Israel-Hamas and Global Extremism

Jihadist groups, new and old, are seeing the lines being drawn by the conflict and using it for their own campaigns. When ISIS’ caliphate fell in 2016, many saw it as the end of an era.

On January 4, 2024, a memorial for Qassem Soleimani in Kerman, Iran, commemorating the fourth anniversary of the death of the revered general, ended in two explosions, the deaths of almost 100 people, and the wounding of another 284. Between January 3 and 8, Mozambique saw 18 different attacks in primarily Christian villages in the country’s Cabo Delgado province. On January 9, a bus was bombed in Palmyra, Syria, resulting in almost 20 casualties. All of these attacks were claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) and its affiliates and, while 2023 saw global terrorism increase in both frequency and lethality, this frequency of notable attacks only a month into the new year shows a level of mobilization that should be monitored. What could explain some of this escalation? Well, on October 7 2023, Israel declared war on Hamas, a Sunni Islamist organization occupying Gaza, starting a new chapter in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Politically, Iran has directly positioned themselves against Israel, politically backing Hamas in the conflict, while most other Arab states have responded all along the spectrum of either accusing Israel of genocide, passively supporting Palestinians’ right to defend themselves, and calling for de-escalation. However, while the MENA world is split on how to manage this conflict politically, with states that had already officially normalized relations with Israel seeing pressure to cut those ties, we may be seeing the first signs of the domino effect that such a precarious situation will have on the world of preventing violent extremism. With the international community focused narrowly on the Israel-Hamas conflict, it is easy to forget this escalation of terrorism outside the Levant and how the conflict can be used to escalate operations enacted by ISIS – the world’s deadliest terrorist organization.

Jihadist groups, new and old, are seeing the lines being drawn by the conflict and using it for their own campaigns. When ISIS’ caliphate fell in 2016, many saw it as the end of an era. The effectiveness of organized, jihadi terrorism seemed like it began to wane in the face of its dissolution. But ISIS didn’t disappear, it just relocated. While Iraq and Syria rebuilt themselves, the epicenter of terrorism merely shifted from the Middle East to Northern and Western Africa through the ISIS affiliate groups of ISWAP (Islamic State in the West Africa Province), ISCAP (Islamic State in Central African Province), and ISM (Islamic State in Mozambique). In the Middle East, the organization’s largest branch exists not in Syria, but in Afghanistan, through ISIS-Khorasan (“ISIS-K”). The affiliate groups are a mix of cells that branched off from ISIL and distinct organizations that pledged allegiance to IS due to shared ideologies, but the vast majority are structurally unified enough to enact whatever form of action the base organization demands. While the organization’s ultimate regional goal had failed, it has shown that it will likely use the Israel-Hamas conflict to revive its secondary objective of “global jihadism.”

When Israel first declared war on Hamas, not much thought was put towards how the conflict could affect violent extremist organizations in the region. Foreign Affairs argued in November 2023 that jihadist movements would not be able to use the Israel-Hamas conflict to revitalize themselves due to the ideological separation between Hamas and groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda – both groups had histories of denouncing Hamas and they were opposed enough with the group that they would not pick up arms to support the Muslims of Palestine, or see the Israel-Hamas war as a threat to ‘true Islam’. However, this assessment missed the fact that these jihadist groups could still use the conflict to twist the narrative in their own favor and spur on terrorist action that way, whether they aligned with either side of the conflict ideologically or not. Extremist propaganda is bred in instability, regardless of its source; in 2020, economic instability and failures in health management caused by the COVID-19 crisis provided ISIS with an excuse to criticize Middle Eastern governments as well as encourage its actors to “exploit disorder” and, while movement restrictions caused a decrease in public recruitment and organization, ISIS-caused violence in states where they or their affiliates had a large enough presence actually saw an increase in violence, especially against civilians. Political or ideological kinship may provide an obvious indicator for who a jihadist organization may choose to support, but it is by no means the only factor.  

Indeed, while ISIS initially condemned Hamas’ actions, accusing the Palestinian group of acting on Iran’s behalf, the new year has seen ISIS spokesperson, Abu Ḥudhayfah Al-Ansari, revealing how the organization planned to twist the conflict to support their own ambitions. In a speech titled “Kill Them Where You Find Them”, distributed on January 4, he re-stated ISIS’ stance that Hamas’ apparent alliance with Iran was offensive and criticized other Arab states that formed Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’, re-framing the conflict as a proxy war puppeteered by the Shiite Iran. With Iran as the primary evil in this narrative, he could state the conflict was another example of “the crimes committed against them by the Shiites throughout history” and advocate for Sunni jihadism as the true method of supporting Palestinians. Focus on Israel is only used to highlight how Muslims are being attacked on all sides, not just from the ‘traitors of Islam’, and encourage continued violence against Jews and Christians globally. The world may already be seeing the effects of ISIS being invigorated by this conflict; on January 2, ISWAP claimed its first attack in Nigeria since 2022, possibly indicating the revitalization of a previously defunct attack cell in the country, and ISCAP has claimed responsibility for attacks on Christian villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since the year began as well. Organized attacks are easier to conduct throughout Africa and the Middle East, where ISIS and its affiliates have a large enough presence, but Al-Ansari also stated that lone wolf attacks in Europe and the United States were also highly encouraged. In Istanbul, on January 28, two individuals affiliated with ISIS attacked a Roman Catholic church during Sunday Mass, resulting in the death of one churchgoer. The lethality of the attack was minimal, but the timing of the attack, as well as the chosen target, is significant within the context of ISIS’ new mission.

With the increases in right-wing extremism that the Western world is already struggling to mitigate, the re-emergence of jihadism will only add to the security threat experienced by both European countries and the United States. Mitigating the spread of rhetoric that is taking advantage of the Israel-Hamas conflict to call for violence against the military and civilians alike will be a necessity in 2024. Acknowledging the threat of this expansion of violence as well, when many still think that jihadism was confined to the Middle East after ISIS’ caliphate fell in 2016, should allow national security leaders of Europe and the United States to minimize the potential damage that this new mission of global jihadism could have on their states during this period where domestic instability is already ravaging many of them.

Kemi Alawode
Kemi Alawode
Oluwakemi Alawode is an independent analyst who writes about global conflict and terrorism, with the Middle East as a frequent regional focus. She holds a Master's degree in Security Studies from University College London and a Bachelor's in International Relations from King's College London.