A missile barrage on the Israeli town of Eilat shows the jihadi group's capability to attack 'the Jews and the Crusaders.'
A recent rocket barrage on the Israeli resort town of Eilat from the Sinai Peninsula was quickly claimed by Sinai Province, an ISIS affiliate operating in Egypt. The group stated that the four Grad-type rockets were launched at the town on 8 February "in order to teach the Jews and the Crusaders that a proxy war will not avail them of anything," and promised more "calamitous" attacks in the future.
Though no injuries were reported as a result - three of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile defence system; the fourth fell in an open area – it marks a dangerous development in ISIS' position towards Israel.
Salafi-jihadis, including ISIS, have long threatened the Jewish state. As Matthew Levitt notes, "Israel and the Palestinian cause have long been lightning rods for al-Qaeda. In nearly every one of his public statements from 1990 to 2011, Osama bin Laden referenced the Palestinian cause." ISIS has continued this trend, promising its supporters to "liberate Bayt al-Maqdis (an Islamic name for Jerusalem) from the Jews" as part of the expansion of its so-called caliphate.
Furthermore, shortly after the start of the wave of Palestinian violence in October 2015, ISIS published a series of videos praising the attacks against Israelis and calling for more. While it was unclear whether this propaganda campaign gained any traction among Palestinians, it was obvious that ISIS sought to exploit the wave of Palestinian attacks to expand its influence in the Israeli-Palestinian context and position itself as a powerful and threatening actor against Israel.
However, last week's attack on Eilat marks a dangerous escalation of the ISIS threat to Israel. It was the first time in many months that the Egyptian ISIS affiliate launched a coordinated rocket attack on the Israeli city. While Sinai Province militants have attacked Israeli targets in the past – including an attack on an Israeli bus in August 2011 and a rocket attack on Eilat in August 2012 – Sinai Province has mainly focused on targeting the Egyptian army forces in the peninsula, as part of the continuing insurgency there.
This was also the first time that ISIS officially claimed an attack against Israel. The ISIS threat in both Israel and the Palestinian territories in the West Bank – either in the form of directly organised attacks or those inspired by ISIS' radical ideology – is a long-standing concern of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. However, despite some statements by PM Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians in response to Palestinian attacks committed over the last year, until the recent rocket barrage on Eilat ISIS had not officially claimed any assault in Israel or the West Bank.
With this latest attack, ISIS may be seeking to divert attention from its continuing setbacks in the Middle East. By quickly claiming responsibility, ISIS showed that it is still alive and capable of hitting "the Jews and the Crusaders," even within Israeli borders. Furthermore, the assault could also be motivated as a retaliation against Israel, which closely cooperates with Egypt in intelligence sharing to combat the jihadi insurgency in the Sinai.
ISIS frequently accuses the Arab regimes in the Middle East of being "the agents of the Jews and the Crusaders," claiming not only that they rule against God's law by preventing the correct implementation of the Sharia (as ISIS defines it), but also that they collaborate with Israel and the United States against Muslims by fighting jihadi groups. In a statement from November 2014, for instance, ISIS' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exhorted Muslims throughout the Middle East to rise up against "the agents of the Jews and crusaders, their slaves, tails and dogs." By attacking Israel and using the term "proxy war" in the claim of responsibility, ISIS insinuates that the Egyptian military's efforts to eradicate Sinai Province will not help Israel protect itself from ISIS' attacks.
This term should thus be seen as a response to the counter-terrorism efforts against Sinai Province in recent months: as a result of the Egyptian army's efforts, hundreds of Sinai Province fighters have been killed during that period, including the organisation's leader, Abu Duaa al-Ansari, in August 2016.
With the Eilat rocket attack, ISIS indicated that it has the capability to target Israel, despite the military and counter-terrorism efforts against it by the Egyptian military and the regional pressure on the group elsewhere. It seems unlikely that the attack marks a strategic shift in ISIS' strategy from combatting "the near enemy" of the Egyptian regime to focusing its efforts on Israel, but by attacking Eilat and officially claiming it as ISIS' first attack against "the Jews," it demonstrated the group's capability and willingness to attack "the Jews and the Crusaders."
While Sinai Province might attempt to execute similar attacks in the future, the ongoing pressure on the group in the Sinai Peninsula will probably keep it focused on attacking "the near enemy" of the Egyptian army, instead of launching an all-out war 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.