By Lee Keath and Maggie Michael ,AP
CAIRO — When al-Qaida overran the Yemeni port city of Mukalla last month, the group’s commanders immediately struck a deal to share power with the area’s tribesmen. No jihadi banners were raised. Al-Qaida even issued a statement denying rumors that it had banned music at parties or men wearing shorts.
A local tribal council now administers the city.
The approach was a stark contrast to al-Qaida’s rival, the Islamic State group, notorious for its savagery. And that was precisely the point.
In a competition with the Islamic State group for recruits and prestige across the Middle East, al-Qaida has sought to distinguish itself from its rival’s bloodthirstiness, taking an approach that in jihadi circles would be considered pragmatic. It is building alliances with local players, even old enemies, to seize new territory. Its leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, has told his followers to avoid IS-style brutalities against civilians in order to build support among local populations.
The strategy has paid off, winning new gains for al-Qaida. In Yemen, it even stands to emerge as the real winner as Saudi Arabia leads an Arab air campaign targeting the terror network’s rival, the Iranian-backed Shiite rebels known as Houthis who have taken over much of the country.
Al-Qaida ��is the future Trojan horse,�� warned a senior Yemeni military intelligence officer, Ali Sharif. When the war is over and leaves a security vacuum, he said, ��the role of al-Qaida will come. … They will fill it and take control.��
While the United States and the West might hope that the competition between al-Qaida and the Islamic State group would weaken two major militant threats, each is instead maneuvering to benefit from the region’s turmoil.
The Islamic State group’s gains over the past year have been sizeable. For nearly two decades, al-Qaida was unchallenged as the world’s most prominent terrorist organization. But IS has stormed forward to rival it �X and even surpass it in places.
Beyond its heartland in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group has planted flags across the map. It eclipsed al-Qaida in Libya, where IS’s strongest external branch controls several cities and most of al-Qaida’s one-time allies have switched to swear fealty to it. Militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Nigeria’s fearsome Boko Haram �X all once linked to al-Qaida �X have also pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.