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The Islamic State vs. the Jewish State: How the Caliphate Views Israel

The past few weeks have witnessed a new wave of Palestinian terrorism in Israeli cities. Surprisingly, this string of violence was touched off by two attacks linked to the Islamic State. In the first attack, on March 22, four Israelis were killed and two injured when an Arab Israeli, Muhammad Abu al-Qay‘an, carried out a stabbing and ramming in the southern Israeli town of Beersheeba. The attacker had previously served a prison sentence for promoting and planning to join the Islamic State in Syria. In the second attack, on March 27, two Israeli police officers were killed and five other people injured when two Arab-Israeli gunmen, cousins Ayman Ighbariyya and Khaled Ighbariyya, opened fire in the northern Israeli city of Hadera.

Early the next day, on March 28, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Hadera attack. Its A‘maq news agency released a separate report that included an image of the attackers swearing the oath of allegiance, or bay‘a, to the new Islamic State caliph. A video of the bay‘a ceremony appeared online shortly afterwards. The A‘maq report also gave favorable mention to the “commando attacker” (inghimasi) in Beersheeba, though stopping short of claiming the attack outright.

Such attacks by the Islamic State on Israeli soil have been exceedingly rare, the last claimed attack being in June 2017. The recent attacks raise the question of whether more can be expected from the Islamic State in the weeks and months ahead. While the group would like us to believe that is so, the reality is that there are few Palestinians who identify with the cause of the caliphate and the Islamic State is not ideologically disposed to concentrating its efforts on the Jewish state.

Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi

To understand how the Islamic State views Israel, it is helpful to begin with the relevant statements of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (d. 2006), the Jordanian founder of al-Qaida in Iraq whose ideas form the foundation stone of the present-day caliphate. Palestine was not a prominent theme in al-Zarqawi’s speeches and lectures. Nor was attacking the Israelis a priority for him. On several occasions, he claimed that the liberation of Palestine would come only after victory had been achieved in Iraq and the Shi‘a had been subdued.

In a speech in July 2005, al-Zarqawi described the conquest of Jerusalem as subsequent to jihad in Iraq. Explaining that he and his followers were not fighting merely to expel the occupiers in Iraq and thereafter lay down their arms, he said,

The totality of what we hope for is that God will grant us victory in Iraq, and then we will head to Jerusalem, the first qibla of the Muslims and the site of the night journey of our noble Prophet. These are developments that we await with great anticipation. “And they will say, ‘When will it be?’ Say: ‘It is possible that it may be nigh’ (Q. 17:51).”

A year later, in April 2006, al-Zarqawi again envisioned the future conquest of Jerusalem, saying in his first and only video address, “My dear umma, we in Iraq are a stone’s throw from the site of the night journey of the Messenger of God. We are fighting in Iraq while our eyes are on Jerusalem, which will be recovered only by a Book that guides and a sword that overpowers.” Similar language was found in a written interview released posthumously in late 2006, five months after his death in June. Here he is quoted saying, “We are fighting in Iraq both for it and for what is beyond it. We are fighting in Iraq while our eyes are on Jerusalem. We are fighting in Iraq while our eyes are on Mecca and Medina.” By adding Mecca and Medina here, al-Zarqawi indicated that he conceived of the jihad in Iraq as the first stage of a much more extensive struggle, one that would include not only Palestine but also Saudi Arabia and other places. While there is certainly nothing in these statements to suggest that al-Zarqawi was opposed to fighting in Palestine, it is clear that he saw the battle there as belonging to a future stage of jihad, not the present one.

It was also his view, as is clear from his lectures on the Shi‘a, that before one could effectively fight the “original unbelievers,” meaning the Jews and the Christians, it was first necessary to fight the Shi‘a. In this he was guided by his reading of medieval Islamic history, in particular the late Crusader period coinciding with rise of Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (aka Saladin) and his defeat of the (Shi‘i) Fatimid caliphate in Egypt. In 1171, Saladin abolished the Fatimid caliphate and went on to construct a Sunni state spanning Egypt and Syria. A decade and a half later, in 1187, he captured Jerusalem following the decisive Battle of Hattin against the Crusader forces.

As al-Zarqawi saw it, there was “an important lesson” to be gleaned from this history. This was that “there will not be victory over the original unbelievers except after fighting the apostate unbelievers who are allied with the original believers.” In al-Zarqawi’s recounting, the Shi‘i Fatimids were the allies and “clients” of the Crusaders, and thus to liberate Jerusalem it was necessary for Saladin first to eliminate these treacherous “Rejectionists.” “History has shown us,” he stated, “that Jerusalem, which fell into the hands of the Crusaders with the aid of the Rejectionist Fatimids, was only recovered at the hands of Saladin … after he waged war on the Rejectionist Fatimids for several years and destroyed their state entirely.” For al-Zarqawi, then, the blueprint for jihad was clear: First, attack the Shi‘a and other “apostates” collaborating with the Christians and the Jews; then, having destroyed their state, proceed to the next phase of the jihad, which is the battle for Palestine and other captured Islamic lands.

Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi

Al-Zarqawi and his group laid the groundwork for the establishment, in October 2006, of the Islamic State of Iraq, whose first leader was Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi (d. 2010). A former Iraqi police officer, al-Baghdadi articulated a similar view to al-Zarqawi’s, adding the idea that building a proper Islamic state was a precondition for the conquest of Jerusalem.

In February 2008, amid escalating conflict between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in Gaza, al-Baghdadi delivered an audio address setting out his organization’s position on “the struggle with the Jews.” After condemning Hamas for participating in democracy and allying with the “apostate” Syrian regime, al-Baghdadi reiterated al-Zarqawi’s Saladin theme, saying, “Saladin did not enter Jerusalem victorious until he put paid to the Rejectionist Fatimid state in Egypt and al-Sham.” Toward the end of his address, he returned to the theme with a new emphasis—the importance of the state built by Saladin and his predecessor, Nur al-Din Zangi. In al-Baghdadi’s view, it was the building of a Sunni Islamic state in Syria and Egypt that paved the way for liberating Jerusalem, and this was the model to be followed. “We hope to God,” he stated, “and we beseech Him, that just as the state of the martyr Nur al-Din was the foundation stone of the return of al-Aqsa to the arms of the umma … we hope that the Islamic State of Iraq will be the foundation stone of the return of Jerusalem.”

In his address, al-Baghdadi did not oppose all efforts of jihad in Palestine, but he maintained that the groups currently fighting there were theologically flawed. He encouraged the Jihadi Salafis in the area to dissociate from them and to rally together under a pure Islamic banner. The true victory, however, awaited the consolidation and expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq.

Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Following the death of Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi and his lieutenant, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in 2010, the role of delivering speeches was assumed by the Islamic State of Iraq’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (d. 2019), and its official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani (d. 2016). Together, these men oversaw the group’s expansion to Syria and its subsequent declaration of the caliphate in June 2014, after which it would be known simply as the Islamic State. As was the case with al-Zarqawi and the first al-Baghdadi, Palestine did not occupy a prominent place in the words of these new leaders, and its conquest was presented as something to be achieved at a later stage.  

In al-‘Adnani’s speeches, Jerusalem appeared in several lists of places that the Islamic State would one day eventually conquer, together with al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) and Rome. In a 2013 address, for instance, he stated, “We will not rest until we free the Muslim prisoners in all places, and until we recover Jerusalem, restore al-Andalus, and conquer Rome by God’s will.” Similarly, in a speech in 2015, he sought to incite “the soldiers of the caliphate” to action by telling them, “Go forth, for Mecca and Medina and Jerusalem and Rome await you.” In another speech, he remarked of the mujahidin of the Islamic State, “Their bodies are in Iraq, while their souls are in captured Mecca, their hearts are in Jerusalem, and their eyes are on Rome.” How far off such conquests were in al-‘Adnani’s mind is unclear, but at least one of them, Rome (Rūmā), seems to belong to End Times, this being a reference to the prophesied Muslim conquest of Rome in Muslim apocalyptic.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s mentions of Palestine were also few. On one occasion, in November 2014, he praised the Islamic State’s new Sinai Province for its “support for Jerusalem” and for “terrorizing the Jews,” and on another, in May 2015, he expressed his hope, addressing the Sinai Province, “that we will see you in Jerusalem soon.”

The most extensive remarks of al-Baghdadi’s on Palestine came in a speech in December 2015, in which he sought to reassure his audience that the Islamic State had not forgotten about the Jews. Commenting on the establishment of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, al-Baghdadi called into question the coalition’s Islamic character, arguing that a truly Islamic coalition would, among other things, make its objective “killing the Jews and liberating Palestine.” He continued as follows:

Yes, Palestine, which the Jews thought we had forgotten about and which they thought they had distracted us from. That is not the case, o Jews! We have not forgotten about Palestine for a second. God willing, we will not forget it, and soon, God willing, you will hear the approach of the mujahidin and their vanguards will encircle you, on a day that you see as distant but we see as near. We are drawing nearer to you day after day, and your accounting with God will be harsh indeed! You will never be at peace in Palestine, o Jews! It will never be your home or your land. Palestine will only be a graveyard for you. God has only gathered you there so that the Muslims may kill you, when you will be hiding behind the trees and rocks, as you know well. “So await. We are awaiting with you” (Q. 9:52).

It is hard to escape the conclusion that al-Baghdadi saw the coming confrontation with the Jews in Palestine as belong to End Times. In the unfolding of the apocalyptic narrative as understood by the Islamic State, Jesus will one day return to the earth to lead the Muslims in a war against the Antichrist and the Jews in Jerusalem. Thereafter, the Muslims wil go on to conquer Rome. Whether that is the only scenario that al-Baghdadi (and al-‘Adnani) entertained for Palestine is unclear. What is clear is that these leaders, like their predecessors, saw the battle for Jerusalem and Palestine as belonging to a future phase of jihad.

Abu Hamza al-Qurashi

A rather different approach to the Palestine issue was articulated by al-‘Adnani’s successor as Islamic State spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi (d. 2022). In a January 2020 address, Abu Hamza presented the war against the Jews as a matter of great urgency. Midway through the address, he related that the new caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (d. 2022), had resolved to initiate “a new stage” of jihad consisting of “fighting the Jews, recovering what they have stolen from the Muslims—which will not be recovered but by a Book that guides and a sword that overpowers—conquering Jerusalem, and delivering the banner to the mahdi Muhammad ibn ‘Abdallah, God willing.” Abu Hamza went on to incite the “soldiers of the caliphate,” especially those in Sinai and Syria, to attack “the settlements and markets of the Jews,” and to use them as a testing ground for “your weapons and your chemical-laden missiles.” He also called on Palestinians to join the ranks of the Islamic State and to rise up and fight the Jews in Palestine, “bringing failure to their plans, such as their deal of the century.”

The latter reference was to former President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan that was rolled out beginning in 2019. Abu Hamza’s announcement of a “new stage” of jihad against the Jews thus seems to have been calibrated to exploit the grievances, real or imagined, generated by the Trump peace plan and rumors of Arab-Israeli rapprochement. It did not have the intended effect—no Islamic State attacks in Israel would be reported for more than two years.

Abu Hamza’s announcement was quite a departure from precedent—a call for escalation in Palestine rather than the studied focus on fighting the “apostates” as the precondition for a future showdown with the Jewish state. It should be understood, however, that this announcement was both brief and isolated. The more familiar approach, which sees jihad in Palestine as a lesser priority, has dominated discussions of the issue in Islamic State discourse, including in the pages of its weekly Arabic newsletter, al-Naba’.

Al-Naba’

It is in several articles in al-Naba’ where the Islamic State’s most extensive treatment of the subject of Palestine is found. These articles echo the views of al-Zarqawi and his successors in deprioritizing the fight in Palestine, but they go even further in deemphasizing the importance of the issue in general, dismissing the idea that Palestine is some sort of exceptional theater of jihad deserving of special attention.

The first of these articles, which sets out the main themes and arguments that would be reiterated in subsequent ones, was published in March 2016. Titled “Jerusalem: A Shari‘a Issue First and Foremost,” its main point is that “the issue of Palestine” must always be placed in “its correct legal framework,” meaning the framework of the Shari‘a with its objective of advancing monotheism (tawhid) and destroying polytheism (shirk). Jihad in Palestine will not be legitimate unless it is in service of advancing tawhid and destroying shirk. “Indeed,” the article says, “jihad for the purpose of recovering Jerusalem from the hands of the Jews is not permissible unless it be in the path of eliminating the rule of the idol-rulers (tawaghit) there and establishing the religion there completely.” This is largely a dig at “the apostate Hamas movement,” which is accused here of practicing “the polytheism of democracy” and failing to apply the Shari‘a. Were Hamas to take the place of Jews as the rulers of Palestine, this would be merely the substitution of one idol-ruler (taghut) for another.

The underlying grievance of the article is the view that the Palestine issue has been held up by opportunistic political actors as “the first issue of the Muslims,” becoming in effect an “idol” that has been worshiped for decades. These actors, beginning with the Arab nationalists, have manipulated and exaggerated the issue, pretending that nothing else can be addressed until Palestine is liberated. Yet as far as the Shari‘a is concerned, the article retorts, no issue ought to be placed ahead of tawhid, and no land should be placed above any other when it comes to where jihad should be waged. “Were the merit of a land to determine the preference for jihad there,” it adds, “then jihad to recover Mecca and Medina from the hands of the idol-rulers of the Al Saud would undoubtedly take precedence over all other lands.” When it comes to the struggle for Palestine, the editorial concludes, “it is wrong to exaggerate it and to place it above the tawhid of God.”

For the authors of al-Naba’, fighting the Jews in Palestine is of course an individual obligation on all Muslims, but this applies first of all to the Palestinians themselves, given the legal dictum that one should fight those nearest to them. For most Muslims, however, the reality is that the only viable path to fighting the Jews and destroying Israel involves first fighting and defeating the idol-rulers in nearby lands, who are the protectors and defenders of the Jewish state. Moreover, the Jews, being one of the categories of “original unbelievers,” are of lesser priority than apostates: “The apostate idol-rulers ruling in the lands of Islam are more severe in unbelief than [the Jews], and fighting them is of higher priority than fighting the original polytheists.”

Subsequent articles in al-Naba’ touching on the Palestine issue have come in response to various developments. These include an editorial responding to Israeli military operations against the Islamic State, in May 2016, and another responding the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, in December 2017.

A more substantive editorial appeared in May 2021 in response to a crisis in Gaza that saw Hamas fire numerous rockets at Israel. Titled “The Road to Jerusalem,” the editorial argues that only jihad, properly conceived, holds the promise of conquering Palestine and other places. “The path to Jerusalem and Mecca and al-Andalus is one path,” it says, and that is the path of jihad, not the Iranian-led “resistance” represented by Hamas and like groups. The soldiers of the Islamic State are the ones following this path, and they are the ones who will one day conquer Jerusalem for Islam: “All of their battles today, east and west, are but stations on the path to Jerusalem and Mecca and al-Andalus and Baghdad and Damascus, and all the captive Islamic lands. It is one battle.” The editorial also reiterates the Islamic State’s position on not overstressing the importance of the Palestine theater. “The soldiers of the caliphate,” it states, “have not exaggerated the issue of Palestine and have not made it an exception among the issues of the Muslims … They have not differentiated between the blood of their Muslim brethren in Palestine and the blood of their brethren in other lands.”

The most recent al-Naba’ editorial about Palestine was published at the end of March, coming in response to the Beersheeba and Hadera attacks. The editorial celebrates the Hadera attackers and ridicules those who claimed that they were driven by “purely nationalist motives.” The reality, it says, is that they were driven by purely Islamic motives, the Islamic State’s war against the Jews being “purely Islamic and theological,” not nationalistic. The editorial also responds to the allegation that “that the Islamic State does not fight the Jews because it does not wish to do so,” this being a “lie” circulated by the group’s enemies to deter potential recruits. The truth, it counters, is that numerous obstacles—governments and parties and militias—have prevented a rise in attacks, not a lack of desire. In saying this, the editorial reaffirms that the Islamic State’s stance regarding the struggle in Palestine remains the same as outlined previously in the speeches of its leaders and the articles in al-Naba’. This is a stance of neither “exaggeration” nor “laxity,” one that conceives of jihad in Palestine within the framework of the Shari‘a.

At the end of the editorial, the Palestinian youth are encouraged to awaken from their inactivity and to rise up, but they are also called upon to correct their false beliefs and to free themselves from “the slavery of nationalism.” Only then will their jihad will be in accordance with the Shari‘a.

Conclusion

As has been seen, for most of its history the Islamic State has not prioritized or put great emphasis on the fight against Israel. From al-Zarqawi onward, the general pattern has been one of deprioritization and deemphasis, the assumption being that victory in Palestine will only come at a later stage and that it would be folly to focus on Palestine to the neglect of other, equally important theaters of jihad.

Al-Zarqawi argued that before conquering Jerusalem it was necessary to fight and defeat the surrounding apostates, particularly the Shi‘a, on the model of Saladin in the twelfth century. Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi expressed the same view, adding that it was necessary to build a proper Islamic state as Saladin and his predecessor, Nur al-Din Zangi, had done. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani depicted Jerusalem as a place to be conquered sometime in the future, together with al-Andalus and Rome. The articles of al-Naba’ have condemned the idolization of the Palestine issue, arguing that the greater priority should go to “the apostate idol-rulers” who form the main line of defense for the Jewish state. The lone exception to this pattern of deprioritization and deemphasis was the announcement of a “new stage” of jihad in Palestine by Abu Hamza al-Qurashi in January 2020, though the announcement came to little and has been overshadowed by the standard themes.

What does all of this suggest for the future of Islamic State terrorist acts against Israel? The general lesson seems be that the Islamic State will not devote considerable resources or energies to the issue of Palestine, where the number of its supporters is “relatively small” to begin with. To give sustained attention and emphasis to the Palestine issue would be out of keeping with more than a decade and a half of strategic and theological pronouncements. The occasional attack may occur, and the Islamic State will gladly claim it, saying that it has never opposed jihad in Palestine, which it has not. But unless the group manages to find a new base of support in Palestine, there is likely to be little change.

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Cole Bunzel

Cole Bunzel, the editor of Jihadica, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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