When President Donald Trump announced the United States’ formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, you could almost hear the frantic footsteps of jihadi-group spokesmen rushing to their keyboards.
In just a few days following his Dec. 6 announcement, al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (NIM), Hamza bin Laden, and a swirl of other organizations and figures issued statements condemning the decision and calling for attacks on U.S. and Jewish interests around the world to “liberate Jerusalem.”
Two days after Trump’s announcement, ISIS released its own commentary, bashing Muslim governments and rival jihadi groups for years of inaction.
Calls to “liberate Jerusalem” (referred to as “al-Quds” and “Beit al-Maqdis,” or by its famed al-Aqsa Mosque), along with all of Palestine, have for decades been al Qaeda and other jihadi groups’ de facto slogans, with the city itself used to symbolize oppression of Muslims. With that, al Qaeda has consistently portrayed itself as the savior of the Palestinian people and Jerusalem, with most—if not all—statements by Osama bin Laden and current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri mentioning al-Aqsa in one way or another.
So, all of the messy politics of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement aside, should we expect to see a more unified—and thus, more dangerous—global jihadi threat?
When looking at their statements and promises to “liberate” Jerusalem, groups like al Qaeda and ISIS don’t resemble saviors of suffering masses. Despite their dramatic condemnations and expressions of brotherhood, these groups act for more like opportunistic salesmen exploiting a crisis.
As is often the case with many rampantly repeated slogans, al Qaeda and other jihadi groups’ calls to “liberate Jerusalem” are often motivated by other agendas. Despite whatever passionate convictions extremist groups may have about Jerusalem, the issue is, at the end of the day, a rhetorical cash-cow for them.
Recent statements by al Qaeda figures and affiliates are shining examples of such ulterior motives. In a speech released in the wake of Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, Hamza bin Laden characterized the Saudi ruling family as historically treacherous toward Palestinians for the sake of maintaining relationships with Western powers—pushing an anti-Saudi agenda similar to that of his late father, Osama bin Laden. Hamza described this perceived deceitfulness as Saudi rulers’ “consistent methodology taken by Al Saud toward Palestine,” and exclaimed:
It is through these historical facts that it becomes clear and evident to us that the ruling tyrants among Al Saud are not part of Islam in any way…Indeed, the duty towards this family that betrayed the religion, the Ummah, and the sanctities, is to remove and eradicate them…
NIM’s statement on Trump’s decision likewise exploited the Jerusalem issue to promote other battlefronts, urging scholars to push Muslims “toward the battlefields”:
…incite them to rise and rush toward the battlefields of jihad and fighting in general and in particular, inside the home of the monotheists, the land of Sham specifically, for it is the gateway of the great conquest that the Ummah has been awaiting for long decades.
Nonetheless, al Qaeda and its affiliates still promise justice for Palestinians vis-a-vis Trump’s decision. The Shabaab, to that point, asserted that it ultimately aims to liberate Jerusalem, declaring in its statement in that regard:
By Allah, we do Jihad in East Africa and our eyes are on Beit al-Maqdis. This is our covenant with our brothers in the rest of the trenches… we will not rest nor slow down until we step with our dusty feet upon the courtyards of al-Aqsa and cry “Allahu Akbar” in celebration and conquest.
These promises to “liberate” Jerusalem can give one deja vu. The Shabaab alone has been promising to do so for the last decade. In a December 2008 statement of solidarity with Palestinians, the group stated in part:
The liberation of al-Aqsa Mosque is a duty on every Muslim. We renew our covenant with Allah that we are with you in your suffering, asking the Almighty not to deny us your religion.
The Shabaab has since then exclaimed, “In Somalia we fight, but our eyes are set on Al-Aqsa,” and issued videos with chants claiming, “We forge ahead and won’t be content until we pray our prayer at al-Khalil [Al-Aqsa in Palestine].”
Mind you, this is the Shabaab, a group confined to East Africa, promising to step foot inside al-Aqsa Mosque.
This past year’s July 14 closure of al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces in Jerusalem brought similar promises to the ones being issued in recent weeks. Just two days after the closure, AQIM and AQAP praised Palestinian attackers in a joint statement, stating similarly to others, “So let us fight in our lands while our eyes are on Palestine… it is the mother of our issues.”
For the last decade, AQAP videos have similarly ended with the promise, “O Aqsa we are coming.”
Since the creation of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden repeatedly promised the liberation of al-Aqsa from his position as leader until his death. You can see the same repetitive promises today from Zawahiri, who has, amid al Qaeda’s years-long fight for a footing in Syria, conveniently tried to frame the Syrian jihad as a “prelude” to the conquering of Jerusalem. Addressing jihadi fighters in Syria in a January 2016 speech, he stated:
You are the vanguard of the Muslim Ummah and its advance battalion toward al-Aqsa, Allah permitting.
Zawahiri has similarly stated, “Victory in Sham [Syria] is the prelude to the conquest of Jerusalem,” and asserted of al Qaeda’s movement, “This Caliphate that we want… helps the oppressed, and liberates al-Aqsa and the usurped Muslim homelands from East Turkistan to Andalusia.”
However, in all of these years, neither al Qaeda nor its affiliates—groups that measure their successes by horrid violence—have managed to have an attack carried out in Jerusalem in their names, let alone send actual reinforcements or other kinds of support to local Palestinian militant factions. To the contrary, al Qaeda has strongly criticized the main Palestinian groups in the area—Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Palestinian authorities—calling them “apostates.”
This exploitation of Palestinian-Israeli tensions is not just limited to groups like al Qaeda. There is an entire Palestine-focused rhetorical marketplace among hardliner Islamist groups around the world.
The Hasm Movement, for instance, is an Egyptian Islamist militant group with a largely nationalist agenda and has claimed attacks against the Cairo government. In a statement released the day after Trump’s announcement, the group framed the conquering of Egypt as the necessary precursor to liberating Jerusalem:
Hasam — as a resistance and liberation movement formed from the heroic sons of Egypt… declares that its ultimate goal is the liberation of al-Aqsa Mosque or martyrdom at its holy threshold, and we believe that Jerusalem will never be liberated as long as Cairo remains captive.
If that’s not a shameless sales pitch, I don’t know what is.
ISIS, on the other hand, has taken a more disruptive stance in responding to the Jerusalem situation by exploiting these unfulfilled promises by al Qaeda and other rival organizations. Instead of issuing a formal statement, ISIS commented on the matter in an article the 109th issue of its Naba newspaper, released two days after Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement.
The article skipped the poetic imagery of victory in Jerusalem, calls for attacks, and even direct criticism of Trump, instead opening:
Sixty years and Jerusalem has been in the hands of the Jews, and it is only now that people cry when the Crusaders announced today as their capital… Are these cries over an issue to which they are accustomed to crying every time it is mentioned, because it summarizes all their hardships that they encountered over the past eras? Or is it a new opportunity for the traders of faith and the fraudulent ones to raise their voices again….
While ISIS’ criticism of “fraudulent ones” applies to many Middle East leaders and governments, the article takes specific aim at its rival, al Qaeda, and its affiliates for their decades of fruitless statements and promises regarding Palestine:
They then launched their creative slogans like “Jerusalem is the first cause for Muslims,” where they aimed to extend the meaning of not having a single hope for fulfilling any of their requests before Jerusalem gets “liberated.” Thus there is to be no arbitration under the Shariah except after the city is released from the hands of the Jews, and all forms of jihad against the apostates and disbelievers will stop until al-Aqsa mosque returns to the hands of the Muslims.
There is of course massive hypocrisy to ISIS’ criticisms of its rivals’ empty promises on Palestine. In its statement, ISIS is, in its own way, using the issue of Jerusalem and Palestine to attack its rivals in al Qaeda.
Furthermore, while ISIS’ projects a higher moral stance in its Naba statement, its army of media groups and supporters online get down to the same business of generating hype around Trump’s announcement.
One graphic, produced by the prominent pro-ISIS designer “al-Bara’a al-Hifawi,” showed al-Aqsa Mosque above U.S. and Israeli flags on fire, along with a message threatening: “Wait for violent attacks on Jewish and American embassies by the wolves of the Islamic State.”
O Jews and Worshippers of the Cross
We swear to break your necks and shed your blood in al-Aqsa front yard and everywhere else. This is the promise of Allah and we will make it come true. Beware, the coming will be the most terrible and bitter. [sic]
Just hours after Akayed Ullah’s pipe-bomb went off in New York this month—and less than a week after Trump’s relocation announcement—pro-ISIS media groups capitalized on the attack by warning of more to come. One image disseminated in wake of the attack showed Times Square behind an IED, warning:
The recognition of your dog “Trump” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, will make us recognize explosives as the capital of your country
Important to mention is that these pro-ISIS media groups, though “independent,” are nonetheless effectively subjected to the messaging approved by ISIS. The very fact that these threats are being disseminated widely in the community is in itself a signal that ISIS condones it.
Yet, of all jihadi groups not local to Palestine, ISIS is the only one to prove that it has influence among Palestinians and Israeli Palestinians, with several attacks carried out by individuals inspired by it. The group even claimed responsibility for a June stabbing attack by three Palestinians in Jerusalem that killed an Israeli police officer.
Still, any ISIS attack is not an act of support solely against Israeli military activity or for Palestinian statehood (something ISIS’ harshly anti-nationalist ideology would never permit), but rather a promotion of its so-called caliphate.
Terrorists’ exploitation of Jerusalem does not negate or cheapen the urgent concerns of so many for the city; it is the importance of these concerns that compel such groups to latch on to them in the first place. Thus, while Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem drastically changes the dynamics of future negotiations, protests, and conflicts, these threats and statements by al Qaeda, ISIS, and others should be seen merely as the same old exploitation to pursue their own competing agendas—which have little if anything to actually do with Palestine.