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Security Expert: 'ISIS And Al-Qaida Are Competing On A Worldwide Canvas'


Iraq is reeling from one of the deadliest recent bombings to hit that country. At least 109 people died when a truck packed with explosives was detonated in a busy shopping area as people were out celebrating Ramadan. ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack. Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, that country begins a two-day period of mourning after 22 people were killed in a terrorist attack on a popular dining spot in that nation's capital. An Islamic State propaganda wing claimed the attackers were affiliated with ISIS. That has yet to be confirmed.

We reached out to Bruce Hoffman. He's a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. And I asked him if it was new to see an attack like the one that happened in Bangladesh carried out in the name of ISIS in that part of the world.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: I think it is new, and I don't think it's surprising. In recent years - over the past two years - both al-Qaida and ISIS have made significant inroads in Bangladesh. They've seen it as fertile grounds for expansion. There's been over 40 persons killed in terrorist acts, mostly al-Qaida-related, over the past two years. But, of course, ISIS and al-Qaida are competing on a worldwide canvas. So wherever al-Qaida goes, ISIS tends to follow.

MARTIN: Is ISIS looking globally for parts of the world, countries that have a history of civil war, of instability, of Islamist movements that they can then exploit? Is that what's happening?

HOFFMAN: Absolutely, although I would put it that they're actively looking for opportunities for expansion. And I think that's why often they follow on al-Qaida's heels or sometimes are ahead of al-Qaida.

MARTIN: Remind us of the current relationship between al-Qaida and ISIS.

HOFFMAN: At the moment, intense rivalry and competition. But, of course, ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaida, and their ideology isn't completely separate.

MARTIN: Of course, the tool the Obama administration has used the most to combat the threat from terrorism, whether ISIS or al-Qaida, is the drone program. We saw on Friday the White House released a long anticipated report about civilian casualties. It seems like a good moment to ask a big question. Has the Obama drone program made us safer? Has it done what it was set out to do?

HOFFMAN: I think it has been successful tactically in that I believe it has likely disrupted terrorist attacks, kept terrorists off-balance, compelled them to spend more time looking over their shoulder and being concerned about their own security than in planning and plotting attacks. But I think one also has to say that strategically, it hasn't been successful.

Al-Qaida's present in twice as many places today than it was in 2008. ISIS has eight provinces throughout the world and some 50 different affiliates in 21 countries. So it's been successful, perhaps, in minimizing the immediate threats, but I don't think we should confuse activity with strategic progress in actually eliminating the threats that these groups pose.

MARTIN: Have you been surprised at how this threat has metastasized over the past decade?

HOFFMAN: Yes, absolutely. I've been surprised how it's metastasized over the past five years. It was just in 2011 that virtually everyone at the top of the U.S. government, including the president, was heralding that al-Qaida was on the verge of strategic collapse and implying that we had turned a decisive corner in the war on terrorism. And the situation today, I think, is fundamentally alarming in the sense that since November, we've had really an unprecedented concatenation of terrorist attacks throughout the world that have been enormously lethal.

Now, you know, many people say, well, in the 1980s there were far more terrorist attacks than there were today. But that's true. But they were killing in the ones and twos. For instance, in 1985, the Abu Nidal Organization staged a simultaneous attack on the Rome and Vienna airports. It was enormously tragic. Nineteen persons were killed. More than double were killed the other day in Istanbul. And I think that's an important exemplar that terrorism is becoming much more lethal than it's been in the past. It is targeting these soft targets.

The other difference between, let's say, a lot of the terrorist attacks in the 1980s and today, those groups were giving warnings. That's what we don't see from these groups. There's no warning involved. They're just out for bloodshed and mayhem.

MARTIN: Bruce Hoffman is the director of Security Studies at Georgetown University. Thanks so much for talking with us.

HOFFMAN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.