WASHINGTON — Despite an audio recording that surfaced last week of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State terrorist group, threatening to turn Israel into “a graveyard” for Jews, one of Washington’s leading counterterrorism experts doesn’t think such rhetoric forebodes any shift in the organization’s agenda.
Amid a series of recent setbacks — including losses on the ground in Iraq and Syria and an intensified international effort to stem the flow of foreign fighters and funding — Baghdadi’s message comes at a time when the Islamist terror cell needs to inspire Salafi jihadists to “circle the wagons around a common enemy,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“In a time like this it’s important for a leader to stand up and say, ‘We’re not actually being defeated and we’re not down,'” Levitt told The Times of Israel. “One of the things you say to radical extremists in an Islamic context to galvanize them is that you’re going to target Israel.”
“Much like al-Qaeda, who used to be the big, sexy jihadi group on the block and would often say things about Israel,” he added, “they would actually do very little about it. We are now likely in a similar situation with the Islamic State.”
Baghdadi’s invocation of Israel, however, may have more resonance today, as the Palestinian issue has steadily been losing attention to other conflicts in the region, including the Syrian refugee crisis, Iran’s attempts to acquire nuclear weaponry and the international fight against IS, according to Levitt.
With the wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks continuing unabated, Levitt posited that IS leaders see an opening to claim credit — regardless of whether it is true or not — for something for which they have become notorious: inspiring others to carry out attacks of their own.
“I’m not saying that the Islamic State is inspiring these attacks, but you can see them saying that this is more people doing the types of things that they’re calling for,” he said. “As Palestinians are feeling desperate, and receiving some verbal support for organizing knife attacks, IS may well see this trend as continuing down a continuum of their own type of operation.”
Nevertheless, Levitt doesn’t find reason to believe the core IS will actually be doing anything about the Palestinian issue or Israel. Rather, he sees Baghdadi’s language as bombast that is “the expected rhetoric that comes in this kind of situation, when they are facing setbacks” and that it’s also “important for IS not to be seen as uninterested in this issue.”
“What Baghdadi said should certainly be taken with some grains of salt,” he added. “It’s less indicative of their agenda toward Israel than it is revealing of other things.”
Baghdadi’s threats came on December 26, just as Iraqi forces were inching toward retaking the central city of Ramadi, which fell under IS control in May 2015. By December 30, an Iraqi flag was raised over the main government complex, according to Iraqi Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, signaling IS’s defeat.
Although patches of IS resistance remain in the beleaguered city, the loss of that territory is a stumbling block and public embarrassment for the Islamist group hoping to re-establish the caliphate, according to Levitt.
Does IS pose a threat to Israel?
While IS is a “dangerous and formidable terrorist group, and it is on two Israeli borders… it is just a terrorist group and no terrorist group is an existential threat to Israel,” Levitt said. “Israel knows how to handle terrorism quite well.”
According to Levitt, there are three main issues Israel faces in its counterterrorism efforts against the Sunni-jihadist cell: an IS core presence in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, IS affiliates in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, and a domestic challenge, as foreign fighters have been leaving to join IS from Gaza, the West Bank and Israel proper.
A nuclear Iran is ‘1,000 times more dangerous’ than IS
The larger concern for the Israeli security establishment is the Iran-Hezbollah axis, who pose a “much more formidable strategic threat,” Levitt said. Indeed, this past summer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a nuclear Iran was “1,000 times more dangerous” than IS.
“But it’s not an either/or,” Levitt sought to clarify. “The Israelis can be more concerned about Iran and Hezbollah and still be fully prepared to deal with the Islamic State.”