Al-Qaeda’s Media War on Israel and the US Over Gaza Invasion
Conflicts between Israel/Palestine and Washington’s support for Jerusalem have long been used as a means of justifying violence in propaganda produced by Al-Qaeda (AQ). These factors have also been cited as primary motivations behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the September 11, 2001, attacks, and several other AQ operations that have come in the decades since. The October 7 Hamas assault and Israel’s subsequent invasion and bombardment of Gaza have once again galvanized the AQ organization and its various branches to produce another potent propaganda campaign that is intended to incite attacks against Jewish and Western targets globally, offering followers instructions on how to join the fight in Gaza, and potentially even plan external attacks. These attacks could come in the form of previous AQ-directed incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting of January 7, 2015, in Paris and the December 6, 2019 assault on Naval Air Station Pensacola in Pensacola, Florida. The importance of the Israel-Palestine conflict to the AQ organization and movement is difficult to overstate. Abdallah Azzam, a role model for Osama bin Laden and a key figure in the rise of global jihadism, was himself a cleric of Palestinian origin, and Israel has remained a central focus on AQ since its nascency.
AQ Narratives on Israel’s War in Gaza and US Support
Al-Qaeda’s General Command lauded the October 7 Hamas attacks as a “turning point in history” that presented a “once in a lifetime opportunity for Muslims to liberate Palestine.” A November online statement released by al-Qaeda General Command renewed previous calls to attack Americans, Israelis, and institutions related to both countries around the world. “May God bless all the mujahideen and marabout who refused to flee from the land of faith and its sacred soil,” the statement begins, referring to the Palestinian people. “May God reward you for your affliction for the thousands of believing souls among our brothers and sisters who have been martyred in the American-Zionist bombing campaigns on hospitals, schools, and mosques in Gaza,” the statement continues.
The statement calls for, among other things, media attention toward the events occurring in Gaza. “We challenge the world to publish honest pictures [about the fighting],” the statement said, ending with the following quote: “O sons of the Ummah from the Muslim communities amongst the arrogant West: your opportunity today to support your brothers in great. So, you must kill and abuse the Zionists, but do not consult anyone in killing them or destroying their property.”
The ongoing conflict is being used to construct narratives in the African subcontinent. By October 13, the sentiments expressed in AQ General Command’s response to the October 7 attacks were variously echoed by al-Qaeda factions operating in East Africa and the Sahel. Somalia’s al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s largest and wealthiest affiliate group, released a documentary in October claiming that as many as 10 al-Qaeda fighters were present during the events of the 1993 incident known as ‘Blackhawk Down’. This appears to be an effort to construct a narrative that al-Qaeda has consistently fought against the United States for the past thirty years, framing the 1993 battle in Mogadishu within the same context as the current war in Gaza. The group has also hosted rallies involving locals in support of Palestine. Moreover, a recent report by GNET demonstrates how al-Shabaab is using social media to capitalize on the ongoing war in Gaza by drawing parallels between it and the Somali civil war as anti-imperialist struggles.
Elsewhere, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based group that has fought against both Saudi forces and the Iranian-backed Houthis in the country’s ongoing civil war, released a statement praising Hamas’ “brave attack” on October 7. Its statement called on the people of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to remove the “agent leaders of the west and east” from their path, a sentiment derived from the common al-Qaeda narrative that Arab state leaders are agents of foreign powers such as the United States and Iran. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) also praised the October 7 attacks with the “utmost joy, pleasure, delight, and happiness,” casting the fight as one front in a "global war against Muslims.” These statements are potentially indicative of a convergence of extremist narratives with broad-ranging geopolitical consequences.
Recruitment, Calls to Incite Violence, and the Threat of Directed Attacks
Since October 7, Al Qaeda has used the fighting in Israel and Palestine to not just inspire those already within its ranks, but also as a call to action for its supporters and potential supporters globally, including those in Europe and North America. Advocacy organizations and law enforcement in multiple major cities have reported a rise in antisemitic incidents and violence since the execution of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war against Hamas. Arrests have even been made recently in the West against AQ supporters sharing propaganda materials.
In Somalia, Al-Shabaab declared that the ongoing war in Gaza should be “not just the battle of the Islamic factions in the land of Palestine in particular, but rather the battle of the entire Muslim Ummah,” adding that Muslims have an obligation to “gather and offer everything they can” in support of the struggle against Israel and its allies. In South Asia, AQIS Central Command published a three-page document calling on its global supporters to take up jihad, claiming that their distance from Palestine was no excuse for not joining the struggle in "every sea and sky”. The same branch called for supporters “to attack US, UK, and French citizens and interests in response to these countries' support of Israel against Palestine.”
These calls have coincided and been followed by an immediate surge in violence globally. In Egypt, a police officer “randomly” gunned down two Israeli tourists in Alexandria on October 9, just two days after the Hamas attack. Multiple Islamic State-inspired attacks have occurred across Europe and a number of governments in the West have warned about a growing terrorism threat.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have also endorsed specific acts of violence. In Montreal, Canada, there have been multiple reported shootings and firebombings targeting Jewish community buildings in the city. On November 7, the burned-out remnants of two Molotov cocktails were found to have charred the door of Beth Tikvah synagogue and a building across the street belonging to the Federation Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA), a prominent Canadian charity and advocacy group. On November 9, Montreal area Jewish schools Talmud Torah and Yeshiva Gedola were targeted in two separate night-time shooting incidents with no reported injuries. Yeshiva Gedola was targeted for a second time on November 12: a bullet casing was found on the scene and there are reports of a “suspicious car” fleeing the area. On November 16, the Montreal incidents prompted the Wolves of Manhattan, an Arabic language pro-AQ magazine, to release a statement “praising the heroic operations in the Canadian city of Montreal and (send) a message to the Western peoples”. The statement added that the publishers appreciate the “blessed” actions in Montreal and called for the conflict in Gaza to be fought on multiple fronts, adding “Your brothers in Gaza are seeking your help and calling on you to wage jihad”.
Although recent AQ propaganda has not resulted in a major attack as of yet, violence has been inspired by its Islamic State foe and the list of such incidents continues to mount. Given the extent of the ongoing war in Gaza and Israel’s intent to continue it into the foreseeable future, AQ may direct an attack or impel violence in the West and elsewhere. Given the broad geography of AQ and its affiliated groups, this could have broad global consequences.