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Have ISIS And Al-Qaida Stopped Fighting, Started Cooperating?

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There are reports out of Syria that the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida may have worked out a truce. If true, that would be big news because for more than a year, the two groups have viewed each other as rivals and have been settling their differences on the battlefield. But what may look like cooperation between the two groups does not necessarily mean they've merged. Here's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: One of the few constants in the Syrian Civil War has been how much the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida's arm in Syria hate each other. Here's an example of why - about a year ago, al-Qaida's leadership sent an emissary to Syria. His goal? - To find ways in which the Islamic State and al-Qaida's Syrian arm, a group called the al-Nusra Front, might work together. The leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, responded in a chilling way - he had the emissary killed.

DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: There's a lot of bad blood between the two organizations as a result. That's why as long as Baghdadi is alive; you'll never see a generalized merger.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Daveed Gartensteine-Ross is from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Al-Qaida has always had a much more long-term vision. And I think that's reflected in the way that it's dealing with the Islamic State. I think they literally and directly are discussing some sort of rapprochement, but it's part of a larger gain.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And the larger game is about influence. Each group claims to be the true leader of the global jihadist movement. And each sees it to their advantage to occasionally join forces on a local level. For the Islamic State, an alliance means it has one less enemy on the battlefield in Syria. Again, Gartenstein-Ross.

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: It's fighting not only the U.S. and the coalition bombing it from the air, but also the Iraqi government, Kurdish Pashmerga forces, PKK allied Kurdish forces.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ex-Bathists, Shia militias and Syrian rebels.

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: That's a very potent array of enemies that it's fighting.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So having an agreement with al-Qaida's arm in Syria to not shoot its fighters on site takes some pressure off. So that's what's in it for the Islamic State. What does al-Qaida stand to gain? - A role in Syria. It has always been interested in establishing itself there.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Al-Qaida has always been very keen to take advantage of the upheaval in the Levant, and especially in the Syrian civil war, to position itself to be relevant again.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorist expert at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: And relevance comes not just from terrorism and or from fighting, but from projecting some authority, from having some sense of a mission and a strategy.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A strategy that has included trying to lure the Islamic State's recruits over to al-Qaida. And that's what concerns U.S. officials about these reports. If these local alliances become more than loose agreement, the groups could end up sharing operatives, foreign fighters, logistics and maybe, eventually plotting beyond Syria. In other words, if the two groups are getting along, it could increase the threat to the west.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABU BAKR AL-BAGHDADI: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is thought to have released an audiotape this week. The 17-minute recording was distributed online with Arabic, English and Russian transcripts. In the tape, al-Baghdadi scoffs at a U.S. plan to deploy an additional 1,500 soldiers to Iraq. And he hints that the group is looking to expand. He called on followers to erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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