Islamic State is probably more dangerous now for countries like Australia than when it was preoccupied with running the caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Here is why: the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka will probably regenerate global Islamist support for Islamic State and to some extent offset its losses of ground in Syria and Iraq.
The attacks will also put pressure on al-Qaeda to attempt something spectacular too.
Since the Islamic State caliphate was “defeated” in Iraq and Syria, there has been increased competition around the world between IS and al-Qaeda – as they seek to take the jihadi high ground – resulting in stepped-up conflict between them.
This won’t be a matter of one group simply wiping out the other.
Islamic State is currently rebuilding in Iraq, and has active affiliates in West Africa, Khorasan (Afghanistan), Yemen, North Africa, Somalia, the Greater Sahara, and Kashmir.
It is also trying to establish substantive links to Muslim supporters in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Moreover, it is encouraging low-tech attacks by supporters in Europe, North America and Australia.
Al-Qaeda affiliates are active in Syria, the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa), the Sahel (central Africa), Egypt/Sinai, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, and Somalia.
However, core al-Qaeda is not encouraging local attacks on hotels or Christians – but is encouraging attacks by its affiliates on Islamic State affiliates.
This doesn’t mean that Al-Qaeda has taken its eye off the West. Rather, it remains focussed on the long game.
UK Minister for Security Ben Wallace noted in December 2018 that al-Qaeda is fixated on major plots targeting the West, and wants to reprise its 9/11 attacks with another spectacular aviation attack.
Wallace warned that al-Qaeda is attempting to develop new methods and tactics to smuggle explosives on board aircraft – the sort of attack that was allegedly attempted against an Etihad flight out of Sydney in 2017 – and attacking airports.
So who is likely to come out on top?
Islamic State’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness – charismatic and seemingly invulnerable leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
If Baghdadi were to be killed, the group would lose some of its attraction to supporters and could descend into squabbling between aspirants to the leadership – ultimately splitting into several factions.
By contrast, if al-Qaeda leader, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed, it would create more danger for the West because the likely successor would be Osama bin-Laden’s son, Hamza, aged 30 this year.
Hamza could inspire a whole new generation of young jihadis – and attract defectors from Islamic State.
Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU’s Centre for Military and Security Law. He has worked on terrorism since 1980.