Kyle Orton, a national security and terrorism analyst based in Britain
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said his country is “facing a new wave of terrorism” after five attacks in the last ten days have killed eleven people. The Islamic State (IS) has effectively admitted to carrying out two of the atrocities, the first time in five years the terrorist group has carried out attacks in the Jewish state. This hiatus, partly a reflection of the fact that, unlike some other Islamist extremists, IS does not make the anti-Israel cause a central plank of its propaganda, also reflects the relatively small inroads IS’s ideology has made to this point among Palestinian and Israeli Arabs. Whether this is now changing is unclear.
On 22 March, four people were murdered—identified as Doris Yachbas (49), Rabbi Moshe Kravisky (50), Laura Yitzhak (43), and Menachem Yechezkel (67)—and two were wounded in an attack in Be’er Sheva in southern Israel. The attacker, Mohammed Abu al-Kiyan, drove a car into a cyclist; got out of the car at a gas station and stabbed a woman; then proceeded to a shopping mall, where he stabbed several more people, until he was shot dead by a local bus driver.
Abu al-Kiyan was a Bedouin from Hura, about ten miles north-east of Be’er Sheva, who had been imprisoned in 2016 for promoting IS and planning to join the “caliphate” in Syria. Members of Abu al-Kiyan’s family succeeded in joining IS in Syria and Iraq. Abu al-Kiyan was put through a rehabilitation program in prison and released in 2019 having “expressed remorse over his support for the terror group”. The problem of simulated compliance with deradicalization programs is one that has affected many Western governments, Britain being a notable case, with several recent attacks carried out by people who had been certified by such programs as rehabilitated, while continuing to hold extremist views. The most infamous instance was Usman Khan, who in November 2019 murdered two people while actually attending a deradicalization conference in London where he was presented as an example of successful rehabilitation.
HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) celebrated the Be’er Sheva attack, which took place on the anniversary of the day in 2004 that Ahmed Yassin, one of HAMAS’ founders, was killed in an Israeli counter-terrorism operation. Both HAMAS and PIJ are dependencies of the Iranian theocracy. Even after 9/11, there was considerable analytical resistance—including within Western governments—to the idea that “Shi’a” Iran could work with “Sunni” groups like HAMAS; now there is no doubt. Iran has a long relationship with Al-Qaeda, dating back operationally to the early 1990s, notably in Bosnia (as Iran itself has admitted), and the shelter that the Islamic Republic continues to afford senior Al-Qaeda leaders has been repaid by Al-Qaeda’s leadership refraining from attacks on Iran, even ordering IS’s predecessor to cease its rhetorical incitement against Tehran.
On 27 March, two 18-year-old Israeli-Arab policemen from Umm al-Fahm, Shirel Aboukrat and Yazan Falah, were shot to death in Hadera. The two assailants were killed in a counter-terrorism raid and five people have been arrested in connection with the attack. The two killers were found in possession of “more than 1,100 bullets, three handguns and knives, as well as protective armor”.
Following its well-established pattern, a video circulated showing the two attackers pledging allegiance to IS’s new “caliph”, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, and hours later IS issued a formal claim for the attack via Amaq, saying that two operatives of the “Islamic State in Palestine”—named as Ayman Ighbariya and Khaled Ighbariya—had killed members of the “Jewish police”. Khaled, who is identified in some of the reporting as Ibrahim Ighbariya, had been on Israel’s radar since at least 2016 when he was arrested in Turkey as he tried to join IS.
The IS statement naming the Ighbariya cousins also in effect admits Abu al-Kiyan was acting for IS, describing him as an “inghimasi” attacker. Israel’s Police Commissioner described Abu al-Kiyan as a “lone wolf”, but there is every reason to doubt this: true “lone wolves” are vanishingly rare; hardly any of the attacks IS has claimed were truly of this kind (i.e. merely “inspired” without some form of guidance from the group); and the coincidence with the Hadera attack is too glaring to ignore: it would be more surprising if these attacks were genuinely independent.
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that IS orchestrated the Hadera attack while Israel was hosting an historic summit in the Negev with the foreign ministers of four Arab states: Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates.
On 29 March, a gunman murdered five people in Bnei Brak, an important centre of Haredi Judaism less than five miles east of Tel Aviv. Disturbing footage distributed across social media showed the man walking around firing on passers-by. The victims were: Avishai Yechezkel, a 29-year-old teacher and rabbi; Amir Khoury, a 32-year-old Arab-Israeli policeman who was mortally wounded as he drove a motorcycle towards the attacker so his partner on the back of the bike could shoot him dead; Yaakov Shalom, a 36-year-old resident of the town; and two foreign Ukrainian construction workers, Victor Sorokopot (32) and Dimitri Mitrik (24).
The killer in Bnei Brak has been named as Diaa Hamarsheh, 27, from the village of Yabad in the northern West Bank. Hamarsheh had previously spent two-and-a-half years in an Israeli prison after trying to become a suicide bomber: Hamarsheh reached out to both HAMAS and PIJ in 2011, offering himself as a suicide-killer, but the PIJ operative he ended up in touch with defrauded him and did not give him the suicide vest he had paid for.
The Bnei Brak attack was claimed by the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the armed wing of FATAH, the dominant party within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that controls the Palestinian Authority (PA). It is unclear how credible this claim is. The PA president, Mahmud Abbas, condemned the attack, for example, though one of Abbas’ senior aides hailed it as a “heroic act”. A number of other groups have celebrated the attack, too. HAMAS’ political chief, Ismail Haniyeh, welcomed the Bnei Brak attack, saying it was a “proud” achievement for the Palestinians. PIJ said much the same. And there was a favourable popular reaction in Hamarsheh’s hometown on the West Bank, with the handing out of sweets.
The fourth incident, early on 30 March, in Netanya, saw a 32-year-old man stabbed and wounded by an assailant who was soon thereafter arrested. The immediate claim from Israeli police was that this was not a terrorist attack, but the work of someone “suffering from mental illness”. This is not meaningful in any analytical sense, however: having a mental illness does not preclude somebody being guilty of terrorism, and at the time of publication there has been no time to investigate network associations, criminal history, or really anything else.
A fifth attack took place this morning, south of Jerusalem near the West Bank settlement of Neve Daniel. A 28-year-old Jew on a bus was stabbed with a screwdriver. The attacker, a 30-year-old Palestinian named Nidal Juma’a Ja’afra from Tarqumiyah, was shot dead. The victim is being treated for his wounds. There has also been unrest in Jenin today as the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) carries out sweeps related to this terror wave.
Islamic State’s View of Israel
There were two terrorist attacks in Israel—in January 2016 and one a year later—that seem to have been “inspired” by IS. The first and until this month only proclaimed IS attack in Israel was on 16 June 2017: three young Palestinians, aged 18 to 19, attacked in two separate places in the Old City of Jerusalem, using automatic weapons and knives to wound five people, one of whom, a 23-year-old border policewoman named Hadas Malka, died hours later from her stab wounds. As Adam Hoffman of Wikistrat and the Moshe Dayan Centre explained at the time, the IS claim of responsibility was notable for two reasons: it used the term “Palestine”, rather than “Bayt al-Maqdis” as jihadi-Salafist groups generally do, and the statement was challenged by HAMAS, which claimed that it and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had conducted the attack. Probably the most significant recent action was Jordan rolling up an IS cell that intended to attack Israeli soldiers in July 2021.
This 2017 attack came three years after the declaration of the “caliphate” and the onset of the large-scale foreign terrorism campaign—indeed, both the caliphate and the external attacks were on the wane at this moment. The focus on Israel was somewhat anomalous, but in a sense, from IS’s perspective, that was the point: Israel was not special—no more immune and no more a target than everyone else.
This view of Israel had been roughly Al-Qaeda’s view from its founding in the late 1980s until the late 2000s. Usama bin Laden, for instance, in his 1998 declaration of jihad against “Jews and Crusaders” worldwide, had Saudi Arabia and Iraq as his top issues. Israel was only referred to briefly—and contemptuously, as “the petty state of the Jews”—in a list of generalised grievances. Al-Qaeda’s later adoption of “Palestine” as a more frequent messaging issue was in the context of needing a populist totem to rebrand itself after the political damage caused to it by the IS movement, which was formally an Al-Qaeda affiliate from 2004 to 2006.
Jews play a central role in IS’s cosmology, of course: IS’s leaders and soldiers believe very deeply in the antisemitic theory of Jewish world control. But Israel remains much less central. IS’s official spokesmen have devoted very few speeches to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Rather, IS has repeatedly made a polemical point of attacking other Islamist groups for insufficient “purity” because they overstress the anti-Israel cause, making it, by IS’s reckoning, into a fetish bordering on an idol. When Israel comes up in Al-Naba, IS’s weekly newsletter, it is generally in this context: as a weapon against other Muslims and Islamists.
In early 2017, Al-Naba highlighted its apparent “liquidation” of Israeli spies in the Sinai, but the main thrust of the article was an attack on Egypt for being reliant on Israel. When denouncing the U.S. moving its Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords that normalised Israel’s diplomatic relations with Arab states, IS was stern that these were merely symptoms of a wider malaise among Muslims who had an incorrect understanding of the faith. By the time of the May 2021 clashes between Israel and HAMAS, IS was positively exasperated that “people expect us to talk about Jerusalem”, a city whose reconquest by Muslim forces was no more and no less urgent than the recovery of Andalusia (Spain), which was lost in the fifteenth century.
It is possible IS has further cells in Israel, and if it does, with Ramadan approaching, it is likely they would be activated. IS has a general practice of escalating its terrorist attacks around Ramadan, which starts over the next couple of days.
IS has long had a presence in the Palestinian areas, but has struggled to make major inroads among the Palestinians. These attacks could suggest that that is beginning to change. A related potential problem is that as other groups, including the PLO/PA, look to blunt IS’s advances among the Palestinian population, the “currency” for this competition becomes anti-Israel terrorist attacks.
The most immediate aspect, however, would seem to be with Israel’s security practices: the prison deradicalization programs need serious examination so that they cannot again give a dangerous false-positive in terms of rehabilitation, and the more information emerges, the more it looks like the intelligence services had a serious lapse in disrupting networks that should have been detected.
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