Is Al-Qaeda Trying to Renew its Image by Focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Is Al-Qaeda Trying to Renew its Image by Focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

by Asaf Day

Over the past weeks, al-Qaeda has increased the frequency of its references to Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its publications, from both the central command and local affiliates. Such new focus can likely be attributed to the organization’s attempts to win “the hearts and minds” of local residents in areas which the jihadist group operates, as it capitalizes on issues that are sensitive to the broad Muslim community.

On January 20, in the wake of its large-scale assault on Chadian peacekeepers in Mali’s Kidal Region, which resulted in the killing and wounding of dozens of troops, the al-Qaeda-affiliated group Jamaal Muskrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) issued a communique concerning the attack titled “al-Quds (Jerusalem) will never be Judaized.” According to the group, the attack on the Chadian soldiers was carried out in response to the rapprochement between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries. The group further mentioned the recent warming relations between the Israeli government and the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, which manifested into mutual visits by the two counties’ leaders. Notably, on January 20, the same day of JNIM’s attack, the Israeli prime minister held a visit in Chad’s capital N’Djamena to discuss security cooperation between Chad and Israel. An additional justification for the attack included Deby’s alleged war crimes in the country, as well as his French-sponsored “institutionalized impoverishment and stagnation.”     


Additionally, on February 9, JNIM attempted to carry out a suicide vehicle-borne attack against a vehicle carrying French troops near northern Mali’s city of Timbuktu. While the group claimed that five French soldiers were killed in the attack, conflicting reports indicated that the troops were able to target the bomber before he reached them, causing him to detonate prematurely. Several days after the attempted attack, the group issued a picture of the suicide bomber with al-Aqsa Mosque in the background of the photo. 

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Just a few days before the aforementioned attack on the Chadian troops, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda’s Somalia-based affiliate, conducted a large-scale assault on the Dusit Complex, an upscale hotel and business area in Kenya’s Nairobi, which is frequented regularly by foreign nationals. Similarly to JNIM, on January 20, al-Shabab released a communique under the title “al-Quds [Jerusalem] will never be Judaized,” claiming that the assault was directed by al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri and aimed at targeting “Western and Zionist interests.” Furthermore, the group stated that the assault was carried out in “support of our Muslim families in Palestine.”   

In late January, the organization’s central command issued a statement praising the launching of the “al-Quds will never be Judaized” operations. Unsurprisingly, al-Qaeda drew a connection between the assaults and Israeli control over Jerusalem, claiming that the group's affiliates targeted the “Zionist-Crusader Intelligence” headquarters and their related private security companies in Nairobi. As for the attack in Mali, like JNIM’s claim of responsibility, al-Qaeda stated that it was carried out in response to Chad’s “normalization” with the “Zionist entity,” as it corresponded with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the country.

The recent surge in publications related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the status of Jerusalem underlines Zawahiri organization’s effort to capitalize on recent events concerning issues which are of great importance to Muslim communities across the globe. These include the status of Jerusalem, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, regimes which are perceived to be oppressive to Muslims, and historical tensions surrounding Western Colonial rule. By linking these issues with the latest attacks, the Sunni jihadist militant group seeks to tap local Muslims’ sentiments to attract their support.

Furthermore, the relations between Israel and such regimes, namely Sunni-Arab and Muslim-African nations, which are already perceived as oppressive by large parts of the local populace, are being exploited by Zawahiri’s organization to slander and delegitimize these rulers (such leaders are often described by jihadist elements as Taught, largely meaning “tyrant”). This, in turn, may potentially push the local populations in these areas further toward the hands of al-Qaeda’s affiliates.

In addition, al-Qaeda’s efforts to appeal to local Muslim populations are further demonstrated by the group’s multiple references to these countries’ colonial histories, capitalizing on the heightened tensions regarding the matter among locals, particularly in East and West Africa. By linking all these issues together, the jihadist organization’s publications suggest that it strives to convey an image of local residents as being under attack in a similar fashion to other Muslim communities across the globe, with the Palestinian issue standing at the forefront. This is illustrated by the photo released by al Qaeda depicting the perpetrator of the February 9 attack against the French forces with al-Aqsa Mosque at the background. Similarly, JNIM published two pictures of the perpetrators of the February 24 assault on a European Union base in Mali’s Bamako, with the mosque behind them.

Meanwhile, the above mentioned assaults and publications should also be considered in the context of increased competition between al-Qaeda’s affiliates and the Islamic State in Africa and Yemen, with both groups stepping up their activity in such regions over the past months. For instance, from September 2018 until November 2018, the Islamic Sate’s West Africa Province conducted 22 confirmed attacks, while from December 2018 to February 2019 al-Baghdadi’s organization carried out 58 confirmed attacks. In this context, the recent uptick in references to Jerusalem and the Palestinians likely serve to portray al-Qaeda as the more capable jihadist group in the eyes of radicalized elements throughout the globe. The existing criticism of the two organizations’ alleged inaction around Israel’s perceived oppressive policies towards the Palestinians further supports this reasoning. This also enables al-Qaeda to claim the title of “defenders of the Ummah’s interests.” Such title could further be utilized to attract potential recruits at the expense of the Islamic State, particularly amidst the latter’s decline.

In conclusion, the publications continue to demonstrate Zawahiri organization’s sensitivities to prevailing narratives in the Islamic World, as well as to current events that may impact the public opinion. Furthermore, the releases also show the group’s attempt to connect events carrying a local nature to a broader global narrative regarding the Ummah’s posture. Therefore, as al-Qaeda has limited ability to carry out direct acts of militancy against Israeli targets, any developments concerning Jerusalem and Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be a catalyst for further al-operations against pro-Western and Israel-friendly entities in regions where the group is active.

Image: Qubbat As-Sakhrah in Jerusalem

Courtesy of Kristoffer Trolle / Flickr

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Asaf Day is a Middle East and North Africa geopolitical analyst at a private security-consultancy firm. His areas of expertise include Syria, Israel, and the Palestinians, as well as global jihad organizations. Asaf has an MA Degree in Arabic Studies from the University of Bar Ilan and a BA from Ben Gurion University, both in Israel. In addition to English, Asaf speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, as well as Turkish and French to a lesser degree.

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