Jihadist Rivals Jockey Over Jerusalem

CEP Research Analyst


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Jihadists have used the Israeli-Palestinian issue to advance their narrative of Muslim victimhood. It’s no surprise that jihadist groups were furious when President Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. However, al-Qaeda and ISIS’s divergent responses to the announcement illuminate huge divides within the global jihadist movement. While al-Qaeda and its affiliates have tried to use Trump’s speech to unite jihadists against the United States and its Middle East allies, ISIS has instead primarily used the occasion to try to delegitimize rivals such as al-Qaeda and Hamas.  

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have called for jihadists to unite against the so-called “Crusader-Zionist” alliance and their “puppet regimes” in the Muslim world.[1] Al-Qaeda’s leadership wrote that “the recognition of al-Quds (Jerusalem) is a blatant aggression by the Crusader Trump against the sanctities of Muslims -- a high-voltage shock for the Muslim ummah, which may perhaps awaken from its slumber.”[2] The terror group’s senior leaders have also targeted the region’s Muslim regimes, pleading, “Unite your ranks, coordinate your efforts, forget your disagreements…” and continue to wage jihad until Jerusalem is liberated from the Jews.[3]

Similarly, al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab issued a call to arms “in the name of Beit al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) and of purifying the blessed al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the Jews…”[4] Al-Shabab assured followers that although “we do jihad in East Africa…we have set an appointment in the battles for that blessed occupied land…”[5] For al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Trump’s announcement was an opportunity to self-identify as the brand capable of liberating Jerusalem while leading the larger fight against the United States and its allies and interests abroad.

ISIS, in contrast, took a more local approach, for example, using Trump’s words to delegitimize Hamas among Palestinians. ISIS’s Egyptian province, Wilayat Sinai, released a propaganda video dedicated to convincing its supporters of Hamas’s crimes of complicity. The video, “Millah Ibrahim,” describes multiple reasons why ISIS’s Palestinian supporters should turn against and attack Hamas—citing the 2014 ceasefire as an example of Hamas’s willingness to conspire with Israeli and Egyptian governments against Palestinian interests. Additionally, ISIS discusses Hamas’s failure to prevent U.S. recognition of Israel as a state. A Wilayat Sinai member exhorts ISIS’s Palestinian supporters: “Never surrender to them [Hamas]. Use explosives, silencers, and sticky bombs. Bomb their courts and their security locations, for these are the pillars of tyranny that prop up its throne.”[6]

ISIS’s Arabic-language al-Naba magazine fortified the argument by listing additional reasons why Palestinians should support ISIS against Hamas including: Hamas’s “belief in democracy as a religion and methodology;” their decision to resort “to arbitration of the international and local tyrannical laws, which contradict Allah’s (Glory Be to Him) Sharia;” their “loyalty to the tyrants and the apostates, and having affection for and cooperation with them, as clear in their situation with the tyrants of Iran and others;” and “coordinating and seeking help from the tyrants and their soldiers in fighting the monotheists in Wilayat Sinai and elsewhere.”[7]

While ISIS and al-Qaeda have both sought to capitalize on Trump’s Jerusalem announcement to mobilize supporters, their differing rhetorical approaches highlight the groups’ divergent goals. In Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, al-Qaeda has attempted to minimize militants’ ideological differences and unite Islamists against what it characterizes as shared enemies. On the other hand, ISIS has used Trump’s words to outbid and eliminate rival jihadist and Islamist groups. Where al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has tried use the event to exert control over the global jihadist movement by portraying itself as Muslims’ defenders against a so-called “war on Islam,” ISIS has sought to undermine its rivals by alleging that past failures to liberate Palestine evidence complicity and impotence.

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[1] “Hatred Has Been Revealed From Their Tongues, and What Their Hearts Conceal is Much Worse,” General Leadership of al-Qa’eda, December 17, 2017.

[2] “Hatred Has Been Revealed From Their Tongues, and What Their Hearts Conceal is Much Worse,” General Leadership of al-Qa’eda, December 17, 2017.

[3] “Hatred Has Been Revealed From Their Tongues, and What Their Hearts Conceal is Much Worse,” General Leadership of al-Qa’eda, December 17, 2017.

[4] “The Meeting Place is Beit al-Maqdis- Statement from the General Command Regarding the U.S. Administration Declaration of al-Quds as the Capital of the Jewish Invasion,” Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin, December 9, 2017.

[5] “The Meeting Place is Beit al-Maqdis- Statement from the General Command Regarding the U.S. Administration Declaration of al-Quds as the Capital of the Jewish Invasion,” Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin, December 9, 2017.

[6] “Millah Ibrahim,” Wilayat Sinai, January 3, 2018. 

[7] “The Most Important Nullifiers of Islam that Happened Within the Hamas Movement,” al-Naba, http://jihadology.net/2017/12/08/new-issue-of-the-islamic-states-newsletter-al-naba-109/.