Who will Iraq and Syria jihadists target next?

The power of jihadists has increased dramatically and all the evidence seems to suggest that Israel could be the next target

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi
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Currently much of the Israeli coverage on jihadists in Syria and Iraq is trying hard not to link the Palestinian issue with the growing popularity of these militant groups. Indeed, they believe that Palestine is not the primary cause of their grievances. In this context, they see the flood of thousands of jihadists into Syria and Iraq in recent years as having nothing to do with Israel but related to the domestic situation and conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Perhaps the political whirlwind that occurred as a result of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements linking the growing popularity of ISIS with the Palestinian plight reflects what was previously mentioned very clearly.

At first glance, these criticisms seem logical as it is true that ISIS (and other groups) have not targeted Israel directly so far. However, deep reflection on the ideas of jihad indicates that the criticisms may be deliberate or ignorant to the perspectives of these movements. Firstly, the jihadists presently do not have access to Palestine. Secondly, all the Palestinian factions (PLO, Islamic Jihad and Hamas) do not welcome the presence of jihadists among their ranks. Finally, the jihadists themselves reject fighting under the banners of secular parties or those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, this situation may change in the foreseeable future as the power of jihadists has increased dramatically and all the evidence seems to suggest that Israel could be the next target. Here we look at some of the indicators that support this argument.

Imposing the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states has made the idea of forming the government through peaceful means or the ballot box no longer attractive to many Muslim youth today.

Dr Naser al-Tamimi


Political frustration

The first point is political frustration. Imposing the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states has made the idea of forming the government through peaceful means or the ballot box no longer attractive to many Muslim youth today. Also, with the return of military rule the so-called “political Islam” has become exposed to strong intellectual attacks from theorists in the jihadist movement. This situation coincided with some “military victories” by the jihadists in the Levant.

According to the latest available information, thousands of Egyptians, Palestinians, Jordanians and Lebanese youth have joined the jihadist movements (ISIS and the Nusra Front in particular) in Syria and Iraq. Ironically, there is growing evidence suggesting that a significant number of them used to be supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps most importantly, with the economic and political crises plaguing countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine supporting the jihadist groups could become very attractive to many youths.

The other case which is working in the jihadists’ favor is the political and security situation in Libya and Sudan, two countries that remain unstable. As a result of the existence of a long, shared border between the two countries with Egypt, it is very logical to expect arms smuggling into Sinai, Gaza and possibly within Egypt itself to increase. Here we should point out that if we take into account the geographical area, smuggling weapons into Sinai may be easier than Gaza. More dangerously, at one point some of these jihadists may return to Gaza, the West Bank, Sinai and even to Israel. These fighters, who will have become battle-hardened militants, will have the skills to manufacture explosives and, perhaps most dangerously, contemplate spectacular attacks. They could soon pose a threat to Israel.


Win-win situation

In this context, it should be said that with regard to finding a solution to the Palestinian issue the political prospects appear gloomy and therefore Hamas may not be able to maintain the status quo for a long time. After the recent war it is true that Hamas is seeking a relative period of calm to rebuild itself and for the reconstruction of Gaza.

However, for the jihadists this could turn into a win-win situation. If Hamas continues with its current political path, especially if accompanied by slowed or stalled reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, this may lead to increased frustration among important sectors of Palestinian youth and they might start looking to jihadist groups as their savior.

While attacking Israel will bring devastating responses, it could also increase the radicalization among young people. Hamas, despite its strained relations with Cairo, is not working against the Egyptian army but the danger for Israel and Egypt is that the jihadists in Gaza, Sinai and Israel could begin to cooperate and start planning joint operations. This dilemma was expressed by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon in a recent interview in which he bluntly said: “Had Israel knocked out Hamas [in the recent war], no one would take charge ... so probably we were stuck ... So we prefer to reach a cease-fire according to our terms.”

Meanwhile, in Jordan there is strong sympathy for ISIS and this situation could shift as the time passes to the point of the formation of armed cells that may target Western interests in Jordan or attempt to carry out attacks against Israel. It is true that the coordination between Israel and Jordan has succeeded to a large extent, thus preventing many attacks, but the new skills and tactics gained by many elements of these jihadists are evolving dramatically and may be able to challenge the existing security measures.

The new skills and tactics gained by many elements of these jihadists are evolving dramatically and may be able to challenge the existing security measures.

Dr Naser al-Tamimi

In this regard, David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, warned in a recent article that the “ongoing dynamic in Syria guarantees a growing and potentially destabilizing reservoir of popular support for terrorists in Jordan,” consequently allowing ISIS threats to reach Israel more closely than before.

In the West Bank, the situation is more complicated as a result of the presence of the Palestinian and Israeli security services but with the “clinical death” of the peace process jihadist groups will perhaps in the near future be able to find a security loophole through which they can attack Israel. To be sure, what Kerry said is a reflection of reality – the Palestinian issue sooner or later will come back to the fore. Presently of course Israel can say it has the strongest army in the region and take comfort that the danger is “far away.” However, anyone following jihadist developments knows very well that they possess the capabilities, determination and the strategic patience to exploit any flaw. Ultimately, we should remember what John F. Kennedy once said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

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Dr Naser al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst, and author of the forthcoming book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He is an Al Arabiya regular contributor, with a particular interest in energy politics, the political economy of the Gulf, and Middle East-Asia relations. The writer can be reached at: Twitter: @nasertamimi and email: [email protected]

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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