This deliberate and repeatedly targeting of civilian places, like mosques, schools, markets and hospitals, by the Zionists-American Coalition are manifestations of an extremely evil psyche that is overflowing with hatred and contempt… This false and immoral play was carried out by the cowardly Zionist army in Al-Shifa Hospital after killing pre-mature babies, the sick, the wounded, and the displaced, and after they and the Americans screamed and wailed that this hospital was the centre of the jihadis leadership in Gaza. Then it became clear after all this blatant quackery that there was no trace of a single gunman in it. Their real intention was to destroy magnetic imaging devices and the like, which are used to diagnose the life of a wounded person, and by which the life is preserved. The missiles that are burning our proud brothers in Gaza comes from the American and European bases that are sitting on our chests and sitting on out land…
This message did not come from Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran. It came from al-Qaeda. Admittedly, the Sunni jihadist movement, including al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their affiliates, is unlikely to shape the trajectory of the conflict in Gaza. Neither group nor their affiliates are well-positioned to conduct attacks in Israel or participate in the fighting in Gaza. None have alliances with Hamas. In fact, relations between Hamas and al-Qaeda have been strained over the years, particularly after Hamas ran for elections in 2006, and the Islamic State rejected Hamas for its cooperation with Shia, particularly Iran and Hezbollah. The conflict in Gaza is not comparable to those in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, where foreign jihadists were able to travel to directly participate, collaborate with local insurgents, and thereby shape the conflicts to varying degrees from within.
However, though al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are unable to directly impact the war in Gaza, the conflict will influence the Sunni jihadist movement. Given the resonance of the Palestinian cause, the war has created an inflection point for the Sunni jihadist movement. Here are the top five factors to watch to understand how much and in what ways the conflict will shape the broader movement. Though the scope of its effects is not yet clear, the war has the potential to fundamentally change the direction of the Sunni jihadist movement.
Competition within the Movement
The first factor to watch is how the Israel-Gaza crisis will shape the competition for primacy within the Sunni jihadist movement. For a decade, the competition between al-Qaeda core and the Islamic State core to lead the movement has defined this contest. At the moment, neither group enjoys a clear claim to leadership given their weakened state. However, their degraded condition has not eliminated the competition because they both still boast robust affiliate alliances. Both groups’ continued claims to leadership rely on their respective affiliate alliance networks, which have proven resilient, despite the core groups’ losses.
Who will emerge as the clear winner will depend on which group, if either, can exploit the next galvanising cause, namely the Israel-Gaza crisis. Unable to participate directly, they are trying to propagate their narratives to exploit the mobilisation in response to the conflict. But they can position themselves as countering the “Crusader-Zionist” enemy, namely the United States-Israel alliance.
For al-Qaeda, this war dovetails with its long-standing narrative about the centrality of the Crusader-Zionist adversary. Indeed, the group has already released several statements highlighting this view since the October 7th attack. It has long sought to emphasise the importance of the “far enemy” in its propaganda, while the Islamic State has focused more on the Shia adversary. For its part, the Islamic State has framed the conflict as demonstrating the importance of opposing the “near enemy,” namely Arab governments.
Though the conflict seemingly gives al-Qaeda a rhetorical advantage, it will not be able to outmanoeuvre the Islamic State unless it can also produce action. Al-Qaeda has targeted Israeli interests in the past and al-Qaeda-affiliates have sought to portray their attacks as support for the Palestinians, but it is unclear whether they will prioritise targeting Israeli and US interests over their parochial agendas.
If neither the Islamic State nor al-Qaeda is able to seize this moment, another organisation may emerge to compete for leadership of the movement. There is no clear frontrunner for such a challenger, but it is a wildcard that could change the Sunni jihadist movement landscape.
Leadership within the Movement
The second factor to watch is whether new leaders emerge within the Sunni jihadist movement. The Israel-Gaza crisis comes at a time when there is a dearth of compelling leaders within the jihadist movement. Gone are the days of leaders like Usama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who animated their rank-and-file, supporters, and prospective recruits. There are currently no leaders with such resonance in the movement writ large. The Islamic State’s leadership losses have produced a series of unknown leaders, and al-Qaeda still has not even announced the successor to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
There is even a vacuum of charismatic leaders within the affiliate organisations or other Sunni jihadist groups. The current tranche of leaders do not even generate much excitement within their own organisations, let alone outside of them. This void, coupled with the Israel-Gaza crisis, may produce new leaders and ideologues who capture the imaginations of those mobilised by the current environment.
Resurgence of Jihadism in the Middle East
The third factor to watch is whether the Israel-Gaza crisis results in a resurge of violent jihadism in the Middle East. In Ayman al-Zawahiri’s letter to al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004, he captured the importance of the Middle East within the Sunni jihadist movement when he referred to the Middle East as the “centre” of the movement, while Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere were the “far flung” areas. In recent years, the geographic epicentre of the Sunni jihadist movement has been in one such “far-flung” region: sub-Saharan Africa. Jihadism has grown and spread there at an alarming rate, but the mobilisation and violence has largely stayed within the subcontinent. Mobilisation has occurred locally and regionally but less so transnationally.
In contrast, causes in the Middle East, such as the wars in Syria and Iraq as well as the Arab Spring, have reverberated and mobilised more broadly, including in the West. Though the Sunni jihadist movement is not positioned to engage in violence within the actual conflict, if it can stoke and exploit larger unrest within the region, another centre of gravity may emerge in the Middle East that would re-ignite the movement more broadly at the same time that violence in sub-Saharan increases virtually unchecked.
Dominant Forms of Jihadism
The fourth factor to watch is which ideological currents dominate within the Sunni jihadist movement. Analysts long have debated whether jihadist groups focus on global versus local causes, but this dichotomy is insufficient to understand the ideological differences within the movement. Instead, there are five main jihadist strains within the movement. First, groups can focus on revolutionary jihadism, namely overthrowing regimes they deem as apostate, like the Arab governments highlighted by the Islamic State. Second, they can prioritise sectarianism, focusing their ire on the Shia. Third, they can seek to promote irredentist claims to break predominantly Muslim lands away from rule by non-Muslims. Fourth, they can pursue classical jihadism, namely ousting non-Muslim forces from Muslim lands. Finally, they can seek to overthrow the US-led world order, leading to what is referred to as known as global jihadism.
The dominant strain within the movement has changed over time, often in response to events. In the aftermath of 9/11, global jihadism was prevalent. During the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, classical jihadism was salient. During conflicts in Iraq and Syria, sectarianism gained traction. In recent years, revolutionary jihadism has arguably been the most pronounced, with global jihadism and classic jihadism receding. However, the combination of the Israel-Gaza crisis and the view that the United States is unconditionally supporting Israel is conducive to the revival of opposition to the “Crusader-Zionist” alliance, i.e., global jihadism. An increase in the prominence of that strain of jihadism does not mean that the other forms will become irrelevant. But if the resonance of global jihadism does increase, so does the threat to US interests.
The fifth factor to watch is how the Sunni jihadist movement interacts with other extremist movements in this environment. Cross-movement alliances are rare as trust is harder to build. However, cooperation sometimes occurs.
Even without cooperation, extremist movements can provoke each other, perpetuate one another’s violence, and, equally importantly, learn from each other. For example, the far-right movement has learned from the Sunni jihadist movement. Of most importance in the current situation is the interaction between the Shia militant movement and the Sunni jihadist one. Unlike the Sunni jihadist movement, the Shia militant movement is more directly involved in the current conflict. The Sunni jihadist movement may learn from tactics being employed by its Shia counterparts. And the resonance of anti-Shia sectarianism among Sunni jihadists may decline as a result of the conflict, though this is less likely for the Islamic State, which has long emphasised the centrality of opposing the Shia.
It is premature to conclude that the Sunni jihadist movement will not be revitalised by the Israel-Gaza crisis nor is it clear that the movement will be able to fully exploit the conflict. In general, Sunni jihadist groups have proven resilient, defying frequent declarations of their defeat. Though the current war is not of their making, it has animated supporters and mobilised sentiments that they can harness.
In several key respects, al-Qaeda is better positioned ideologically compared to the Islamic State to harness this conflict, as it dovetails with its long-standing view of the need to confront the Crusader-Zionist enemy first to achieve its interpretation of the caliphate and its less sectarian orientation. But the Islamic State is more proximate and also seeing the war as an opportunity to perpetuate its narrative condemning the so-called apostate regimes that animate many individual groups within the movement. If neither is able to effectively exploit the conflict, there is also the potential for new players to arise to shape the trajectory of the movement.