A small but violent off-shoot of the Islamic State has taken root just north of the Israeli-Syrian border and may be planning to carry out large-scale terror attacks against Israel, the IDF warned on Wednesday.
The group, Shuhda al-Yarmouk, which the army believes is comprised of approximately 600 fighters, has taken up a position approximately 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) away from Israel within the Syrian Golan Heights.
Despite the terror organization’s relatively small size, the Islamic State-affiliated group possesses vast stores of weapons and poses a legitimate threat to Israel, a high ranking army officer told journalists on Wednesday.
Shuhda al-Yarmouk — the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, named after the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria — has taken over large swaths of territory from the al-Nusra Front and controls a population of approximately 40,000 Syrian civilians, the IDF said.
The IDF’s Northern Command fears that sometime in the future a car packed with explosives could be rammed through the border into Israel, explosive devices could be planted along the border fence or anti-tank missiles and rockets could be fired at Israeli vehicles and people, the military said, though the army did not see such an attack as imminent.
Nevertheless, the army has stepped up its security along the border fence to help prevent such an attack, putting in additional blocks along the border, adding armored units to the area and setting up additional security cameras in the region.
In 2013, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade claimed that it had no plans to attack Israel.
“We are only here to fight Assad; we want nothing from Israel, and we want Israel to know this,” Laeth Horan, a spokesperson for the group at the time, told The Times of Israel by telephone in Arabic.
“There is nothing between us and Israel. We only have demands of Assad, even after the war,” Horan said. “The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade has no international aspirations; we are only in conflict with the Assad regime.”
Since then, however, the group has affiliated itself with the Islamic State. Reports of the the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade’s allegiance to IS-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came out in late 2014, according to the US-based Carter Center thinktank.
Last month, the Brigade’s leader, Abu Ali al-Baridi, was killed in an al-Nusra Front attack, along with some of his top commanders.
The group gained notoriety in 2013 when it kidnapped a number of UN observers from an outpost in the Golan Heights.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot visited the Galilee and Golan Heights on Wednesday, along with head of the Northern Command Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the former head of Military Intelligence, in order to hear from regional commanders about the threats facing Israel, namely the Islamic State group and Hezbollah.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, released an audio recording threatening Israel with attacks by the terrorist group’s fighters on Saturday night, the first such explicit threat by the group’s leader made against the Jewish state.
“Palestine will not be your land or your home,” al-Baghdadi said. “It will be a graveyard for you. Allah has gathered you in Palestine so that the Muslims may kill you.”
Eisenkot noted al-Baghdadi’s message to Israel the next day. “You don’t need to be an especially clever strategist to understand the precariousness of the current time period,” Eisenkot said, during a cermony marking the creation of the IDF’s new Commando Brigade. “We saw the threats [Saturday night] from the leaders of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.”
The IDF has also not discounted the possibility of Hezbollah reprisals for the assassination of the terrorist Samir Kuntar. Although attributed to Israel, the IDF has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel with an “inevitable” response to Kuntar’s death.
In response to Nasrallah’s threat, made during a television broadcast in Lebanon, Eisenkot shot back at the terror leader on Monday, promising swift retaliation to any attack.
“Even across our borders, in the face of the threats heard in the north, we stand ready for every challenge. And as we’ve proven in the past, we know how to find those who wish us ill. Our enemies know that if they try to disturb the security of Israel, they will be faced with harsh results,” the army chief said.
Since Nasrallah made his threat, local residents of the Israeli communities surrounding the Lebanon border have noted an increase in military activity in the area and claim army officers have directed them to stay away from their open fields closest to the border fence.
Ilan Ben Zion and Agam Rafaeli contributed to this report