File photo: Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front carry their weapons as they move towards their positions during an offensive to take control of the northwestern city of Ariha from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Idlib province May 28, 2015. REUTERS
Al Qaeda is trying to regain its primacy over international militancy as Islamic State loses ground, a senior NATO official said on Tuesday, seeing a potentially increased risk to the West from the groups' rivalry.
But Arndt von Loringhoven, the alliance's assistant secretary general for intelligence and security, said Islamic State retained some personnel strength despite its combat losses, including fresh recruits among women and children.
"ISIS-Daesh weakening has provided al Qaeda with an opportunity to attempt to regain its former status," Von Loringhoven told a security conference hosted by Israel's IDC Herzliya college, using a term for Islamic State.
"While ISIL-Daesh has occupied the world's attention for the last four-five year, al Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding its global networks and capabilities," he said, citing activity in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
"Rather like ISIL-Daesh, al Qaeda's strategic aim is to regain leadership of like-minded militants and extremists. The competition for legitimacy, affiliates and recruits among the two major global extremist groups potentially increases the terrorism threat to NATO and our partners."
Al Qaeda carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, prompting U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. forces killed al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, in a Pakistani hideout in 2011. Soon after, Islamic State, which is guided by a similarly extremist form of Sunni Islam, arose.
Islamic State's fiefdoms in Syria and Iraq have been largely dismantled in recent years by offensives launched by Damascus and Baghdad with the backing of various foreign coalitions.
Von Loringhoven said NATO estimated that Islamic State's peak strength of around 39,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq had been halved to between 18,000 and 20,000, most of them dispersed around the two countries and "gone underground".
"A very worrisome trend is the group's concerted effort to use propaganda to radicalise women and minors, who have emerged as a new target for recruitment relatively recently," he said.
"This trend may have led to increased involvement of women and minors in the planning and execution of a number of attacks, including in NATO countries," he said.
Citing the arrest in June of a Tunisian man suspected of planning a ricin attack Germany, von Loringhoven said militants could increasingly try to turn to homemade chemical or biological arms or attacks using commercially available drones.