Al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS) have called on their followers to strike Israeli, US and Jewish targets, raising the prospect of new terrorist violence in the Middle East or the west.
In a series of statements over the past two weeks, affiliates of al-Qaida congratulated Hamas on its “invasion of Israel”, a reference to the terrorist attacks that killed 1,400 people, mainly civilians, on 7 October.
The Israeli military offensive in Gaza, which has caused a humanitarian crisis and so far killed more than 4,500 people, according to medical authorities in the Hamas-controlled territory, has provoked outrage across the Islamic world. This offers an opportunity to extremist groups, experts say.
A recent statement from al-Shabaab, al-Qaida’s powerful affiliate in Somalia, said the conflict in the Middle East was not just “the battle of the Islamic factions in the land of Palestine in particular, but rather the battle of the entire Muslim Ummah”.
It added: “Muslims must gather and offer everything they can to support the mujahideen against the Jews and their hypocritical infidel allies. The strength of this nation lies in the strength of its jihadist fronts.” Other al-Qaida affiliates in the Indian subcontinent, Yemen and Syria issued similar statements.
According to the Long War Journal, a news website specializing in Islamist violence, al-Qaida’s branches in north and west Africa praised the Hamas attacks on Israel and called for further violence against Jews.
“We congratulate your actions and urge you to continue, biting your teeth with patience on the path of jihad,” the groups said in a statement. “They [the Palestinians] attacked the Jews … wanting to lift the sword of humiliation from their necks.”
The calls to violence will further raise concerns among western officials of a new wave of extremist violence. Last week the heads of MI5 and the FBI said Jewish communities and other groups may face danger from lone actors, Iran or militants. Even before the war in Gaza, European authorities had been warning of a rise in Islamist terrorism on the continent.
Ken McCallum, the director general of Britain’s domestic spy agency, MI5, said there was a risk that “self-initiated” individuals who might have been radicalized online may respond in “spontaneous or unpredictable ways” in the UK after the terrorist attacks on Israel and what could become a drawn-out conflict.
In May, Dutch security services warned that the terrorist threat from IS to Europe had increased. In the same month, the French interior minister said the risk of Islamist terrorism was rising again and that his own country was being targeted, as well as its neighbors.
Earlier this month, a teacher was stabbed to death in France by an attacker who had sworn allegiance to IS, and two Swedish football fans were shot in Brussels by a 45-year-old known to security services and suspected of radical sympathies.
“Right now, it’s much more likely that you would see individuals respond to these kind of calls but as the war goes on you could see more organized plots being put together. All these groups are trying to exploit the conflict to mobilize support, both locally and internationally,” said Caleb Weiss, a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation.
Al-Qaida has previously been critical of organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and has no significant presence either in Gaza or the West Bank. Though they share some objectives and ideas, there are very significant ideological differences: al-Qaida has been critical of both groups’ involvement in administration and government, for example.