7 min read
A discussion about the Global Jihadi Movement

This month Platform Mag spoke with Dr. Michael Barak, an expert on counter terrorism and radical Islam. Dr. Barak is a lecturer at Reichman University where he teaches a number of classes about radical jihadist movements. Dr. Barak is also a senior researcher and head of the Global Jihad and Jihadi Websites Monitoring department of the ICT (Institute for Counter Terrorism) at Reichman University. He is also a senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, with a special focus on Egypt. We hope you enjoy his informative perspective on radical Islamists groups and their strategies!

Platform: A little more than a year ago, the Lapid-led government agreed to a gas sharing arrangement for its offshore gas fields that were found in Israel and Lebanon's maritime borders. The dispute was peacefully resolved and both sides are expected to profit from this deal. Do you believe the added economic benefits from the deal will play any role in moderating Hezbollah to refrain from a war that may jeopardize these gains?

Dr. Barak: We have to remember that Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran in Lebanon, like the Houthis in Yemen. Everything they do with Israel is also connected with Iran. So I don't think the economic agreement with Israel will restrain Hezbollah from escalating with Israel. Of course, they need to also take into consideration how their moves will affect the other political players in Lebanon. One example is Christians who have previously criticized Hezbollah's military maneuvers to provoke Israel and they described Hezbollah's maneuvers as “challenging the authority of Lebanon”. However, today there is no government authority in Lebanon, due to several reasons among them, political paralysis, the economic crisis and the sectarian rifts, etc. Many Lebanese are leaving Lebanon, including Lebanese doctors and soldiers, who can't afford to support their families with their salaries. There is also an ongoing sectarian religious conflict and even the christians are divided. So the question of whether or not Hezbollah will enter a campaign against Israel depends on Iran’s instructions. Of course Hezbollah wants to portray itself in Lebanon, as an organization that is working for the benefit of Lebanon and the gas deal will help it towards succeeding in this effort. But it will not keep Hezbollah from attacking it, if Iran decides the time has come.

Platform: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently threatened Israel with war. Do you believe Nassrallah actually wants war with Israel ? And if so, why now?

Dr. Barak: In the last 2 years, we’ve seen Nasrallah trying to change the ‘rules of the game’. After the war in 2006, there had been an unofficial status quo with certain intelligence dynamics at the Northern border, that Hezbollah has been trying to challenge, the last few years. For example, Nassrallah recently claimed credit for the diminishing usage of drones for IAF (Israeli Air Force) intelligence gathering operations in Lebanon, claiming the IAF had reduced its drone presence because Hezbollah had been shooting them down. Aside from that, there's also been an increasing amount of Hezbollah members at the border, trying to provoke Israeli soldiers, with taunting and cursing. Then there was the case of the Hezbollah operative that crossed over the border and committed an attack in Megiddo, which is another example of Hezbollah attempting to change the rules of the game.One potential reason for these moves by Hezbollah, is the fear of a potential Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. So they are trying to deter Israel from making a move to attack Iran, by demonstrating a bit of their strength to show they are ready to escalate. I also think their moves are also related to the May 2021 IDF operation in Gaza, called "Guardians of the Wall". Iran and Hezbollah have been encouraged by the Arab Israelis that took part in the violence in places like Lod. Since then, the cooperation between Hezbollah and other Palestinian terrorist organizations, like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP, has only increased. There is a joint office in Beirut for cooperation between Hezbollah and those groups and this is another example of Hezbollah trying to 'change the rules for the game', by working closely and coordinating with those groups. Only a few months ago, around passover time, we saw Hamas launch 34 rockets from Lebanon.I think Nasrallah believes he has a new opportunity because Israel is weak and divided because of the judicial reforms. He saw the refusals of some reservists to serve because of the reforms and this has only further emboldened his recent provocations. He mistakenly believes that because Israel is divided about the judicial reforms, it will also be divided in the case of a war, but Israelis unite when we are under attack. Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, also believes Israel has been weakened by the reforms. For example, Iran's Supreme leader [Ayatollah] Khamenei, said recently that he's "optimistic" because he thinks Israel's demise is happening even earlier than he expected, because Israeli society is divided over these reforms.The Abraham Accords are another reason that Hezbollah has been trying to 'change the rules of the game'. It was a wakeup call for Hamas and Hezbollah that they need to do something different to prevent other Arab states from normalizing relations with Israel. So I think Hezbollah has been trying to deter Arab states that may be considering the same move, by using these moves as a way of showing them that Israel isn't as strong as they think. He's hoping to show these countries that you can't depend on Israel and that their threats to attack Iran's nuclear facilities is just talk. Another reason for this cooperation is that Hezbollah is trying to promote the strategic plan of Qassem Suliemei, the former commander of the IRGC, and his successor Esmail Qaani (the head of the Quds force, Iran's overseas branch of its Republican Guard) to unite the different fronts against Israel by helping to the Iranian proxies and its allies. In other words, Hezbollah has been investing efforts to be ready for the next war with Israel, and make the latter busy defending itself on multiple different fronts.

Platform: Iran has been trying to establish a base of operations in Syria, for some time now. The IDF has been trying to prevent this, striking Iranian forces when they're found. Do you think Syria is a dependable ally for Iran, like its other proxies? Perhaps Syria would not allow Iran to use its territory to attack Israel, because its president, Bashar al Assad has only recently stabilized the country after the Civil War and the expected Israeli retaliation would weaken his military forces and his government.

Dr. Barak: You're right, Syria is trying to rehabilitate itself after a decade of civil war and Assad's focus is on that. However, the civil war turned Assad into a puppet, so Assad needs to be very careful how he proceeds with his relations with Iran because he owes a lot to Iran. Iran and Russia's help turned the tide and helped him defeat ISIS and the other militia groups. So in order to placate Iran's desire to combat Israel, he will use Palestinian terrorist organizations for the 'dirty work' of attacking Israel. It's the same type of strategy Hezbollah was using when it allowed Hamas to fire the rockets from Lebanon.In order to prepare for an Israeli attack, Iran has been trying to upgrade Syria's anti aircraft defense, so it can cope better with the IAF (Israeli Air Force). Iran has also been working on improving Syria's military by giving it more advanced weapons. So Syria’s approach to confronting Israel is two-fold; using proxies to launch the attacks and improving its capabilities to withstand a potential IDF counter attack.Syria also has to account for Russian interests as well. If Israel is on good terms with Russia, it can ask the Russians to help ensure the Syrians restrain any aggressive actions towards Israel. So the question of whether or not Syria will partake in a future conflict also relates to Russia.Syria's decision will also be influenced by China's stance. China is interested in protecting stability and preventing violence in the region because it has invested a lot in the Middle East through its belt and road initiative. So China can also use economic pressure to urge Iran and Syria not to enter into a large-scale conflict with Israel.

Platform: In the past few years, we've seen a spate of terror attacks by Israeli Arabs. What are the key indicators or warning signs that experts and policymakers should be aware of when assessing the potential for radicalization within Arab Israeli communities?

Dr. Barak: One of the biggest challenges for the Shin Bet [Israel's internal intelligence agency] is identifying potential 'lone wolf' [a counterterrorism term for attacks by a single individual] attacks. Although Israel monitors social media networks, it cannot have 100% coverage of everyone and sometimes the attackers don't give any warning on social media before they launch an attack. Even if they gave some indication on social media by posting something, it's difficult in some cases to establish for certain that someone is radicalized. So these kinds of attacks are very difficult to prevent.One solution that Israel's political and military leadership has been trying to use is to encourage more civilians to carry weapons on them, to increase the potential difficulty of carrying out an attack and [Itamar] Ben Gvir has also proposed creating a national guard. Still, if you want to stop lone wolf attacks in advance, it's almost impossible. Sometimes we can see warning signs on social media that an individual became radicalized and then it's possible to arrest and interrogate this person and learn their intentions, but in most cases these kinds of attacks are impossible to stop.Another counter terror technique that has been used [by the Shin Bet] is the monitoring of mosques. Sometimes, radical muslim scholars give extremist speeches at the Al Aqsa Mosque, mostly from Hizb ut-Tahrir. Hizb ut-Tahrir is a radical Palestinian movement that aims to unite the globe into a single Islamic caliphate. Its goal is similar to ISIS, but its methods are less violent, although some members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir have joined ISIS. In certain countries, Hizb-ut-Tahrir is designated as a terrorist organization, but not in Israel. This organization used to host demonstrations on the Temple Mount compound, calling for the expulsion of Jews living in Israel. So it's definitely necessary to monitor mosques because of Hizb ut-Tahrir and other similar groups.An additional tactic that we’ve seen used has been the study of Islamic media for clues of a pending attack. It’s complicated because there is a freedom of speech and the court must approve the arrest. Some arrests are overturned because a judge rules that the Shin Bet’s arrest infringes on this right.It's also important to work with the local population to prevent these attacks. One way is through cooperation with moderate Muslim leaders that can have a positive influence on the community’s youth and steer them away from radical ideologies. One example is MK Mansour Abbas. Even though Mansour Abbas is the leader of the southern wing of the Islamic movement, which is a branch of the muslim brotherhood, he had a positive effect during [Operation] ‘Guardian of the Walls’. He visited a synagogue in Lod that had been attacked by Arab Israelis and he condemned the attack and emphasized that the synagogue was a sacred place of worship. As far as I know, he was the only Arab leader who did that. I know he is a controversial character, but I think he handled the situation well.So determining the most effective approach also depends on the Arab community we’re talking about. If you go to the south, the Bedouins don't listen to their community leadership. They receive their inspiration from Tik Tok and we’ve seen videos with Bedouin youth showing off their weapons in these kinds of videos. In some communities with bad education, Arab youth will be on the street more and it will be easier to radicalize them.

Platform: What role do ideological differences within the global jihadist movement play in shaping their tactics and alliances? Is their cooperation usually based on pragmatic interests or only ideological similarities.

Dr. Barak: One of the main differences between Al Qaeda and ISIS, is the fact that al Qaeda is more pragmatic. It's willing to be more patient and realistic if it helps them achieve their goals. One of the most important documents that Al Qaeda ever published that is still relevant today, is its manifesto called General Guidelines of Jihad that was created by Ayman Zawahiri in 2013. The same guidelines were published by AQIS and AQAPl. The guideline defines the conditions in which its followers can cooperate with other Islamist movements that don't necessarily share its ideology, but share its goals of overthrowing their governments and establishing Islamic rule. So Al Qaeda is pragmatic enough to consider cooperation with some groups, while ISIS refuses to cooperate with anyone. ISIS sees reality as black and white, 'you're either with us or against us'. ISIS has even executed its own followers when they disagreed with their caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.A good example of this difference between the two groups has been Al Qaeda’s alliance with the Taliban. It's a very important alliance for Al Qaeda and some of its leadership is in Afghanistan. Today there are around 300-400 Al Qaeda members there, thanks to the shelter provided by the Taliban. They have been staying under the radar from the international community, because they don’t want to ruin the Taliban’s efforts to rehabilitate Afghanistan. They understand that the Taliban need to stabilize the state. When the Taliban retook power in 2021, Al Qaeda revived its project of building a strong base of operations in Afghanistan and is planning to use it to engage in external attacks against neighboring countries. After the Taliban’s victory, Al Qaeda published a document that shared its vision for how the Taliban should govern Afghanistan and one of their recommendations was that the Taliban should further develop their army and economy. They suggested that once the Taliban had achieved those objectives, they are obligated to help “oppressed” Muslims living in the surrounding countries. The Taliban also share a similar ideology with Al Qaeda, but their efforts are limited to the national borders of Afghanistan. However, there are indications that the Taliban is supporting the TTP that has intensified its terrorist attacks against the Pakistani rule since Nov 2022 following the collapse of the cease fire between the TTP and Pakistan.In Mali, Al Qaeda has managed to cooperate with many local tribes. The current situation in Mali is even worse than in 2013, when France had to send its special forces to help the government expel the jihadists. Today, you can find many Al Qaeda strongholds in Mali, thanks to their strong relations with the tribes there. Since the French withdrew their forces, there has also been a strong presence of other jihadist groups, especially “Jammat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin”. Their leader said the French withdrawal was a big victory, comparable to the Taliban's success in forcing the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan. Once France withdrew, they were replaced by the Wagner Group (a Russian paramilitary organization linked to the Kremlin), so now Al Qaeda is fighting the Russians. So they are targeting every foreign group inside Mali.

Platform: In light of recent developments in Sudan, what are your assessments regarding the emergence of radical jihadist groups there? What factors have contributed to their resurgence, and what are the potential implications for regional stability?

Dr Barak: I think it's too early to be able to confidently predict what will happen in Sudan. Anytime you have political instability in a country, there are also opportunities for radical organizations to exploit the situation to increase their influence and power. In November of 2022, an Al Qaeda member named Abu Hudhayfah al Sudani published an essay calling for muslims in Sudan to establish strongholds there and focus on targeting the Sudanese regime. We can learn a few lessons from this essay. First, maybe there is currently no stronghold in Sudan as we assumed, otherwise, why publish this essay? Secondly, we see that the jihadists are highly motivated to exploit this situation and recruit followers. So maybe they've built a cell since November, maybe not, but there is an intention by the jihadists to take advantage of the political instability there. 

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