The Evolution Of Islamic State (ISIS) Views On Attacking The State Of Israel – Part II: Ideological Position On Palestine During The Baghdadi Era

By: Y. Kerman*
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June 2, 2022
By: Y. Kerman*

The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here

ISIS Declares Struggle Against Arab And Muslim Regimes A Greater Priority Than Liberating Palestine

Since its founding, ISIS – as well as its forerunners Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) – has expressed its desire to wage war on Israel and conquer Palestine.[1] The organization's rhetoric has included threats to Israel and to Jews, similar to the discourse of other jihadi and Islamic groups. Unlike other groups, however, ISIS has never made Palestine a top priority, as is evidenced by explicit statements made by ISIS leaders and spokesmen, as well as by editorials in the organization's weekly magazine minimizing the importance of the Palestinian cause. This position is also manifest in the organization's actions, as it has so far not established a "Palestine Province" and has perpetrated few attacks against Israel, despite having an occasional presence along Israel's borders in the Sinai and in southern Syria.

ISIS rivals have viewed its stance on the Palestinian issue as a weakness, accusing it of indifference to the plight of Palestinians and insufficient zeal to liberate Jerusalem from unbelievers – if not outright collaboration with Israel – with the aim of tarnishing its image in the eyes of Muslims who might otherwise be attracted to the jihadi organization. Over the years, ISIS has been forced to react to waves of anti-Israel violence, such as rocket attacks, stabbings, rammings, and shootings perpetrated by rival Palestinian groups. While generally praising attacks on Israel and Jews, ISIS simultaneously condemns those responsible for most such attacks, viewing groups such as Fatah, Hamas, and Hizbullah as apostate factions whose struggle against Israel is marred by their violations of Islam. It is likely that many instances in which ISIS has broached the Palestinian issue, threatened Israel, and called to attack it have stemmed from the realization that this subject is one of the basic principles shared by its target audience, and that ignoring or downplaying minimizing it may alienate potential recruits and supporters.

This section will survey the attitude toward the Palestinian issue and targeting Israel expressed in speeches made by ISIS leaders and in the organization's publications during the first years after its establishment:

Scant Reference To The Struggle Against Israel In Speeches By Early ISIS Leaders

A few speeches delivered by ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as early as 2014-2015 contained threats to attack Israel and massacre its Jewish population, as well as a defense of ISIS' limited attacks against Israel up to that point. Threats to Israel did not, however, represent a major theme in these speeches, as they were primarily devoted to other topics.[2]

In a November 2014 speech, Al-Baghdadi addressed the mujahideen in Sinai, who had recently joined ISIS, congratulating them for "carrying out the duty of jihad against the tawaghit [literally “false deities,” a reference to rulers who govern based on manmade law] of Egypt," and for "terrorizing the Jews." In a May 2015 speech, he commended ISIS fighters in Sinai and added: "We ask Allah the Glorified to allow us to see you in Bayt Al-Maqdis [Jerusalem; the term can also refer to Palestine as a whole] very soon. Terrorizing the Jews and keeping sleep from their eyes is enough to ensure your reward from Allah."[3]

In a December 2015 speech, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi threatened "the Jews," stating: "We haven't forgotten about Palestine. [...] Very soon, Allah willing, you will hear the march of the mujahideen whose arsenals will be besieging you [...] Day by day, we are getting closer to you [...] Palestine will only be a grave for you. Allah has gathered you there so that the Muslims will kill you, until you hide behind trees and rocks, and you know this very well." It should be noted that Israel was only one of the countries Al-Baghdadi threatened in the speech, which was mostly devoted to threatening the recently-declared Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism and the countries of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.[4]

Article In ISIS Weekly: Prioritizing Struggle Against Israel Is A Deviation From Islam

ISIS most clearly stated its view on the Palestinian issue in an article published in the organization's weekly magazine, Al-Naba'. This article did not appear until in 2016, almost two years after ISIS declared its caliphate. In Issue 22 of Al-Naba', released in March 2016, the organization defended itself against accusations made by rivals that it is not concerned with liberating Palestine.[5]

The article states that the "first cause of Muslims" is not liberating Palestine but spreading Islamic monotheism, which must be the main goal of jihad waged in any country. War on Israel does not take precedence over jihad against unbelievers elsewhere, and fighting un-Islamic rulers of Muslim countries surrounding Israel actually takes precedence, since these rulers are Israel's "first line of defense" and prevent mujahideen from attacking Israel. Asserting that the entire world is ruled by unbelievers or apostates, Al-Naba' argues that prioritizing the war against Israel or limiting jihad to waging war on the Jews is a deviation from Islam, and that if any country should be prioritized for jihad, it is Saudi Arabia, which is home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The article further suggests that Islam opposes waging jihad only against "the Jews," a tactic promoted by rulers of Muslim countries to prevent their citizens from rising up against their regimes.

The Al-Naba' article posits that the Quran commands Muslims to wage jihad against the unbelievers who are closest to them. Therefore, at this stage, most Muslims should devote their efforts to toppling the regimes in their own countries and implementing shari'a there, while only those living under Israeli control should attack Israel. The article states that after the regimes surrounding Israel are toppled, residents of these countries should then move on to the next stage of confronting the Jewish state directly. However, the article encourages Muslims worldwide to assist Palestinian Muslims in their jihad by "sending them whatever men and money they can" and "by attacking the Jews and their allies wherever they find them, killing them, destroying their property, and harming their interests in any way they can."

The article further declares that jihad in Palestine is governed by the same rules as jihad in other locations and is only valid if waged with the goal of establishing Islamic monotheism and implementing the rule of shari'a. Al-Naba' therefore lashes out at rival groups, such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Hizbullah, which are either secularist, Shi'ite, or embrace democracy, arguing that their struggle against Israel does not legitimize their methods and ideology. The article instead urges Muslims in Palestine to join ISIS – even if this means leaving Palestine and devoting their energies to fighting other enemies – or to swear allegiance to ISIS and wage jihad against Israel as individuals.

2016 ISIS Editorial Threatens Israel

The editorial in Issue 31 of ISIS weekly Al-Naba', published in May 2016, declared that ISIS will wage a war on "the Jews" that is not limited by any borders, as "the entire world is an arena for [ISIS'] jihad, all the Muslims are potential soldiers in its army, and all polytheist combatants on earth – including the Jews – are legitimate targets for it." Quoting Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), who famously said: "We fight in Iraq while our eyes are on Bayt Al-Maqdis," and Abu 'Umar Al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), who had threatened that Muslims are coming to fight Israel "from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Khorasan, the Islamic Maghreb, and the Caucasus," Al-Naba' asserted that ISIS has become more able than in the past to fulfil these threats, since it is "closer to the land of conflict with the Jews" than AQI and ISI were.[6]

It seems that the focus on ISIS' fight against Israel in the May 2016 editorial was a reaction to Israel’s commencement of military intervention against ISIS in Sinai and Syria, as mentioned in the editorial.[7] The assertion that ISIS is at war with Israel everywhere, rather than reflecting a reality in which ISIS battled Israel in multiple countries, is an attempt to reframe the organization’s jihad against Arab regimes in countries far from Israel as a war on the Jews.

Early ISIS Videos: Palestine Can Only Be Liberated After First Waging Jihad In Iraq And Syria

Elements of how ISIS perceives its struggle against Israel, expressed most clearly in the March 2016 Al-Naba' article, can already be seen in publications and video productions from ISIS' inception. These early productions focused on explaining aspects of ISIS ideology, such as the organization's rejection of nation-states, to potential recruits. ISIS' refusal to recognize international borders – which means that it also opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state – sets it apart from many competing Islamist groups. It is likely that ISIS' mention of Palestine and Jerusalem in these videos was due not to any special significance Palestine has in the organization's ideology, but because it plays a central role in the rhetoric of many other Islamist groups, whose members ISIS sought to attract.

For example, in a June 2014 English-language video released by ISIS' Al-Hayat Media showing the organization's operatives symbolically destroying the border between Syria and Iraq, a fighter nicknamed Abu Safiyah gives a tour of the border area, declaring: "This is the so-called Sykes-Picot border. We don't recognize it and we will never recognize it. This is not the last border we will break. Allah willing, we will break all the borders, but we will start with this one [...] We will break the barriers of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and all the countries." He further declares that Palestine is one of the countries ISIS intends to conquer: "We will come for all the buildings, the places of idolatry and of the infidels [...] We are going to free Palestine, Allah willing, we are coming for Al-Quds [Jerusalem]."[8]

In the above screenshots from the video, Abu Safiyah steps on a sign at the Iraqi border crossing.

However, the mention of Jerusalem in the video appears to be symbolic, rather than presenting Israel is an immediate target, since in other productions, ISIS listed the city as a future conquest together with Mecca, Medina, and Rome, all holy cities of one or more of the three major monotheistic religions.[9] The imagined future conquest of these cities by ISIS would concretely demonstrate the triumph of the jihadi organization's brand of Islam over Christianity and Judaism, as well as over other streams of Islam.

Additional videos released by ISIS between 2015 and 2018 affirm its commitment to fight Israel and conquer Palestine, while containing no indication that the organization regarded this as an immediate objective. It seems that the main intent of many of these videos was to defend ISIS against criticism by professing its commitment to waging war on Israel, while refraining from calling for immediate jihad against Israel. Some of these videos called on Palestinian Muslims to travel to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria or Iraq, even at the expense of attacking Israeli targets closer to home.

In a June 2015 video from the Aleppo Province, a Gazan fighter known as Abu 'Azzam Al-Ghazzawi declared that the issue of Palestine was important to Osama bin Laden and Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, whom ISIS views as forerunners of the organization, but that they both believed Palestine could only be liberated after first waging jihad in Iraq. Al-Ghazzawi vowed that ISIS would be the one to eventually "uproot the State of the Jews," not Hamas, Fatah, or "secularist" Palestinian groups.[10]

The above screenshot shows a Gazan ISIS fighter, Abu 'Azzam Al-Ghazzawi, declaring that ISIS will destroy Israel.

In a September 2015 video from the Damascus province, an unnamed ISIS fighter defended ISIS for not initially aiding the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel, saying that the organization was preoccupied with establishing its caliphate. He further rejected the emphasis on Palestine as more important than other countries where Muslims live under un-Islamic regimes, declaring that "there is no value to a land even if it is holy," and that the only real distinction is between countries ruled according to shari'a and those that are not. The ISIS fighter called on Palestinian Muslims to reject nationalism and repudiate the Palestinian factions – declaring that only after rejecting nationalism and striving to implement shari'a will they succeed in their jihad against Israel – and vowed that ISIS will "no doubt" reach Palestine one day.[11]

In October 2015, soon after downplaying Palestine's importance, ISIS released a series of additional videos from multiple provinces with a somewhat contradictory message. These videos expressed support for the then ongoing wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel and urged Palestinians to attack Israeli Jews.[12] The release of these videos appears to have been in reaction to violence spearheaded by other groups, rather than an indication of a significant focal change for ISIS. The campaign further exemplifies ISIS' reactionary messaging, forcing the organization to devote attention to issues which it considers of minimal importance due to their significance to other groups.

The videos will be discussed in greater detail in Part IV of this series, which deals with ISIS' attitude towards Palestinian militant groups.

Greater Focus On Threatening Israel By ISIS In Sinai

It should be noted that ISIS' Sinai Province has placed a greater emphasis on the struggle against Israel than other ISIS provinces, even carrying out several attacks targeting that country. This focus may have been inherited from ISIS Sinai's precursor, the jihadi group Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, which perpetrated a series of attacks in August 2011 near the city of Eilat on the Israel-Egypt border prior to joining ISIS in 2013-2014.[13] Despite prioritizing attacks on Israel more than other ISIS provinces, ISIS in Sinai has stressed that fighting the Egyptian regime is of primary importance.

Between 2015-2018, ISIS' Sinai Province released several videos vowing to conquer Jerusalem, as well as Saudi Arabia and Rome. In one from November 2015, an ISIS fighter in Sinai declares that the mujahideen in Sinai have not forgotten about Israel, despite their preoccupation with fighting Egyptian forces, and promises the resumption of ISIS attacks on Israel "soon." In a November 2018 video from Sinai, a fighter identified as Abu Ubayy is shown beheading a man accused of spying for Israel. Before killing him, Abu Ubayy addresses the Jews, calling them "brothers of apes and pigs," and says: "Know that you are our main target and our war with those apostates is only an introduction to our war against you. We are certain about Allah's promise and the statements of our Prophet that we will fight you and we will defeat you and we are certain that Al-Aqsa will be liberated with your blood and organs. [...] We ask Allah to let the liberation of Al-Aqsa be by our hands."[14] In May 2016, ISIS also released a series of videos from provinces in Iraq, Syria, and Libya expressing solidarity with Sinai Province. One video calls Sinai "the gateway to the liberation of Jerusalem," while others assert that Sinai will be the gateway toward ISIS' conquest of the Arabian Peninsula.[15]

The above screenshot from a November 2018 video from Sinai shows a fighter about to behead an accused spy for Israel.

2018 Speech By ISIS Spokesman Defends ISIS For Not Waging War On Israel

In an April 2018 speech by ISIS spokesman Abu Al-Hasan Al-Muhajir, he justifies the organization's delay in entering into a full-scale conflict with Israel, saying: "Your brothers in the state of the Caliphate are fighting the nations of unbelief while they are [postponing], with sorrow, the confrontation with the Jews, since they are preoccupied with fending off the assault of their enemy and with removing the borders of humiliation and shame that shackle the people of Islam. The steadfastness of the soldiers of the Caliphate in the Sinai and their repelling of recurring campaigns are proof of the truth [of this], and tomorrow is not far for those who expect it." ISIS' stance on Israel is not the main theme of the speech, which declares ISIS success in depriving the West of its perceived security and stresses that ISIS' priority is to wage jihad against the un-Islamic rulers of Arab and Muslim countries.[16]

The above banner announces the release of the April 2018 speech by ISIS spokesman Abu Al-Hasan Al-Muhajir.

As shown so far, under the leadership of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who led ISIS from 2014 until he was killed in October 2019, the organization threatened Israel and vowed to conquer it, while at the same time minimizing the ideological significance of the Palestinian cause. Many of the organization's threats and calls to attack Israel were issued in reaction to campaigns launched by rival groups, which forced ISIS to defend itself against charges of indifference toward Palestinians by issuing its own calls for violence against Jews.

The following part of this series will discuss threats to Israel and calls to attack the Jewish state which ISIS issued under Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi (appointed caliph on October 31, 2019) and under his successor, Abu Al-Hasan Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi, whose appointment was announced on March 10, 2022.

 

[1] Throughout this report, the term Palestine is used as a geographic term - as it is used by jihadis - to refer to the territory governed by Israel, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, not as a political term referring to a Palestinian state or the areas governed by the Palestinian Authority.

[2] This point was already noted by MEMRI JTTM analysts in 2015; see MEMRI Report: The Islamic State (ISIS) And Palestine - Rhetoric vs. Reality, November 17, 2015.

[3] See MEMRI JTTM Report: ISIS In Sinai Increases Military, Propaganda Pressure On Egypt, August 11, 2015.

[7] A February 2018 report by the New York Times claimed that Israel had been carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in Sinai for more than two years, putting the start of Israel’s intervention a few months before the March 2016 Al-Naba’ article. Nytimes.com/2018/02/03/world/middleeast/israel-airstrikes-sinai-egypt, February 3, 2018.

[9] For example, Issue 5 of ISIS' English-language magazine Dabiq mentioned Jerusalem as an area into which ISIS will eventually expand, along with Mecca, Medina, and Rome. See MEMRI JTTM Report: Islamic State (ISIS) Releases Fifth Issue of Its English-Language Magazine 'Dabiq'; Issue Focuses On ISIS' Recent Expansion To New Countries, November 21, 2014.

[13] Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis was founded in 2011 and was initially aligned with Al-Qaeda, before swearing allegiance to ISIS at some point in 2013-2014. ISIS acknowledged the group's pledge of allegiance in November 2014 and designated the area as ISIS' Sinai Province. For more on Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis and its joining ISIS, see MEMRI Report: Changing Dynamics In The Global Jihad Movement: Egyptian Group Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis Leaves Al-Qaeda, Joins Islamic State, November 2, 2014; and MEMRI JTTM Report: Sinai-Based Jihadi Group Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis Officially Joins Islamic State, Pledges Allegiance To Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, November 9, 2014.

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