Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot revealed earlier this month that Israel was asked by Egypt in 2015 to conduct airstrikes against Islamic State targets.
“There aren’t many countries in the world that know how to locate targets the size of a podium and to put a missile on a target in a 1,000 kilometer radius around Israel. Our enemies saw it, the Russians saw it, the Americans saw it. The ones who know best how much the IDF works in the Middle East are the ISIS men, since they paid the price of hundreds dead and wounded, and they knew,” he stated.
Yet despite the many military blows that Salafi jihadist entities have absorbed over the years—both ISIS and Al Qaeda—both have been able to survive and create new threats due to their ideology, which cannot be bombed out of existence.
In recent days, the Kurdish-led autonomy in northeast Syria announced that it will begin to hold trials for ISIS members who remain under Kurdish guard and who come from many states around the world.
Meanwhile, the new leader of Al-Qaeda, Saif al-Adel, who arrived in Afghanistan from Iran in November 2022, represents a development that has significance for Israel, according to Michael Barak, senior researcher and head of the Global Jihad Research at the International Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) and and a lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University, Herzliya.
“This is significant because al-Adel is in very good contact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC),” Barak told JNS. “It’s a relationship that goes back to the 1990s. Al-Adel has a team behind him. And Al-Qaeda and Iran have cooperated in the past—Iran can use Al-Qaeda to launch attacks against Israel while denying their involvement.”
In November 2022, an Israeli businessman in Georgia was the target of a Pakistani terror squad affiliated with Al Qaeda. The squad had traveled to the country under Iranian orders, according to media reports. Israeli and Georgian intelligence agencies worked together, reportedly, to foil the plot.
In September 2021, media reports said that Al-Qaeda’s number two, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was allegedly assassinated in Tehran by Israeli agents.
“Al Qaeda still has some of its leadership in Iran,” said Barak. “With Al-Adel now trying to strengthen his status within Al-Qaeda, this organization poses more of an external threat to Israel than ISIS.”
Meanwhile, ISIS, according to Barak, is far from vanishing. Its strongest areas these days are on the African continent, particularly the Sahel region, and Afghanistan.
“Africa has weak and failed governments. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban does not control all of the country. Into these power vacuums, ISIS enters,” said Barak.
Dina Lisnyansky, an expert on Islamic issues in Europe and Eurasia and a researcher of radical movements in Islam who teaches at Tel Aviv and Reichman Universities as well as Shalem College, said that after the fall of ISIS’s caliphate in 2019, the movement became a decentralized global terror network working with local partners—much like Al-Qaeda before it.
“ISIS, unlike Al-Qaeda, never actually declared itself to be a global jihadi movement. It was a political entity. While Al-Qaeda’s goal was first to eliminate ‘near enemies’—Arab and Islamic governments deemed as puppets of the West—and then set up a caliphate, ISIS wanted to do both at the same time, and already had built an Islamic State,” she said.
That state at its peak in 2014 spanned extensive territories, covering half of Syria and almost half of Iraq, controlling a populace of millions. ISIS had already begun to build civilian infrastructure and had state budgets, going far beyond military-terrorist objectives, said Lisnyansky.
These days, after the caliphate’s fall, ISIS is dispersed around the world, competing with and combating Al-Qaeda. In Africa, she said, the two Salafi jihadist organizations largely divided the continent into east and west, with ISIS taking the latter.
Closer to home, ISIS is stubbornly remaining in place in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, despite considerable progress made by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Egyptian military. According to Barak, despite Egyptian declarations about the elimination of ISIS, “it still remains there.”
“Sisi has strengthened the economy in Sinai, and targeted ISIS’s recruitment by building an important organization called the Union of Sinai Tribes, which is an alliance of some 20 Bedouin tribes. It unites most of the tribes in Sinai, and promotes allegiance to the Egyptian state,” said Barak.
With Sisi seeking to boost Egyptian patriotism and identity among Sinai Bedouin, his goal is to recruit local partners in the war against ISIS, and undermine support for it. Barak described the initiative as fairly successful, adding that it was accompanied by infrastructure works, school building, and more government efforts on the ground. Nevertheless, ISIS remains a problem in northern Sinai, particularly near Rafah, which is on the border with Gaza, he said. “It’s weakened significantly, but still there,” he said.
According to Lisnyansky, the Egyptian army did indeed go “all out” against ISIS in Sinai, as part of Egypt’s goal of protecting its tourism industry on the peninsula and to stop the jihadists from threatening the national economy.
“Tourism is the most important industry in Egypt,” she said.
According to Lisnyansky, “Egypt reportedly received assistance from Israel in this effort in 2015.”
Nevertheless, in recent months ISIS has reemerged just west of the Rafah border crossing, she stated, carrying out attacks on Egyptian security personnel and civilian infrastructure sites.
“It means that ISIS continues to exist there,” said Lisnyansky, adding that some local Bedouin have extensive drug, human and arms trafficking trades in Sinai, and that terrorism is never far behind such criminal activities.
Meanwhile, in Syria and Iraq, once ISIS’s core areas, the organization still maintains some 10,000 operatives, according to Barak, who have entered into guerilla warfare mode, using urban areas as bases from which to launch attacks.
“They target Shi’ite militias, and also conduct economic war, striking pillars of the economy like power lines, agriculture and more—part of a scorched-earth campaign,” said Barak.
The Al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria, under Kurdish control, houses some 10,000 children of former ISIS families, and the terror movement is seeking to infiltrate the camp and “poison their minds for recruitment,” he cautioned. “This is a time bomb.”
According to Lisnyansky, ISIS squads remain highly active in Syria, where it still controls some territory, and could one day form new enclaves that join together for a new caliphate project.
“It’s not just squads—there are whole groups of people who continue to act on behalf of ISIS and as part of the original organization as well in Syria,” she said. “They have two enclaves in Syria where ISIS is not only active, but also controls the territories. These enclaves are under attack mainly by Assad right now, and of course, also by the American-backed Kurds, who suffered the most under ISIS.”
When it comes to Israel, ISIS and Al-Qaeda put a stress on the importance of attacking it, according to the terrorism researchers, but face major operational hurdles in this regard. Internally, they said, the threat of ISIS recruitment of a small but dangerous number of Arab Israelis remains substantial.
“ISIS and Al-Qaeda give apologetics for why they’re not focused on Israel, though they do mention a jihadist obligation to fight it and ‘liberate’ the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem,” said Barak.
“They state that because Israel is surrounded by a strip of countries and enemies of Salafi jihadists, which defend the border with Israel, they cannot launch attacks. This includes Jordan, Egypt and even Hezbollah, which is accused of guarding the border and preventing ‘holy fighters’ access to it,” he continued.
“They say that they will set up an Islamic Salafi jihadi base as soon as they can on Israel’s borders, and from there they will attack Israel, and that this is a highly important goals,” he said.
Lisnyansky stated that while most Arab Israelis have no affiliation to Salafi jihadists, there have been incidents bucking that trend, such as an entire family from Nazareth moving to the caliphate in Syria.
“Ideologically, certainly, ISIS positions Israel as a very coveted target. We have seen attacks carried out within Israel by Arab Israelis that ISIS took responsibility for, like the March 2022 Hadera shooting terror incident,” she said.
“ISIS has claimed responsibility for attacks that have occurred recently in Israel. It is competing with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to recruit terrorists in Israel,” said Lisnyansky.
Meanwhile, globally, both Barak and Lisnyansky said that Afghanistan is, once again, on the way to becoming an international terrorism hub, with ISIS and Al-Qaeda on track to being able to use it as a launch pad for attacks on the West.
While the Taliban is in conflict with a strain of ISIS in Afghanistan called ISIS Khorasan, the organization has been able to establish a foothold—while Al-Qaeda, for its part, is reemerging in Afghanistan with quiet Taliban support, they said.
The Taliban, for its part, is also moving closer to Hamas in order to send a message of solidarity with it, while within the Gaza Strip, Salafi jihadists, who once challenged Hamas, are today able to promote radical ideology against Israel and promote their ideas—so long as they do not criticize Hamas itself.
“These organizations are not sitting still. We are witnessing a return of the same loop, in which they use territories to promote terrorism against the West. They openly talk about their intentions to do so,” said Lisnyansky.