intelligence and security agencies keep up the stellar work. The safety of our citizens depends on them.