Hamas and Israeli officials have disputed the jihadi group's claim of responsibility, but this could still influence the nature of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
Last Friday evening, three young Palestinians armed with an automatic weapon and knives carried out attacks at two locations in Jerusalem's Old City against Israeli police. All three perpetrators were shot dead by security forces, but IDF Border Patrol soldier Hadas Malka, 23, was killed in the assault. ISIS soon claimed responsibility, its first claim for an attack in Israel.
In a statement, the group said "lions of the caliphate carried out a blessed operation in the city of Jerusalem." It stated: “With God’s help, we succeeded in carrying out an attack in the heart of Jerusalem.” Unusually, the statement referred to the location of the attack as "Palestine." Until now, ISIS (as well as other Salafi-jihadi groups) referred to Israel/Palestine only as "Bayt al-Maqdis" – the Islamic name for Jerusalem, as opposed to Palestine.
ISIS’ claim of responsibility was refuted by Israeli officials and Hamas. According to Haaretz, Israeli military sources described the assailants as a "classic local cell" – youths who knew each other and decided to join forces, but did not belong to a terror organisation. This pattern fits many of the attacks carried out by young Palestinians since the start of a wave of Palestinian violence in October 2015.
Hamas also strongly rejected ISIS’ claim of responsibility, saying that the three belonged to local Palestinian terrorist organisations. Izzat al-Risheq, a member of the group's political bureau, tweeted that "the three martyrs, heroes of the Jerusalem operation, did not have any relations to Daesh (ISIS) and belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Hamas." Another Hamas official added that "the attack in Jerusalem is a new proof that the Palestinian people are continuing their revolution against the occupier and that the intifada is continuing until full freedom is achieved." Thus, instead of being ISIS-directed, Hamas attempted to portray the attack – which was celebrated by the Palestinian militant group as a success – as part of the Palestinian popular struggle against Israel.
It remains unclear whether ISIS was actually behind the incident. Much like claims made by the group following recent attacks in the UK, ISIS' statement was vague. Furthermore, while ISIS has applauded past Palestinian stabbing attacks as a means of achieving the liberation of al-Aqsa Mosque, and even threatened Israel in a Hebrew-language propaganda video in late October 2015, the group has until now avoided attacking Israel directly. In March 2016, ISIS even explained why it does not attack Israel. It stated: “The apostate [tyrants] who rule the lands of Islam are graver infidels than [the Jews], and war against them takes precedence over war against the original infidels.” Instead, ISIS affiliates have so far only targeted Israel from outside the country. Sinai Province, ISIS’ affiliate operating in Egypt, claimed a rocket attack on the Israeli resort town of Eilat in February 2017. In November 2016, ISIS-affiliated jihadis in Syria assaulted an Israeli reconnaissance unit with gunfire and mortars on the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights.
Even if the attacks in Jerusalem weren't actually executed by ISIS members, why did the jihadi group claim responsibility for an attack in Israel now – three years after the declaration of its self-declared caliphate, and well after it started its global terrorism campaign in late 2015? Two explanations could explain the shift. First, the Jerusalem attacks were carried out towards the end of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar. ISIS has called for increased attacks against non-believers during this period. In May 2016, before the start of Ramadan, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani referred to it as "the month of conquest and jihad" and called on ISIS supporters "to make it a month of calamity everywhere for the non-believers." As a result, last year's Ramadan was especially bloody, with ISIS claiming attacks in Bangladesh, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. So far, this Ramadan ISIS has claimed some 13 attacks in 10 countries.
The second possible reason for ISIS' claim of the Jerusalem attacks is its continuing loss of territory. According to US officials, ISIS has now lost 66 per cent of land it conquered in 2014 in Iraq, and almost half of its territory in Syria. The Iraqi army has managed to retake most of Mosul, ISIS’ former stronghold in Iraq, and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces has begun the campaign to retake Raqqa, ISIS' de-facto capital in northern Syria. Attacks beyond the group’s core areas, such as those recently claimed by the group in the UK and Tehran, raise ISIS' public profile, boost the morale of its fighters and supporters, and divert attention from its shrinking territory. Jerusalem, the third holiest site for Islam, is a perfect target for such propaganda efforts.
While it remains doubtful that ISIS indeed directed and executed the Jerusalem attacks, the claim of responsibility could encourage more violence by individuals influenced by ISIS' ideology. The more the group loses land, manpower, and funds, the more it will want to show success in terrorising "the enemies of Allah" and projecting spectacular violence in its propaganda. Just this week, ISIS reportedly blew up the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul - the same mosque where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance, shortly after ISIS declared a caliphate in 2014, promising to the audience attending the sermon to bring back Muslim glory and protect and serve Sunni Muslims worldwide as their Caliph. Blowing up the iconic mosque is a clear show of desperation as ISIS loses control of its former stronghold in Iraq. Unfortunately, the defeat of ISIS' caliphate project drives the group to execute - and claim - ever more violent attacks, including against the Jewish State."
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.