Sunni Jihadists and the Abraham Accords: Predictable Responses to a Changing Regional Reality

Adam Hoffman writes about the responses of Sunni Jihadi gropus to the Abraham Accords. This article is part of "The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel".

Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony
Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony, September 15, 2020. The White House [public domain]

Responses by Sunni jihadi groups to the Abraham Accords were few and predictable. While the two major global jihadi groups, al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), did issue statements on the Accords, the signing of the normalization agreements between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel received far less attention from jihadists than other regional and global developments. They predictably called for attacks following the signing of the agreements and condemned the Arab Gulf States which signed them, but the Accords did not occupy a central place in jihadists’ discourse since their announcement.

In response to the Accords, al-Qaeda’s “General Command” issued a statement in Arabic and English which stated that “the al-Qaeda Organi­zation … strongly condemn[s] this step taken by the Bedouin rulers of the House of Khalifa, the House of Zaid and those who follow in their foot­steps among the Zionists in the House of Saud” – derogatory terms for the ruling regimes of Bah­rain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, respectively. The statement also condemned “the complete sell out of the Palestinian cause by the rulers of the Gulf statelets,” and their normaliza­tion of relations with Israel. Al-Qaeda ended the statement with a call to Muslims to attack “Zion­ists Jews and non-Jews” (a reference to Arab rulers normalizing relations with Israel) “in the Arabian Peninsula or in other parts of the Muslim World.”

Like other statements by jihadi groups and leaders, al-Qaeda’s statement on the Abraham Accords was meant to show that it was staying abreast of cur­rent developments in the Middle East and remains relevant to shaping political trends in the region. Despite this, both the timing and the content of the statement had the opposite effect: al-Qaeda’s commentary on the normalization agreements was published almost a month after their signing, and thus indicated an organization which had seri­ous difficulties in releasing media statements in a timely manner. This may reflect broader leadership problems in al-Qaeda: on November 13, analyst Hassan Hassan claimed that al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri died a month before of natural causes. To date, Zawahiri’s death has not been officially confirmed by al-Qaeda, but the organiza­tion is already considered in recent years by many analysts to be an outdated and less inspiring orga­nization than IS. Al-Qaeda’s very late response to the Accords (relatively speaking, given the exten­sive coverage of the normalization agreements in regional and international media) may therefore be another indication of an organization in decline.

The content of al-Qaeda’s message also presented outdated motifs: the organization has long con­demned Arab rulers as agents of the West, and has attacked and de-legitimized the ruling fam­ily of Saudi Arabia since the 1990s. In June 2018, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has also specifically condemned the cultural and economic reforms initiated by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, describing them as “the sale of the sharia.” Finally, the call to attack “Zionists Jews and non-Jews in the Arabian Peninsula or in other parts of the Muslim World” strongly echoes Osama bin Lad­en’s famous fatwa from 1998, in which he stated that “the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim” in response to what he described as the American occupation of the Arabian Pen­insula. Al-Qaeda’s response to the normalization agreements with Israel therefore didn’t present any new ideas from the founding organization of global jihad; calling on Muslims to attack Jews and Arab rulers who normalize relations with Israel should hardly come as a surprise, given al-Qaeda’s long track record of terrorist attacks against West­ ern targets, including in Saudi Arabia, as well as its calls for terrorist attacks against the Saudi regime.

Much like al-Qaeda’s slow response to the Accords, IS also released a late statement after the sign­ing of the normalization agreements. On October 18, the organization released an audio statement by its official spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir al-Qurashi, in which he attacked the “tawaghit” ([idols] – IS’ derogatory term for Arab rulers), “the donkeys of knowledge” (IS’ derogatory term for Muslim religious scholars) and their “supporters” for the normalization agreements signed with Israel, which he described as a betrayal of Islam. The statement also called for physical attacks on Saudi Arabia because of the Kingdom’s indirect support to the UAE and Bahrain in their moves towards Israel. Al-Qurashi called on IS supporters in the Kingdom to “start by hitting and destroying oil pipelines, factories and facilities which are the source [of income] of the tyrant government,” in order to sabotage Saudi Arabia’s economic infra­structure.

It is unclear what effect IS’ call for attacks in Saudi Arabia will have; IS similarly called for attacks against Americans following then-US President Donald Trump’s decision in December 2017 to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, to little effect. Furthermore, IS’ efforts in the past few years have been focused on rebuilding its capabilities since the destruction of its physical caliphate, and on carrying out low-level attacks in Iraq and Syria, as well as on expanding its operations in Sub-Saha­ran Africa. Condemning the Abraham Accords as a betrayal of Islam and calling for attacks in Saudi Arabia therefore seem like yet another attempt to re-attract international attention, rather than a shift in its regional strategy.

Despite the two organizations’ statements regard­ing the Abraham Accords, the signing of the nor­malization agreements with Israel attracted far less attention from Sunni jihadi groups compared to other global and regional developments. The coronavirus pandemic, for example, has led to doz­ens of statements by different jihadi groups, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments on Islam in France have similarly led to much com­mentary and calls for attacks. The relatively sub­dued response of Sunni jihadists to the Abraham Accords shows the declining importance of the Pal­estinian issue to global jihadists, but more impor­tantly, the marginal role jihadists themselves have in shaping geopolitical developments in today’s Middle East. Unable to actually impact Muslim states’ foreign policies and the emerging geopo­litical power balance in the Middle East, jihadists are – in the words of former IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani – left to “die in their rage.”

This article is part of The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel.

For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.