Trump’s Declaration at the Heart of Jihadist Discourse

Author
Ariel Koch uncovers the internal Jihadist discourse following the publication of a video by the Sinai Province of ISIS, which criticized Trump’s declaration regarding Jerusalem.
Date

Image from video depicting execution by Sinai Province militants
Segment from the video showing an execution, disseminated by the Sinai Province, from the ‎website ‎Jihadology
 

Although the storm surrounding Trump’s declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel seems to have subsided, a video released in early January by the Sinai Province of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Egypt[1] returned it to the headlines. The video, which denounces the declaration, ruthlessly targets Hamas, which it claims was unable to prevent the declaration, and brands its activists “traitors” and “heretics” guilty of capital offences.[2] It also allegedly that Hamas, along with its parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Egyptian and Iranian regimes (the latter through its proxies in the Gaza Strip[3]), are cooperating to prevent Salafi groups from attacking Israel. The video, which was published on online social media and Telegram channels identified with ISIS, has repercussions in two arenas: locally, where the Sinai Province is working to strengthen its image in the Gaza Strip, by provoking Hamas and undermining its legitimacy, and globally, where the video provoked a response from al-Qaeda and its affiliates, as part of the organization’s efforts to regain its lead over ISIS for leadership of the global jihad movement, including in Egypt and Sinai.

The Sinai Province was founded as “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis” and was considered an affiliate of Al-Qaeda.[4] After the rise of ISIS, the organization transferred its loyalty, and became the official Islamic State franchise on the Sinai Peninsula. This change challenged the current leadership of al-Qaeda, now headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a native Egyptian. On the local level, the Sinai province benefited from direct and indirect aid from Hamas in the Gaza Strip as long as the Egyptian regime treated Hamas with hostility.[5] The relationship between the organizations was destabilized when Egypt improved its attitude towards Hamas, which it considered a way to harm the jihadists in Sinai. The cooperation between Hamas and Egypt is evident, inter alia, in their joint struggle to contain the Sinai Province’s control over the smuggling of weapons between Sinai and Gaza, [6] which harms not only Hamas, but also the other factions in the Gaza Strip, including members of the Salafi-Jihadist faction.

In the twenty-two-minute video, Hamas is accused of not only failing to prevent the Trump declaration, but also of fighting ISIS’s supporters in the Gaza Strip and preventing the Salafis from firing rockets at Israel, all as part of its activity in the anti-ISIS coalition. Throughout the video, a Gazan resident Muhammad Sa‘ad al-Sa‘idi, also known as Abu Kathem al-Maqdisi, a former member of Hamas’s military wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam, and now a member of the Sinai Province, is seen accusing Hamas of heresy and abandoning Islam, an act punishable by death. Indeed, the end of the video documents the execution, by shooting, of another resident of the Gaza Strip, Musa Abu Zamat, wearing the notorious orange jumpsuit (see Figure 3). He was affiliated with the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and accused of smuggling weapons from Sinai to the Gaza Strip. The executioner is also a resident of the Gaza Strip, Abu Aisha al-Dajani, another former member of Izz al-Din al-Qassam.

The arguments and threats directed against Hamas in the video are not new, and have been expressed in previous publications by Salafi-Jihadists from the Gaza Strip and elsewhere. For example, in July 2015, ISIS in Syria published a video threatening to "uproot the Jewish state, including Hamas, the PLO and all the secularists."[7] Another example is a video distributed by ISIS supporters in the Gaza Strip last April, in which they attacked Hamas for being an “agent” of Israel, by their definition, who cooperates with infidels at home (the Palestinian Authority) and abroad (Iran and the Shi’a), does not impose shari‘a (Islamic law), and prevents Salafi-Jihadist organizations in the Gaza Strip from acting against Israel. [8]The adoption of intra-Salafist discourse in the Gaza Strip, especially in light of the fact that the protagonists of the current video are jihadists from the Gaza Strip for whom this discourse is familiar, allows the Sinai Province to exploit the existing tension between the Salafi-Jihadist organizations and Hamas in order to strengthen its standing in the region, and to position itself as an alternative to Hamas.

However, the accusations that Hamas is cooperating with Israel quickly became a double-edged sword, when users, including many Palestinians, responded by accusing the Sinai Province of themselves cooperating with Israel. The claim is based on the common interest of the Sinai Province and Israel in preventing the transfer of weapons to the Gaza Strip, which harms the Hamas “resistance” against Israel. For example, Palestinian journalist Ziyad Halabi tweeted that the Sinai Province video proves that the agenda of ISIS in Sinai overlaps with that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. [9]

Although the video addresses a local audience, its influence spread to the international terror arena. The strengthening of the Sinai Province in Sinai makes it difficult for al-Qaeda supporters in Egypt to establish an alternative framework that will draw volunteers who are interested in fighting against Israel, which may explain the opposition to the video and its makers among al-Qaeda supporters in Egypt. For example, the Twitter accounts and Telegram channels affiliated with al-Qaeda in Egypt and Sinai attacked ISIS, calling on the Sunnis to reject them summarily. Sinai Province activists were sarcastically dubbed “Khwaraj Sinai,” an expression used for Muslims who break away from Islam as in, “The end of the Khwaraj Sinai is approaching.” A picture posted on the al-Qaeda-affiliated Telegram channel Manbar Sinai, read sarcastically: “Soon… a video of Khwaraj Sinai in which they kill one of their operatives.” Another channel noted mockingly that only one minute of the video was devoted to threatening Israel. Another example was a video released on 25 January by a Salafist-Jihadist group Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and is behind attacks against the Egyptian army and ISIS in Sinai.[10] Jund al-Islam presented an interview with a former Sinai Province activist who testified that activists in the Province who wish to leave the organization face danger of incarceration and torture, and even execution. [11]

The impact of the video was also apparent in official al-Qaeda publications distributed shortly thereafter, showing narratives similar to those in the video, including some that repeat familiar themes used by the organization. For example, a video released by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on 23 January again attacked the Trump Declaration, after having already condemned it in December.[12] In the video, Khalid Batarfi called on Muslims to join the jihad for the sake of Jerusalem and to carry out attacks against Western and Jewish targets around the world in response to Trump’s declaration. It declared that this is “an issue shared by every Muslim.” Three days later, al-Qaeda published an audio clip to mark the seventh anniversary of the Arab Spring, in which the voice of the organization’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is heard attacking – as is his custom – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis who he claims support the Egyptian army and provide it momentum.

While Salafi-Jihadist propaganda against Hamas, including from ISIS and its supporters in the Gaza Strip, is not unusual, this is the first time that a Salafi-Jihadist organization publicly carried out its threats against Hamas. However, the video seems to have created an unexpected counter-reaction. Most of the discourse on social media condemned the Sinai Province, which was accused of collaborating with Israel, the very accusation it leveled against Hamas. al-Qaeda was the organization that took best advantage of the situation, by choosing hate-generating narratives similar to those appearing in the video, and adapting them to its own familiar rhetoric in hopes of re-establishing itself as the main global jihad organization and an alternative to ISIS, not only in Syria but also in Sinai and Egypt.

 

 

[1] For further reading on this topic: Shaul Shay, “Egypt’s Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and the Islamic State”, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (Herzliya), February 11, 2015.

[2] See: Gilad Shiloach, “The Islamic State Declares War on Hamas: The Latest Episode in a Complex Relationship,” Jihadiscope, Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, January 8, 2018. 

[3] A reference to Al-Sabirin Natza laFalistin – The Patient for the Victory of Palestine, a Hezbollah-like organization in late 2014. See: “The Shi‘ite Presence in the Gaza Strip: The Patient [A-Sabirin] for the Victory of Palestine Movement and the Salafi Response,” Online Jihad Exposed, 27 February 2015, (Hebrew).

[4] An example of the identification of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis with al-Qaeda can be found in the first propaganda video that Ansar Bait al-Maqdis produced and disseminated (via SNS). At the end, it quotes Ayman al-Zawahiri attacking the Egyptian government for the peace treaty with Israel that transfers natural gas from Egypt to Israel. This video was published in July 2014 with the title, “And if you return [to your sins], we will return [to our punishments]  (وَإِنْ عُدْتُمْ عُدْنَا) (Quran 17:8). See: “New video message from Jamā’at Anṣār Bayt al-Maqdis: ‘If You Return (to Sin), We Shall Return (to our Punishment)’”, Jihadology, July 24, 2012. 

[5] For more on this cooperation, see: Ehud Yaari, “Hamas and the Islamic State: Growing Cooperation in the Sinai”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 15, 2015. 

[6] Yoni Ben Menachem, “Who would have believed: ISIS vs. Hamas,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 8 January 2018,

[7] Yassar ‘Okavi, “ISIS Threatens Hamas: We’ll Conquer the Gaza Strip,” Maariv, 1 July 2015, 

[8] The video “Palestine of the Caliphite” was produced by the media branch known as Shahad al-Alamiya.

[9] @Ziadhalabi1, Twitter, 9 January 2018.  Last accessed 6 February 2018. 

[10] For additional information, see: “Jund al-Islam”, The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, [no date]; and David Barnett, “Jund al Islam Claims Credit for Sinai Suicide Car Bomb Attacks”, The Long War Journal, September 12, 2013. 

[11] The video was disseminated on Telegram channels identified with Al-Qaeda, see Mohamed El-Sharkawi, “Soldiers of Islam Publish the Confessions of an Opponent of the Sinai Province," Qol Ha’uma, 25 January 2018 [Arabic] 

[12] “Al Qaeda condemns Trump’s Jerusalem move, calls for action”, Reuters, December 7, 2017.