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1 November 2023

The spectre of jihadi terror

Within militant Islamic factions, sectarian rivalries count for less than the desire for destruction.

By Shiraz Maher

Las Vegas rules don’t apply to the ­Middle East. Put another way, what happens there doesn’t stay there. Various administrations in recent years – both in Europe and in the US – have turned a Nelsonian eye to this truism, hoping that their luck might eventually turn. When the Syrian uprising first began in 2011 Barack Obama and David Cameron hoped to contain the trouble “over there”. More recently, officials in the Biden administration boasted of the Middle East being the quietest it’s been for decades, ignoring the smouldering embers of resentment across the West Bank and Gaza, the growing menace of reactionary movements deeply entrenched across the Levant, and aggressive Iranian posturing. 

Then came 7 October, a shocking terrorist attack of a kind not seen since 9/11, coupled with a disastrously commensurate intelligence failure in Israel. By the time it was over, more than 1,400 Israelis were dead – slaughtered in their homes, at music festivals, or just going about their everyday lives – and at least 229 had been kidnapped and taken back to the Gaza Strip. The profile of victims, from infants to geriatrics – among them Holocaust survivors – spoke to the ferocity and pitiless nature of Hamas’s murderous assault. 

The global jihad movement, subdued by the collapse of militant momentum in Syria after 2019 and overtaken by global events including the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, has found itself renewed and recast. “We congratulate our Islamic nation in general, and our people garrisoned in Palestine in particular, for these blessed and ­successful victories,” read a statement from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

A subsequent video from the group’s leader, Khalid Batarfi, described the Israeli response as constituting a “war on Muslims”. He called for retaliatory attacks against Jews and Christians around the world as well as against British and American citizens. ­Al-Qaeda’s central leadership also saluted “the Knights of Palestine” and said that Muslims in neighbouring countries should  attack Israel. Meanwhile, an Islamic State (Isis) communiqué was less discriminatory, simply telling its supporters to attack Jews worldwide.

Although the jihadist movement has certainly been revitalised by the 7 October attacks, the terrorist threat in Europe was already intensifying prior to this. An assessment by the Dutch National Coordinator for Security and Counter-Terrorism found that “since the second half of 2022 there have been ever more clues that Isis is planning attacks in Europe”. That threat is now much more pointed. In London alone, anti-Semitic incidents have increased 14-fold compared to this time last year.

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The UK’s Security Service – also known as MI5 – has considered raising the terror threat level in response to recent events, ­although it has not yet done so.

In mid-October, Ken McCallum, MI5’s director-general, and Christopher Wray, the FBI’s director, both  emphasised that the current conflict could produce a more acute terrorist threat in the UK and US. These concerns were so pronounced that, in the immediate aftermath of the 7 October attacks, the New York Police Department cancelled all leave and ordered all officers to report for duty.

Turbulence in the Middle East invariably translates to turbulence in Europe. After repeated incidents around the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem in the summer of 2017, an online jihadist channel operating on the encrypted messaging app known as Telegram began demanding attacks against British Jews.

The scale of the threat was alarming: details of synagogues across Britain, of Jewish supermarkets and delis, and even of social events such as an intra-synagogue cricket match were published on the platform.

[See also: Will Hezbollah’s leader ignite a regional war?]

The perpetrator, Husnain Rashid, was arrested in 2017 and sentenced to life imprisonment after calling for attacks on Prince George and publishing details of his ­primary school. By then, his Telegram channels had carried a total of more than 300,00 calls for violence.

Rashid’s threats were never realised but others were. Consider the 2015 terrorist ­attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris conducted by the Kouachi brothers on behalf of al-Qaeda. Their friend Amedy Coulibaly,  who was affiliated to Isis, subsequently went on a shooting spree and took shoppers hostage in the Hypercacher kosher supermarket, a Jewish store in Paris. He told the French media that he had targeted the store to defend Palestinians. In the event, four Jews were killed during the siege.

It was an instructive episode because it revealed how, within the jihadist movement, bitter rivalries can be transcended in the pursuit of a larger cause. When the attacks took place in Paris in January 2015, al-Qaeda and Isis had been fighting each other in Syria for at least a year. The groups were rivals but, within the context of “avenging” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour and “defending Palestinians”, they set aside their differences.

This had happened before. When Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid into Israel in 2006, resulting in the deaths of eight Israeli soldiers and the capture of another two (both of whom later died), it precipitated what Israel calls the second Lebanon war. At the time, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, widely regarded as the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader until his death last year, praised Hezbollah’s fighters for demonstrating “heroic” resistance and fortitude. 

Hezbollah is a Shia movement traditionally aligned with Iran that has attracted suspicion from many of the region’s Sunni states about its true intentions. This is especially true in the Gulf, where Qaradawi had found refuge in Qatar after fleeing his native Egypt. Hezbollah’s fight against Israel nonetheless trumped the politics of sectarian rivalry for Qaradawi – that was until 2013, when Hezbollah backed the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and joined in the Qusayr offensive against the mostly Sunni opposition.

During this battle near the Lebanese border, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that the group would not allow Bashar al-Assad to fail. Within weeks, Qaradawi used his pulpit at the Umar Ibn al-Khattab mosque to denounce Hezbollah (“party of God”) as Hezb al-Shaytan (“party of Satan”). It was a dramatic break, prompting Sunni clerics from across the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, to commend him. 

Sunni animosity towards Hezbollah persists. Since the 7 October attacks, Hezbollah has threatened to enter the conflict in support of Hamas, thereby opening a second front in the war against Israel, and limited skirmishes have taken place.

None of this has escaped the attention of Mustafa Sejari, a commander in the anti-Assad Syrian National Army, who recently tweeted “what you see today of Israeli terrorism and criminality, despite its ugliness and horror, is nothing compared to what we have seen of the terrorism of Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and the party of Satan in Syria”. It was a clear rebuke of Hezbollah’s posturing in supposed solidarity with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian cause has lingered long in the jihadist imagination. The outbreak of the First Intifada in December 1987 came just months after Mikhail Gorbachev announced the Soviet Union would begin disentangling itself from Afghanistan, marking an unlikely victory for the mujahideen in the process. Many of the Arab fighters who travelled there to assist the war effort had been led by a charismatic Palestinian scholar, Abdullah Azzam, who now turned his attention back to the region.

An authoritative examination of Azzam’s life by the Oxford scholar Thomas Hegghammer has shown there is a “kernel of truth” to claims this totemic figure of the modern jihadist movement originally helped the military wing of Hamas, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, to develop its methods.

“The first generation of the military wing of the al-Qassam [Brigades] was trained by him,” said Azzam’s wife, Samira Mohyeddin. Hegghammer argues that Hamas’s own sources support this view, with senior members of the group returning from Afghanistan shortly before it was founded.

Osama bin Laden also obsessed over Palestine. He issued a fatwa in 1996 declaring war “against the Americans occupying the land of the two holy places”. This was a reference to Islam’s two holiest sites in Saudi Arabia. Another, issued two years later, declared a “world Islamic front for jihad against Jews and Crusaders”. Taken together, these fatwas are instructive for understanding the deeply conspiratorial world-view of jihadists, in which Israel serves as an outpost of a broader Judeo-Christian design to subjugate and control the Muslim world.

When terrorists linked to Bin Laden later bombed two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, he responded, “if instigating jihad against the Jews and the Americans in order to liberate Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Ka’aba is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal”.

That sense of xenophobic conspiracy attached to any American or Israeli presence in the region has only intensified in recent years. Iraq passed a law in 2022 criminalising the normalisation of relations with Israel and any form of meeting – whether social or personal – with Israelis. Offenders are threatened with imprisonment or even the death penalty.

An Israeli-Russian doctoral student at Princeton University, Elizabeth Tsurkov, was kidnapped in Baghdad in March by an Iranian-backed militia. Despite being a prominent critic of Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s illegal settlements, Tsurkov disappeared during her fieldwork and has not been heard from since. Moreover, since 7 October, American bases in both Syria and Iraq have come under repeated assault, often from ­the groups thought to be associated with Tsurkov’s kidnapping. 

Arab governments are alarmed. A regional official who works on security matters in a country that has diplomatic relations with Israel recently told me that they are concerned about the trajectory of events. “People are furious, they are demanding a strategic shift in our policies,” he said. Those demands include ending normalisation and closing the Israeli embassy and recalling their ambassador from Tel Aviv. 

The implications of the 7 October attack – and further escalations – will continue to reverberate not just across the region but ­the world.

[See also: How the war in Gaza came to Oxford]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts