19 Mar 2020

ISIS and Israel: Implications and outcomes of shifting positions

Mohammed Khalfan Al-Sawwafi

In January 2020, terror outfit ISIS, which is also known as Daesh, announced the beginning of a new “Jihad” or holy war to destroy Israel. If followed through, this would open a new front, ideologically and operationally, for the group.

An audio speech – Whom the God destroyed; a similar fate awaits the disbeliever – attributed to the group’s spokesman, Abu Hamza Al-Qurashi, was released by the organization’s media arm Al-Furqan[1]. In this 37-minute speech, Al-Qurashi said: “the new ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi, has taken upon himself and upon the Mujahideen the task to wage a war against the Jews and regain what they stole from the Muslims.”

The speech urged what it described as the “soldiers of the caliphate” to attack Israel, especially the settlements, and thwart the US Middle East peace plan also known as the “Deal of the Century”. It also specifically mentioned the ISIS affiliates in Sinai and Syria, urging them to attack Israel and employ their “chemical” weapons. The speech accused Hamas and other Palestinian groups of “apostasy and treachery” for backing away from “jihad” on Israel.

It is not new for ISIS to make such accusations against Hamas or other groups. What is notable, however, is that the speech was not only released in Arabic and English but also in Hebrew, even though it was directed primarily at ISIS members and supporters who are either Arabic or English speakers.

The use of the Hebrew language meant that the message is directed at an Israeli audience to spread fear in their hearts and minds. This also proves that propaganda and psychological warfare are part of the organization’s main strategies and that it largely relies on them to achieve its goals and attract recruits.

The timing of the speech is also significant considering the situation prevailing in the region. It was aired before the US President, Donald Trump, announced his Middle East Peace Plan. It seems that ISIS wanted to exploit the state of discontent and frustration among the Arabs and Muslims resulting from the “Deal of Century”. In this way, it could use the disgruntled elements to build a popular support base even before the details of the deal were announced on the pretext that such a deal denies all the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.

The crisis within ISIS

The terrorist organization’s new threats to Israel cannot be understood in isolation. The group has been going through a sustained and devastating crisis that started two years ago with a successful military campaign launched by the international coalition to eliminate its presence in Iraq and Syria. The crisis has worsened since the killing of the organization’s leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in an American air raid on his hideout in Syria in 2019. That incident negatively affected the relationship between the central leadership of the organization and its affiliates and other supporters.

The choice of Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi as the new ISIS leader was met with reservations from some loyal groups. Some even refused to pledge allegiance to him,[2] which was a significant blow to the group’s strength and cohesion. The carefully cultivated image of ISIS, which sought to portray the group as the largest and most effective movement raising the so-called banner of Islam on behalf of all “jihadists”, has been severely dented.

Before this crisis, ISIS had seen a dramatic expansion in its global reach with presence across Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Somalia, Khorasan, the Caucasus, the Philippines and West Africa (Nigeria). It had also declared the establishment of a “caliphate” in large parts of Syria and Iraq, and received oaths of allegiance from many extremist groups across the globe.

However, following its defeat in Iraq and Syria, the elimination of its so-called caliphate, and the hunting down of its leaders and cells almost everywhere, the organization has been facing a struggle for survival. The reemergence of other extremist movements such as Al-Qaeda was pointing toward a dark future for the organization.

This challenge became existential as the Syrian army regained large swaths of Syrian territories and seized control of many cities which used to be ISIS strongholds. The withdrawal of several other militant groups from the battlefield in Syria due to heavy military pressure from the Damascus regime and its backers worsened the crisis for ISIS.

Furthermore, some of these insurgent groups entered into truce or reconciliation agreements among themselves. ISIS’s relationship with these groups has been mainly competitive and occasionally punctuated with confrontations. Yet, their withdrawal from the battleground in Syria exerted greater pressure on the ISIS organization as the Syrian regime and other forces directed more military resources to eliminate its remaining pockets in Syria.

Turkey’s military incursion into Syria further tightened the siege on ISIS. Although the organization had been indirectly serving Ankara’s interests by targeting the Syrian government forces and fending off the threat posed by the military arm of the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian Democratic Forces, Turkey’s direct military intervention meant that Ankara no longer had to utilize ISIS as a proxy to pursue its own interests.

Motives behind the ISIS threat to Israel:

Faced with the threat its survival, ISIS has started to look for possible ways to regain its presence and influence. Due to continuous developments on the geostrategic front and a relentless military campaign against it, the organization recognized the difficulty of operating and moving in the same battleground where it had been defeated and torn asunder. Hence, it decided to open a new front.

Since the emergence of ISIS from the remnants of Al-Qaeda, it has never been seen as a serious threat to Israel. Consequently, its recent proclamation of raising the banner of “jihad” to liberate Al-Quds is only meant to achieve limited goals, some immediate and some indirect:

  • Immediate goals: ISIS’s first priority is to protect itself from annihilation. They have chosen to ride this phase out by stirring the spirit of fighting and sentiment of “jihad” among its members and affiliates, which have been physically and morally frustrated. To infuse the fighting spirit among them, nothing could be more effective than fighting the “usurper Jews” who occupy the Islamic holy sites. The group believes that diverting attention toward Israel might relatively reduce the continuous crackdown against it, particularly in Syria. Making Israel the target might make the Syrian and Iranian regimes and other forces less hostile to it. Damascus and Tehran might even begin to view the organization as a potential pawn in managing their relations and interplay with Israel, in connection with Syria or their dealings with Tel Aviv.
  • Indirect goals: The most important among these goals has been to regain the loyalty of some factions that have not pledged allegiance to the organization’s new leader, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi. There was also a need to attract new groups to declare their allegiance. The organization knows that all Islamist groups and factions unanimously agree on the idea of “jihad” against the Jews, and the liberation of Al-Quds, particularly those who espouse armed struggle. Given the paramount importance of Al-Quds to all Muslims, targeting Israel under the pretext of fighting for the holy sites, against the Israeli occupation and the “Deal of the Century” is a strategy to influence Arab and Muslim public opinion by stirring up their religious sentiments.

The ideology and the practice:

One of the salient characteristics of ISIS ideology is its practice of “jihad” primarily against polytheist Muslims and governments, or what is called the “jihad against the near enemy”. This is contrary to other groups, especially Al-Qaeda, which has given top priority to “jihad against the far enemy”, i.e. fighting the “infidels” or non-Muslims, particularly their governments and militaries.

ISIS focus on the “near enemy”, however, has not prevented it from launching some terrorist operations targeting the West. The group’s jihad against the “far enemy” is only utilized as an option when it becomes necessary. It has resorted to it whenever it needed to revive its strategy to “hold and expand”. In other words, it would attempt to offset the loss of physical territory by trying to acheive a moral triumph by targeting the West and its interests. This has served as a way to bounce back on the global stage. ISIS believes that such operations are the best methods to respond to those who say the organization is dying.[3]

Besides, by carrying out sporadic terrorist operations against the West, the organization seeks to provoke right-wing elements in Europe and goad them into taking hostile measures towards minorities. Acts of violence and persecution against Europe’s Muslim communities have led to members of these communities and other Muslims of Western origin to reject the values of Western societies and join ISIS.

This happened during the height of ISIS terror activities in 2015 when some members of these communities traveled to its strongholds and joined its combat forces or declared allegiance to it. According to the organization’s stated objectives, terrorist operations against the West would “force the Crusaders to destroy the idea of coexistence and Muslims would soon find themselves with no choice but to emigrate to ISIS-controlled territories.”[4].

This means that the West and non-Muslims, or the “far enemy”, are not a genuine target per se for ISIS but rather a propaganda tool to attract recruits. This approach also helps entrench an image of the organization that is much larger and stronger than what it actually is. Conflict with the “far enemy” is therefore merely a tactic used by the organization in exceptional times and does not represent an enduring strategy.

In this context, the recent ISIS threat to Israel can be looked at from two perspectives:

  • First: We are witnessing a real shift in the ideological pitch of the organization, from fighting the “near enemy” to fighting the “far enemy”. This positions ISIS close to Al-Qaeda and similar groups, especially considering its failure to establish a lasting so-called caliphate. Seen from this perspective, the threat to Israel is real.
  • Second: However, this shift in strategy could also be a transparent attempt to garner sympathy for the organization by threatening to target Israel without making any real shift in its ideology, which primarily focuses on fighting the “near enemy”. This could also mean some propagandistic operations against the “far enemy” to achieve specific tactical objectives.

The ambiguous relationship between Israel and ISIS:

Following the American invasion of Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi released his first video-taped speech – A Declaration for Mankind – in which he said: “We are fighting in Iraq, but our eyes are set upon Al-Quds”. Seventeen years later, the same phrase has resurfaced in the speech delivered by ISIS spokesman, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi. This suggests a change in the organization’s approach to the so-called jihad and a method of multi-pronged offensive targeting the local, regional and global arenas. As a consequence, the tools and objectives are likely to vary depending on the ability to carry out attacks.

In 2015, the organization reiterated its plan to target Israel. This was done twice, in October in a video threatening Israel in the Hebrew language, and a further audio recording in December by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi himself.[5] As time passed without any incident against Israel, it became clear that the organization’s threats to Israel were nothing more than a “declaration of intent” with postponed execution.

In February 2017, a few rockets were fired at the Israeli coastal city of Eilat. This was a very limited operation in terms of impact and losses. It did not signify any shift in the ISIS position of not attacking Israel but did Israel a great service. Tel Aviv made good use of it in its official and media rhetoric, which usually portrays any Palestinian operation as an ISIS-style terrorist operation in order to undermine any sympathy for the Palestinians’ legitimate resistance to the occupation. In turn, ISIS uses the Israeli discourse to propagate its image as an anti-Jewish organization bent on liberating the Al-Aqsa Mosque.[6]

The Israeli political and military elites have also expressed concern over the danger posed by ISIS to Israel. Several Israeli intelligence and media reports described ISIS as an imminent threat. In response, the Israeli government has taken several measures to address potential ISIS threats. It has reinforced the deployment of its military forces along the borders with Syria, and Jordan, and issued a law designating ISIS as a terrorist organization.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed the willingness of Israel to join the International Coalition against ISIS and engage in intelligence cooperation with the coalition in the war against this terrorist organization. Israel has also indicated that a potential breach of its borders by extremist groups operating in Sinai is a significant security threat.

However, ISIS has never really targeted Israel, a fact that has raised a lot of speculation and led many conspiracy theorists to suggest a “collaboration” or “alliance” between the two. A few developments are significant in this regard. In April 2017, former Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon surprised everyone by stating that fighters loyal to ISIS apologized to Israel for firing a rocket from Syria toward his country. According to Ya’alon, “there was one case recently where the ISIS opened fire toward Israel and immediately apologized”.[7]

In the same year, the media carried a leaked report that an Israeli intelligence assessment “sees the possibility of allying with Israel and ISIS in Syria”. Having Iran as a common enemy could create a convergence of interests, even temporarily, between the two sides in the face of Tehran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian government forces. Such a possibility can be seen to exist especially after the defeat of ISIS while it still retains significant operational capabilities and might revert to guerrilla tactics.[8]

There are many indications suggesting a possible relationship between ISIS and Israel. One school of thought points to a two-level relationship. At one level is declared hostility where each side propagates to the world and its people in particular (public opinion in Israel/ ISIS members, affiliates and supporters) that the other side is an existential threat that should be eliminated. On another level, however, the two sides are not enemies and there are no real contradictions between their goals. There are also mutual interests and areas of agreement between the two sides, at least tentatively.

More details related to this potential convergence of interests were revealed in a study published in 2018 by the Observatory for Monitoring Takfiri Fatwas and Extremist Ideologies at Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta. The study examined Israel’s support for terrorist groups in Syria, particularly ISIS, and claimed to present evidence of Israel’s direct and indirect support for the organization.

According to the study, Israel has supported the organization by purchasing oil from areas under ISIS control through intermediaries. Also, it has passed Israeli weapons to the group, facilitated the transportation of its injured fighters to be treated in Israeli military hospitals in the Golan Heights and conducted direct negotiations for the return of 100 Arab-Israeli members of the organization to Tel Aviv.[9]

A lack of response to the US decision to transfer its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem suggested that neither the Palestinian issue nor Israel was a priority for ISIS. The group completely ignored that important issue, which is invariably central in the discourse of all Islamist movements. ISIS also did not response to President Trump’s announcement of his intention to move the embassy to Al-Quds and even when the decision was implemented.

As its existential crisis has escalated, ISIS is using the Palestinian card to regain sympathy and popularity. This is reflected in its recent stance on the “Deal of the Century” when it tried to ride the wave of sympathy for the Palestinians over an issue which is central to Arabs and Muslims. However, the organization’s position has been limited only to fiery speeches. It has not carried out any actual operation against Israel or the US or their interests, even in the occupied Palestinian territories against the settlements referred to in ISIS’s speeches.

Prospects for the future:

In light of the shift in ISIS discourse toward the so-called jihad for the sake of Al-Quds and liberation of the holy sites in Palestine, the near future may bring some sort of confusion in the positions held and moves made by various groups that raise this banner. ISIS once claimed responsibility for an operation carried out by members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and this may happen again. However, the opposite may happen where ISIS affiliates carry out operations and attribute them to armed movements operating in the Palestinian territories.

In this way, the circle of concerned parties engaging in the Palestinian issue may widen, even if only in terms of propaganda and symbolism. On the other hand, the invocation of the Palestinian issue in speeches, without any actual attack, and the propagandistic use of slogans such as the “liberation of Al-Quds” may fuel real resistance, especially among armed Palestinian hardliners. If this happens, it will become difficult to control any outcomes and the preachers of hate will not be able to put the “genie” back into the bottle.

Furthermore, the situation facing terrorist organizations will be affected by evolving conditions in many ways. It will be important to watch the nature of the relationship between ISIS and other terrorist groups focusing on the “far enemy” and targeting the West and potentially Israel. The organization’s relationship with its affiliates will also be affected, particularly those refusing to declare allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s successor.

The new fait accompli on the ground will force these groups to reconsider their positions. Portraying ISIS’s position toward the “Deal of the Century” as the stage for creating a new theater of war spearheaded by the group as the only “jihadist” entity confronting Israel may push the splinter factions to reconsider their positions. They may be compelled to ignore their reasons for not paying allegiance to ISIS and ultimately join its ranks.

Despite the muddled relationship between ISIS and Israel, the chances of a significant shift in this relationship and ISIS turning into a real threat for Israel seem to be slim. There are two reasons behind this: (a) ISIS’s targeting of Israel will increase international pressure on the group, which it may not want at this stage; and (b) Israel substantial military and security experience and expertise in dealing with armed groups.

Israel’s internal security stability and strong domestic intelligence agencies make it highly impenetrable to the terrorism of any kind. Nonetheless, this will not completely remove the threat of ISIS to Israel, especially if the organization is determined to mount some form of attack. To achieve this, ISIS can use its loyal operatives stationed in Syria and Sinai to launch attacks on Tel Aviv, a scenario that hasn’t been ruled out by Israel.

[1] https://bit.ly/2IQ6NZP

[2] https://bit.ly/38UtfvO

[3] عمر عاشور، تنظيم الدولة.. هل غير استراتيجيته تجاه الغرب؟ http://cutt.us/WPVR0

[4] مرصد إسلاموفوبيا، التقرير الثامن، منظمة التعاون الإسلامي.



[5] إسرائيل تهون من خطر داعش على أراضيها، موقع “Kurdistan24″، 2 يونيو 2016.


[6] عباس ظاهر، “داعش” يخطط لسرقة القضية الفلسطينية، “النشرة” اللبنانية، 11 فبراير 2017.



[7] “داعش يعتذر لإسرائيل”، موقع روسيا اليوم، 23 أبريل 2017، على الرابط:  https://ar.rt.com/iqym

[8] Yonah Jeremy Bob, Report: Israel, ISIS interests aligned against Iran, Jerusalem Post, 27 November 2017.


[9] مرصد الإفتاء: دراسة ترصد 7 أدلة على دعم إسرائيل لداعش، المركز الإعلامي بدار الإفتاء المصرية، 23 يوليو 2018.



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