“Let’s unite to liberate Jerusalem”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, November 2015
On 6 December 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that the US recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and that it will relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the new capital. Unsurprisingly, the bold move by the American President was met with disapproval by most political leaders around the world including Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May and Vladimir Putin. An even more forceful response came from Muslim majority states who on 13 December, under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), called for the international community to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and for the US to withdraw from the peace process. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for a third intifada and for Arab countries to leave the peace process entirely. Even White Supremacists in the US rushed to the keyboard to condemn Trump’s decision on several internet fora.
None, however, have responded in a more critical tone than Sunni Jihadi groups around the world. Two days in a row, on 7-8 December, the al-Tawhid Brigade of the Palestinian militant Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades took responsibility for rockets fired against Israeli settlements, while Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaida’s former Syrian affiliate, was posting pictures of large-scale demonstrations against the US and Israel in Idlib, Syria. The broader Sunni Jihadi community have similarly responded in an almost unprecedented cohesive fashion with the aim of mobilizing the Muslim masses. From al-Qaida to the Islamic State, and from HTS to the Pakistani Taliban, all have responded to Trump’s move. All of these statements have been published on Telegram, where available we used the original statement but we also used the translations as provided by SITE Intel Group. All quotes in this piece are either translated by the authors or derived from the translations by SITE. This ICCT Perspective looks at these jihadists’ response to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem and to what extent we can expect their discursive threats to translate into action.
Al-Qaida and its affiliates
Within just five days of Trump’s decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, al-Qaida Central and all of its official affiliates had published statements in support of Palestine, calling for Muslims to mobilize, for attacks to be carried out and all possible support whatever form it may take. In addition to these statements, a flood of material supporting the Palestinian cause was uploaded on al-Qaida affiliated Telegram channels. To highlight the importance of Palestine and the symbol of Jerusalem is not new to al-Qaida, however. Usama Bin Laden, al-Qaida’s founder and first leader, already spoke extensively about Palestine in his famous 1996 fatwa, emphasising that violence was essential to finally liberate the country from its occupiers. Since then Palestine and Jerusalem have featured regularly in al-Qaida rhetoric, but the group never really managed to transform this discursive focus into action, perhaps because it did not have the capabilities, but more likely because Palestine remained a cause to mobilize people but not to act upon. In May 2008 and March 2009, Bin Laden again spoke extensively about the Palestinian cause and stressed that it remains the primary objective of the Sunni Jihadi movement. Finally, in his letter to ‘the American people’, published as part of the Abbottabad documents that have been retrieved after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed, he explicitly threatened that attacks against the US will continue as long as Palestine is not liberated.
Al-Qaida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has similarly included Palestine in past statements. In a November 2015 speech titled Let’s unite to liberate Jerusalem he claims that the mujahideen should attack the friends of Israel and fight to win back Palestine. In January 2016, Hamza Bin Laden, one of Bin Laden’s sons and an increasingly popular and prominent al-Qaida figure, called on the mujahideen on the battlefields to create an army and from Syria enter Palestine to liberate Jerusalem. Coincidentally, a few days after Trump’s announcement, a new Hamza statement on Palestine was published and although it was most likely recorded before the announcement and thus unrelated to it, it nonetheless adds to the al-Qaida narrative that Arab regimes from the very beginning have enabled the occupation of Palestine.
In the direct aftermath of Trump’s announcement, statements were published by the al-Qaida General Leadership (meaning Ayman al-Zawahiri) and its affiliates. Al-Qaida General Leadership’s statement[i] is the most interesting as it offers the strongest critique of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem and how Jihadists and Muslims in general should respond to it. To set the tone, it starts out by claiming that “America and those who live in America shall never even dream of peace until we experience it as a reality in Palestine” and continues saying that the best and easiest way to confront today’s ‘pharaoh’ (the US), is through Jihad and that “just as you kill us, you shall be killed; just as you bomb us, you too shall be bombed, and the one who initiates hostilities shoulders the blame.” This idea of qisas (retaliation) echoes previous al-Qaida rhetoric on Palestine, probably because it is likely to resonate broadly within the Muslim masses.
Interestingly, al-Qaida’s General Leadership does not exclusively view the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a bad thing as they see it as a potential for mobilizing more recruits. Although the organization publicly portrays it as blatant aggression against Muslims, in al-Qaida’s eyes the move can potentially also provoke Muslims to join the jihadists’ cause. Muslim aggression should target three groups, according to the al-Qaida leadership: Israel, the US and Middle-Eastern regimes, foremost among them the Saudi kingdom who has been central in facilitating support for the ‘Zionist-crusader’ alliance. For Zawahiri, and al-Qaida more generally, Trump’s decision comes at a rather opportune time, as al-Qaida and its former Syrian affiliate are caught in conflict. Hence, the leadership statement uses the opportunity to call for the mujahideen to forget about their disagreement and unite (referring to al-Qaida’s running conflicts with the Islamic State and more recently Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham). “Set out, light or heavy, for the battlefields of Jihad, and prepare against them the utmost of your strength. Unite your ranks, coordinate your efforts, forget your disagreements, repent to your Lord and seek forgiveness for your sins”, it reads before finally calling for Muslims to “declare a war with no respite against the nations of disbelief that have gathered against you from every corner. Concentrate your efforts against the head of disbelief, get it mired in its own troubles, intensify your strikes against it until it refrains from its aggression, for its end is near, and victory is at times merely an hour's worth of patience.”
All al-Qaida’s official affiliates have similarly posted statements supportive of the Palestinian cause and called for attacks, albeit none as forceful as the one by the General Leadership. Only al-Qaida in the Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS) has not published its own statement. The day after the General Leadership’s statement, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) offered its view of the situation.[ii] Echoing the statement from the day before, it explained how Trump’s decision is an illustration that the US are servants to Jewish interests and of a normalization in the relationship between Middle Eastern regimes (again the Gulf is stressed) and Israel. Much less virulent than the General Leadership, AQAP limits its call for the mujahideen to forget about their division and to support Palestine. The same day, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) published its statement[iii] which highlighted that Trump’s decision came just days after the centennial for the Balfour Declaration (in reality, however, it was more than a month after the centennial), which was a present from ‘those who did not possess to he who did not deserve’.
Promoting the slogan ‘in al-Quds we meet’, AQIM states that Palestine should be regarded as a central cause for the mujahideen and that every Muslim should support this cause with whatever means possible, even if this does not include fighting Jihad. Two days later, on 9 December, Somalia’s al-Shabaab published a long statement.[iv] It begins with a hadith narrating that the companion Abu Hurayrah reported Prophet Muhammad as having said that "The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews". The affiliate recalls the promise made by Usama bin Laden – to liberate Palestine – and commands Muslims to now fulfill this oath as there are no longer any excuses. In a reference to the active Jihadi movements surrounding Israel in the Levant, North Africa and in Somalia itself, al-Shabaab stresses that battlefields and training camps are plentiful, ready to help Muslims prepare for the fight for Jerusalem.
The last official al-Qaida response came on 11 December when Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimeen (JNIM), a recent merger of Jihadi groups in the Sahel and allied to al-Qaida, offered its support for Palestine. The statement[v], although rather lacking in content, called for the ummah (Islamic nation) to unite against the enemy and, like al-Shabaab, repeated the words of Bin Laden “We swear by Allah, who raised the skies without pillars, neither America nor those living in America will dream of security before we live it as a reality inside Palestine and before all the disbeliever armies depart the land of Muhammad.”
Al-Qaida affiliated ideologues have similarly offered their view of Trump’s decision. Dressed in military fatigues, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi scholar close to al-Qaida, thundered: “Trump said, with all his arrogance: ‘America accepts al-Quds (Jerusalem) as the capital of Israel’. Let them keep longing! Al-Quds is the capital of the Muslims! It is in the hearts of the Muslims. It is not possible to remove it. It is not possible for al-Quds to be the capital of Israel while the Muslims still have eyes that can see.” Abu Qatada al-Filastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, arguably the two most influential Jihadi ideologues alive, also provided comment. Both scholars lamented Trump’s decision and Arab regimes’ complicity. For Maqdisi, however, the decision was also indicative of the failure of the Jihadi movement as it clearly had not exerted sufficient pressure on the US or Israel to avoid such bold action. Abu Qatada ridiculed Trump’s initiative as ‘project Kushner’ in reference to the president’s Jewish son-in-law who acts as his senior Middle East advisor.
The al-Qaida attitude has also been prevalent within jihadist circles on social media. Old statements on Palestine by influential al-Qaida figures like Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi have been circulated en masse, while militant groups have flooded Telegram channels with posters of the characteristic Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhrah) and messages in support of the Palestinian cause. Sympathy with the Palestinian cause is also shown in channel names and profile pictures. The al-Qaida-run Telegram channel Al-Firdaws immediately changed its name to include Jerusalem while prominent al-Qaida affiliated figures changed to profile pictures showing the Dome of the Rock. Of a more operational character, on several al-Qaida sympathetic Telegram channels, a 52-page guide on how to conduct lone wolf attacks in the US, originally authored by Abu Abdul Karim al-Gharbi in April last year, was being re-posted on 6 December to promote fresh attacks against the US. These efforts show that Palestine and Jerusalem remain central issues in the Jihadi conscience but it is likely that they will find it challenging to translate them into action. As we have seen thus far only isolated incidents occurred, there doesn’t seem to be an overall rush towards jihad.
Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham
Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham, formerly known as al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat an-Nusra, published an Arabic statement on Telegram on December 7.[vi] The group declared that the “Crusader-Jewish alliance” capitalized on Muslims’ preoccupation with revolutions and the “treachery” of their regimes, to take this decision, and that the move belies America portraying itself as a sponsor of the peace process. The group stressed that “whatever was taken by force can only be retrieved by force” and that the “dreams of negotiations and the illusions of peace” have gone. It is only because “the Muslim people [are] being distracted with their revolutions and the procrastination and treachery of their regimes, [that the Crusader–Jewish alliance] took advantage (...) to pass this recent decision”.
Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham sees the matter as “an issue for all the honest and free Muslims all over the world.” But “the road to Jerusalem appears to be the road through every Sunni city in Sham (greater Syria or the Levant). At the same time that the ‘Israeli’ is enjoying living in peace, the cities in Syria are suffering the disasters of being destroyed by the regime and its allies.” Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham clearly puts its own battle against the Syrian regime at the forefront; Jerusalem can only be liberated through Syria.
The Islamic State
Notwithstanding the Islamic State’s reputation of surpassing al-Qaeda both in narrative and in action, the group in its weekly publication an-Naba 109, published on December 8, 2017[vii], choose a whole other narrative. In a way, it is as though the Islamic State is mocking all the other Jihadist calls for action. In the opening paragraphs of the brief statement, the Islamic State refers to the fact that only after Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, the Islamic world woke up. “Sixty years and Jerusalem has been in the hands of the Jews, and it is only now that people cry when the Crusaders announced it today as their capital.” In essence, the Islamic State appears to argue that a lot of hollow statements have been published, a lot of calls to action that have not been heeded.
Slogans like “Jerusalem is the first cause for Muslims” were merely “aimed to extend the meaning of not having a single hope for fulfilling any of their jihadi obligations before Jerusalem gets “liberated”. Others modified that claim, the authors continue, “Jerusalem is the central issue for Muslims” was a message spread to attract more followers. But the Islamic State is highly critical of those in charge; “we have no idea how they would validate their calls if they wake up someday to find Jerusalem becoming the capital of the apostate Palestinian government or the tyrannical government of Hamas.” The Islamic State hereby makes clear that it doesn’t have the slightest trust in nor the Palestinian government, nor in Hamas which it just recently declared to be takfiri or disbelieving.
Some of these “deluded corruptors” even claimed that there can be no Jihad except the battle for Jerusalem. Yet “many of the people of Jihad” clearly pointed out that the Jerusalem battle can never be won “as long as the tyrants’ armies are surrounding it”, hereby legitimizing the Jihad in Syria and Iraq. It is the duty of every single Muslim “[to] continue with their Jihad everywhere until they establish the governance of Allah in Jerusalem and every other country, and eliminate polytheism from everywhere over which the sun shines and the night engulfs.” In summary, the Islamic State claims that Jihad is the ultimate goal by which in the end Jerusalem will be liberated, yet Jerusalem itself is not the only reason to wage Jihad. What the Islamic State is basically saying is that it is wrong to focus exclusively on Jerusalem as the duty of Muslims is to wage Jihad against “tyrants or their polytheistic slaves or the seculars and democrats and their apostate brothers who hinder the cause of Allah and fight the Shariah of Allah”.
Ibn Taymiyyah Media Center
The Islamic State-linked Palestine-focused Ibn Taymiyyah Media Center is, in contrast to its parent organization, more focused on Jerusalem itself.[viii] It called the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a shame on Arab armies for not mobilizing in response. “This disbeliever Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. What a shame on all the Arab armies! Where are all your military forces and your soldiers? Where are your rockets and your guns? Where are your masses? If you do not rise today, will you only rise when your leaders die? Why are you not destroying Israel and Tel Aviv? May Allah shame you and paralyze you”. So, although the organization regards itself as being linked to the Islamic State, this statement seems to contradict the official stance of that group through its emphasis on Jerusalem as an issue of prime concern to the jihadist movement.
On December 7, the Afghan Taliban also published a statement on its website.[ix] The Taliban calls the move by President Trump a “reckless step” and a demonstration of “anti-Muslim-bigotry”. The Taliban predicts that this will “fan the flames of conflict in the entire world especially in the Middle East”. Finally, the Taliban claims, the US “has fully exposed its colonial face and declared enmity towards Islam as well as support for the policy of occupation and colonization of Muslim lands”. The statement concludes “if the Muslim world fails at giving brotherly hand to one another and approaching their problems in union, recognize anti-Islam plots and continue squandering opportunities, then the moments are close when Muslim sanctums shall further be degraded and the very existence of Muslims shall face immense danger.”
The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) called Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital an “open declaration of war against Muslims”. The statement was published in Urdu on December 8 and a day later an English translation followed.[x] TTP states that “all non-believers of the world became one against Islam and Muslims and attacking Muslims on the ground all over the world,” and that it is “an ideology against Islam and an open declaration of war against Muslims”. Hence TTP calls upon all Muslims to unite against what they refer to as “conspiracies of Dajjal [the fake Messiah’s] forces.”
Abdullah Azzam Brigades
The Lebanese Abdullah Abdullah Azzam Brigades published a statement[xi] on Telegram on December 10, promoting Jihad as the only way to liberate Palestinian land. Trump’s decision is not regarded as something out of the ordinary as “the administration of this nation [the US] remains to be the first sponsor of the Jews’ entity since its inception, and it is the main supporter of the policies of occupation and settlement.” The Azzam Brigade’s statement first addresses the Muslim world by declaring that the “al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem are a general Islamic cause and not a local issue for the people of Palestine. It is an Islamic land that is occupied, and it is the duty of every Muslim to seek to liberate it.” As other groups also stated, Muslims worldwide have no other option “but Jihad via weapons and word to liberate its land from the Israeli occupation that is supported by America”.
Further on in the statement, the Brigades address the people in Palestine; “relying on the path of settlement to liberate the land and achieving rights is nothing more than the illusion and the cunning of the Jews and those countries that support them.” The Oslo Accords are called “a shameful peace that is in truth a surrender to the Zionist will and its supporter America and their allies from the traitorous rulers.” The group concludes by stating that “Jerusalem will remain to be the Qibla of our Jihad, for the compass of the conflict leads to it, and the issue of Palestine is one of creed that does not accept bargaining and does not know being forgotten.”
The Egyptian based Hasam Movement (Harakat Sawa’id Misr) on December 7 published a statement[xii] on Twitter and Telegram declaring that Jerusalem will only be liberated if Cairo is freed first. The group calls Trump’s move a “foolish announcement”, yet they are hardly surprised as “this decision did not come but after all our Arab capitals fell captive in the hands of Zionists and our rulers became official agents for America and the West.” Like the other groups discussed in this piece, the Hasam Movement sees a worldwide plot against Muslims and argue that “Jerusalem and Palestine will remain the primary cause of the Muslims and that the goal of every sincere Muslim is to liberate this blessed land.” The statement clearly declares that the movement neither recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel nor Israel as a legitimate state. They call for “an ongoing and overwhelming Intifada” and ask “all revolutionary and liberation movements to defend our sanctities with all their power and to do their utmost, and to show that this Ummah is still alive (…)”. They conclude by stating that “anything other than the path of resistance and Jihad is a waste of time” and stress the point that Jerusalem cannot be liberated “as long as Cairo remains captive.”
Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, a Kashmir based Jihadi group closely affiliated with al-Qaida, published an English statement on December 7.[xiii] They also consider it a duty on every Muslim to stand up and “do everything that is needed to stop the madman sitting in the White house and stop him from dishonoring the sacred land of Bait al-Maqdis [Jerusalem]”. The group declares that “the recognition of Bait al-Maqdis as the capital of Israel by America, should not be shocking for Muslims. It is only another revelation of the true face of the global head of taghoot (unlawful rulers), America.”
They continue by stating, as other groups also have, that the case of Jerusalem is not a national or tribal affair yet it “is an issue of the soul of Islam.” Thus “Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind urges the honorable Muslims across the world to attack and harm US and Israeli embassies, companies and financial and commercial interests.” Muslims worldwide should “storm and burn the embassies of America and Israel, demolish them.”
In virtually all of the statements included in this brief piece we see the same trend; the majority of Jihadi groups call for the unification of Muslims worldwide and urge for a Jihad to liberate Jerusalem, not as the capital of Palestine, but as one the holiest places of Islam. One statement, however, clearly deviates from the rest; the Islamic State remains highly critical of shifting the Jihadi focus towards Jerusalem. The group goes so far as to state that all of the sudden attention for Jerusalem is highly hypocritical and that Jihad should focus on the lands already in the eye of the storm. Of course, this statement should be read in the context that the Islamic State is rapidly losing ground in Syria and Iraq, thus forcing the group to focus entirely on its own military agenda.
However, despite all these calls to violent uprising have been published over a month ago, no real confrontations, apart from some isolated non-organized clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces, have occurred. Nonetheless, the United Nations condemned Trump’s decision as the majority of the international community regards the US move as potentially dangerous to the stability of the region. We expect no major uprising or turmoil in the coming weeks and months, rather the continuation of some isolated and insignificant statements or acts by groups or lone actors. Trump made a dangerous move by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, yet the expected turmoil or even a new intifada as called for by Jihadists will, in our assumption, not happen anytime soon. The real effect that Jihadists most likely hope to achieve is that Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem will strengthen their general calls for mobilization and to magnify the animosity against western actors and Middle Eastern regimes affiliated with them.
 The Qibla is the direction in which Muslims pray. Today the Qibla is in the direction of Mecca but the very first Qibla, established by the Prophet Muhammad was Jerusalem.
[i] Published on Telegram on December 6, 2017 via Al- Qaida’s official channel as-Sahab media.
[ii] Published on Telegram on December 7, 2017 via Al- Qaida’s official channel as-Sahab media.
[iii] Translation spread via Telegram on the channel of al-Tamkin media on December 7, 2017
[iv] Translation spread via Telegram on the channel of Qana al-Ashbal on December 10, 2017
[v] Translation provided by SITE Intel Group. Original statement spread via Telegram on December 11, 2017
[vi] Published on Telegram on December 7, 2017 via Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham’s official channel Wikala Iba al-Ikhbariyya
[vii] Published on Telegram on the semi-official Islamic State’s media branch Nashir News on December 8, 2017
[viii] Translation provided by SITE Intel Group. Original statement spread via Telegram on December 6, 2017 [ix] http://alemarah-english.com/?p=23130
[x] Translation provided by SITE Intel Group. Original statement published on December 9, 2017
[xi] Translation provided by SITE Intel Group. Original statement published on Telegram on December 10, 2017
[xii] Translation provided by SITE Intel Group. Original statement published on Telegram and Twitter on December 7, 2017
[xiii] English statement published by Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind on December 7, 2017 via the groups official media channel al-Hurr Media