Little-noticed, al-Qaeda has a new capital. While its leader languishes in an unknown hiding place – probably in the Pakistan-Afghan borderlands – his followers in Syria have seized an entire province from the hands of the Assad regime, and its main city, Idlib.
This means that the rival wings of militant jihad have two competing centres: Idlib, in north-west Syria, and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant‘s (Isil) headquarters in Raqqa, north-east Syria.
The victory in Idlib on Saturday by a coalition of Islamist groups led by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, shows that President Bashar al-Assad is a long way from winning the civil war, something many thought likely after his forces moved to retake Aleppo in June 2013.
Rebel fighters gather under a burnt Assad banner in Idlib after they took control of the area
The West takes some crumb of comfort in that following their split in Syria in 2013, al-Qaeda and Isil are now at each other’s throats.
However, the ideology of neither offers much solace. Al-Qaeda, though backing the fight against Mr Assad, believes the West is the main target. Isil believes that ideological purity has to be enforced at home first – hence its video-taped killings and beheadings of its enemies, including Shia soldiers and those found guilty of crimes in areas under its sway.
Al-Qaeda’s victory in Idlib will come as a boost to morale: Isil’s successes in Iraq last year, and the degree of publicity it generated from its videos, have won it loyalty from jihadist groups across the world who had come to see the war for militant Islam as becalmed after the death of Bin Laden.
Isil and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled “Caliph Ibrahim“, had momentum, and its power and brutality were glamorous, at least to some.
A number of groups had sworn allegiance, including Boko Haram, the ultra-violent Nigerian group, Ansar Bayt-al-Maqdis, which is fighting the Egyptian government in Sinai, and militias holding the towns of Derna and Sirte in Libya.
By contrast, al-Qaeda’s loyalists such as the group which was driven out of Mali by the French in 2013, have been weakened and in some cases split.
Others have made no clear commitment either way – are perhaps still testing the water.
Rebel fighters gesture as they place shoes on a damaged sculpture of late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad
What is certain is that the control over territory enjoyed by Isil has enabled them to be more proactive. They have sent “emirs” to help the fight in Libya and, possibly, other wars too.
While the weakness has been sometimes exaggerated of “al-Qaeda Central” – as the well-concealed circle of advisers around al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is often known – it is not clear to what extent it can physically dispatch resources around the globe.
Events of the last week may change that, however: as well as taking Idlib, it also has a new opportunity in Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, run by Zawahiri’s number two, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, can only gain from the civil war now raging in the west of the country between the recognised government, backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, and a Shia militia known as the Houthis, backed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A renegade group claiming allegiance to Isil claimed responsibility for a wave of suicide bombs in Sana’a ten days ago which killed 140 people, but AQAP is still dominant in the country’s tribal heartland.