The attack in Jerusalem yesterday that killed four young Israeli soldiers has been claimed in a circulated statement by a Palestinian group calling itself the “Baha’ Alyan Groups.” Its statement of responsibility can be read below, with brief explanatory notes in square brackets:
“The Martyr Baha’ Alyan Groups
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:
‘Fight them: God will torment them at your hands and ruin them, giving you victory over them and healing the hearts of believing people’ [Qur’an 9:14].
Masses of our defiant people, our people on ribat in Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem]. With all pride and honour, in the highest signs of glory and greatness, from the pure land of Palestine, where al-Faruq Omar [Omar bin al-Khattab, the second Caliph after the Prophet’s death] cried Allahu Akbar, we present to you in the Martyr Baha’ Alyan Groups:
Our martyrdom operative commando son Fadi Ahmad al-Qanbar, son of Jabal al-Mukaber, who carried out the major truck operation that brought down by God’s help and power more than 30 Zionist soldiers among the killed and wounded, and prompted 300 others to flee like frightened rats. This operation that came as an extension of the heroic acts of the commando sons of al-Quds [Jerusalem] in the al-Quds Intifada, the last of whom was the martyr hero Masbah Abu Sabih the lion of al-Aqsa who brought down the occupying Zionists.
Indeed we in the Martyr Baha’ Alyan Groups, as we pledge to our people to move forward on the path of the martyrs and prisoners, affirm the following:
1. This operation is not the first our groups have carried out, and a powerful stream of major operations will follow it, supporting our Quds, in revenge for our noble [/free] people, and as a promise to our martyrs and prisoners.
2. The Martyr Baha’ Alyan Groups is a contingent of the youth heroes of Palestine, who have arisen heeding the call of their Aqsa and land, and they are not affiliated to any groups outside Palestine, and indeed the lies of the occupation are nothing but a failing attempt to distort the resistance of our intrepid people.
3. We call on our people and Ummah to gather around the choice of resistance, and rise up to support al-Aqsa, the holy sites and the noble [/free] people of Palestine.
4. The occupation must wait for surprises, and let it look for its weak flanks and await the coming knight of Palestine.
al-Quds is free for us…The resistance is our right
At your service al-Aqsa…At your service Palestine.
The Martyr Baha’ Alyan Groups
Bayt al-Maqdis- Palestine
Monday, corresponding to 9 January 2016 CE.”
For context, Baha’ Alyan is a Palestinian who carried out a stabbing and shooting operation on an Israeli bus in October 2015 alongside one Bilal Ghanem. Alyan was killed by Israeli security forces, thus the widespread commemoration of him as a ‘martyr’ in Palestinian discourse. Masbah Abu Sabih, referenced in the statement, was an East Jerusalem resident who killed two Israelis in a shooting spree in October 2016.
Ideologically, there is nothing particularly new or unusual about this claim of responsibility from an otherwise previously unknown group. It fits in with standard Palestinian discourse about ‘resistance’ with some Islamic flavouring. The reference in particular to “lies of the occupation” attempting to “distort the resistance of our intrepid people” most likely alludes to some quick Israeli attempts to pin this attack on the Islamic State or characterize it as somehow being inspired by/in support of the Islamic State, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather confidently asserted in the aftermath of the attack. No meaningful evidence has been brought up to support these assertions. Netanyahu may simply be exploiting the opportunity to pin it on the Islamic State in some way in an attempt to gain more international sympathy at a time of anxiety on account of the UN Security Council Resolution against Israeli settlements that the U.S. failed to veto.
To be sure, Islamic State supporters do exist in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, but the most reliable indicator of an Islamic State role in some way is a claim of responsibility, particularly in light of this claim circulated in the name of a different group. None has been forthcoming. Of course, the Islamic State has almost certainly carried out operations it has not officially claimed, but sound reasons for the lack of a claim can usually be identified. For example, the recent bombing in the north Aleppo countryside town of Azaz that killed dozens of people has not been claimed, even as the Islamic State is the only reasonable suspect in this case. It is likely for the Azaz incident that claiming the operation would not suit its propaganda purposes, considering that it simply involved the clear mass killing of ordinary Sunni Muslim civilians.
In this case, however, there should be nothing to hold the Islamic State back from claiming an operation, if this attack is actually the work of an Islamic State operative/supporter acting in the interest of the Islamic State and all signs supposedly point to that. After all, the Islamic State devoted a media campaign in late 2015- primarily in the form of a flood of videos from its various provincial media offices– to denouncing Israel and trying rather unsuccessfully to ride the wave of Palestinian rage and attacks that mostly took place in the form of stabbings. Urging foremost Palestinians themselves to take up jihad against Israel is part of the reasoning of an article in the Islamic State newsletter al-Naba’, which in March 2016 argued that “God Almighty has ordered the believers to head in their jihad to the nearest of them from the disbelievers, in the framework of their fighting the mushrikeen [idolaters] entirely…so the Muslims under the rule of the Jews begin by fighting them, and the people of al-Sham [Syria] begin by fighting the Nusayri taghut [Alawite regime] and others beside it from the categories of the apostates like the Sahwa forces and the PKK…”
The article itself is a broader attack on the notion of prioritizing the cause of Palestine above all others for the Muslims as Arab nationalists, leftists and others have done. Jihad against the Jews in Palestine, it argues, must aim, like all other jihad, to implement God’s law and realize Islamic monotheism. The article sticks by the Islamic State’s general principle that fighting apostate rulers is more important than fighting people born as disbelievers and asserts that should distinction of land give precedence to choice of jihad then the jihad to free Mecca and Medina (Islam’s two holiest sites) from the ruling Saudi family has precedence over all other lands. Even so, the “lawful jihad” will fight the Jews in Palestine as well as fighting the idolatrous tyrants and their apostate followers at the same time, “and likewise the Crusaders and all the mushrikeen in the world. As for limiting the jihad to the Jews only, it is replacing God’s law, and following the whims of the tyrants who want to prevent the Muslims from waging jihad against the mushrikeen and apostates in the lands they rule.”
It could perhaps be argued that the Islamic State wants to preserve operational security in not claiming this attack, but that seems unlikely. A simple claim without too much detail can suffice, peradventure gaming the media in the form of a ‘source’ speaking to its auxiliary outlet Amaq News.
Overall, support for the Islamic State as an expression of Palestinian militancy remains a very minor phenomenon, primarily confined to small pro-Islamic State groups in Gaza. Another notable instance of supposed Islamic State inspiration for an attack inside Israel itself- namely, the shooting in Tel Aviv in June 2016- did not yield conclusive evidence for the assertion, with both Hamas and Islamic State being pointed to as influences in rather sketchy reporting.
None of this means that there should be complacency, but the extent to which the Islamic State and its ideology characterize Palestinian violence against Israel should not be exaggerated. Wider notions of ‘resistance’, a culture of glorification of ‘martyrs,’ Palestinian nationalism and other Islamist currents play a far more important role in the phenomenon. The most important advice for the observer is to wait and see if the Islamic State itself says anything about this particular incident or an incident in general and issues a claim, as its record of claimed responsibility for attacks in the West and other countries around the globe has proven to be remarkably reliable.
Update (10 January 2017): A colleague, Amarnath Amarasingam, also correctly points out to me that the attacker in this case and Baha’ Alyan are both of the Jabal al-Mukaber area. This seems relevant in assessing the credibility of the claim put forth in the name of “The Martyr Baha’ Alyan Groups.”
Worth noting also (as a couple of readers have also alluded to) is that a commander in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has claimed the attacker was a member of the PFLP. The attack is portrayed in this case as revenge for a man called Omar al-Nayef, who was assassinated in the Palestinian embassy in Bulgaria in 2016.
Another piece of info worth addressing is an item (see below) posted on 10 January 2017 from the Telegram channel of the pro-Islamic State Gaza activist group al-Nusra al-Maqdisia, which described the attacker as “one of the supporters of the Islamic State in Bayt al-Maqdis.” It is worth noting in any case that al-Nusra al-Maqdisia is not an official channel, and as of the time of writing (evening of 10 January 2017) no official Islamic State material corroborates the claim. Again, this shows that the most reliable method for determining any kind of Islamic State role would be something from Islamic State’s official outlets.