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Ayman al-Zawahri, head of al-Qaeda, delivers a statement in an online video, released Sept. 4. / SITE via AP

WASHINGTON - Al-Qaeda's call Thursday for a jihad (holy war) in India is the latest sign of how the terror group is battling to stay relevant in the face of the rival Islamic State's savage rampage in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State, an al-Qaeda breakaway group whose brutality has gained it global notoriety, is overshadowing the old-guard terrorist group from which it sprang.

"They are today's story as compared to al-Qaeda, which is definitely yesterday's story," said Omar Hamid, an analyst at IHS, a consulting firm.

The rivalry between the two groups and the growing power of the Islamic State have forced the United States to rethink its approach to combating terrorism in the region.

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, writing a joint newspaper opinion piece Thursday, called the Islamic State "brutal and poisonous" and urged NATO leaders meeting in Wales to confront the militant group.

The Islamic State "threatens to outpace al-Qaeda as the dominant voice of influence in the global extremist movement," Matthew Olsen, director of the U.S. government's National Counterterrorism Center, said Wednesday.

Particularly worrying to Olsen are 100 Americans and more than 1,000 Europeans recruited by the Islamic State to fight in Syria's 3-year-old civil war. "These foreign fighters are likely to gain experience and training and eventually return to their home countries, battle-hardened and further radicalized," Olsen said.

"Everybody wants to join ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) because ISIS looks like it's on the march," said Evan Kohlmann, an analyst with the security firm Flashpoint Global Partners.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri released a videotape Thursday calling for the establishment of a wing of the group based in the Indian subcontinent.

"Our brothers in Burma, Kashmir, Islamabad, Bangladesh, we did not forget you and will liberate you from injustice and oppression," the al-Qaeda leader said.

Analysts say the plea is less about expansion than it is an attempt to prove its relevance in a world where its influence is declining.

"It's a move on their part to try and stay competitive," Kohlmann said. "Zawahri does see power slipping out of his fingers."

The ranks of al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks, have been decimated by U.S. drone strikes over the years, and its longtime leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed in an American raid in Pakistan. Its branches in North Africa and Yemen remain powerful, but its central leadership has been weakened.

"They almost totally lost their traction even before (Islamic State) came on the scene," Hamid said.

The Islamic State's fighters burst on the international scene this year, when they seized towns in western Iraq, but their capture of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, in June made them appear unstoppable and prompted the Obama administration to take military action.

The United States has launched more than 120 airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq since starting an air campaign Aug. 8. The strikes have forced the group to retreat in some places.

The group's savagery, which included the decapitation of two captured American journalists and the slaughter of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, has been videotaped to intimidate enemies and attract recruits and money.

"It operates the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group," Olsen said in a speech at the Brookings Institution this week.

The well-crafted publicity campaign helps the Islamic State overshadow al-Qaeda in the competition for recruits and money, analysts say.

Olsen said the group takes in about $1 million per day from "illicit oil sales, smuggling and ransom payments."

The Islamic State split from al-Qaeda last year over disagreements in Syria, where both groups battled the government of Bashar Assad. The Islamic State has taken a stricter interpretation of Islamic law and uses even more ruthless tactics than al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda leaders have advised against attacks that kill innocent Muslims because of concerns that such killings could turn the population against them, analysts say.

The Islamic State has no such restraints, believing the ends justify any means, Kohlmann said. The Islamic State "is kind of like al-Qaeda on steroids with no rules at all," he said.



Copyright 2014USAToday

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