Terrorism & Extremism

The Israel-Hamas War and Resurgent Jihadist Threats to Europe and the United States

Peter Smith, Lucas Webber
Sunday, February 18, 2024, 9:00 AM
Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have their disagreements with Hamas, but have capitalized on the Oct. 7 attack to inspire extremists to commit attacks.
Members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appear in a propaganda video. Photo credit: al-Malahem Media/AQAP via militantwire.com.

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Editor’s Note: The Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 2023, and the Israeli response have had dangerous echoes around the world. Researchers Peter Smith and Lucas Webber examine how al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and unaffiliated terrorists have seized on the attacks in their propaganda and to conduct, or attempt to conduct, attacks.

Daniel Byman


The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict has intensified tensions across the Middle East and added to the existing jihadist threat, with potential repercussions extending to Europe and the West. The rhetoric, failed plots, and successful attacks attributed to Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State since Oct. 7 demonstrate the ongoing potential for violence spurred on by the fighting in Gaza.

Hamas’s Attack Inciting Global Supporters

Hamas’s attack on Israel is the most devastating single day in the Jewish state’s history. After knocking out security cameras and automated machine guns and barraging the border with rockets, gunmen surged into Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking 240 more captive. Hamas has received a boost in popular support since Oct. 7, after which even groups like al-Qaeda, which typically have been hesitant to direct praise toward Hamas, have acknowledged the significance of the attack. In addition to the deaths Hamas inflicted on Israel, the staggering number of Palestinian deaths, including many children, from the Israeli response, is also causing widespread anger. The mounting devastation and death toll are an open wound for Hamas’s supporters in the West, leading to a spate of plots and attacks in response.

In December, four men alleged to be Hamas members were arrested in Germany and the Netherlands. Two Lebanese and one Egyptian citizen were arrested in Berlin, according to German prosecutors, for planning to attack Jewish sites across Europe. Previously, the same cell had been tasked with establishing a weapons cache for Hamas in Europe. The fourth man, a Dutch national, was taken into custody in Rotterdam. Authorities said the men “have been members of Hamas for years and participated in foreign operations,” specifically working with the military wing of Hamas, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. A statement from the Israeli prime minister’s office claimed that Israeli intelligence had linked the German and Dutch arrests to a plot to attack the Israeli Embassy in Sweden, as well as “the acquisition of UAVs and the use of elements from criminal organizations in Europe.”

Moreover, a series of incidents across North America and Europe have been linked closely to the Oct. 7 attack. In Germany, on Oct. 18, two individuals allegedly threw burning bottles filled with liquid at a synagogue in what police are calling an attempted arson. Fire also damaged the Jewish section of a cemetery in Vienna, Austria. A similar incident took place in Montreal, Canada, where local police reported a series of arson attempts outside a Jewish charity’s offices and a nearby community center on Nov. 9. Police also reported in January that a triple stabbing the month before in the Canadian city of Saguenay, Quebec, was being investigated as having a possible link to terrorism. The alleged perpetrator, Ahmed May, posted praise for Hamas on his Facebook profile the day before the stabbing. His lawyer, though, told Global News that the incident resulted from an argument among colleagues at the burger restaurant where he worked and was due to a “deteriorating work climate over several months.”

Al-Qaeda Adapting the Attack to Its Narrative

Al-Qaeda quickly attempted to use the Oct. 7 attack to inspire members of its regional branches and lone actors to take action in Europe and North America. A message released online by al-Qaeda General Command in November called for attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests around the world. “O sons of the Ummah from the Muslim communities amongst the arrogant West: Your opportunity today to support your brothers is great,” the statement read. “So, you must kill and abuse the Zionists, but do not consult anyone in killing them or destroying their property.”

Within days of the statement from its Afghanistan-Pakistan wing, other affiliates and branches had followed suit. Somalia-based al-Shabaab, believed to be the wealthiest and largest branch of al-Qaeda, put out materials stating that Muslims are obligated to “gather and offer everything they can” to support the Palestinian struggle. Al-Qaeda’s other branches also released statements in the same period, echoing and expanding on the sentiment. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) released a 19-page document on Oct. 16, telling readers to “wage jihad with your life, wealth, and tongue.” The document praised the attacks with the “utmost joy, pleasure, delight, and happiness” and pushed supporters to bring the fight to “every sea and sky.”

The message from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) lauded the “brave attack” of Oct. 7 in its statement, while challenging its supporters in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria to rise against the “agent leaders of the West and East.” It also released a nearly hour-long video with instructions for preparing a concealed explosive using over-the-counter ingredients and tools; the video invokes the example of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber,” who carried an improvised explosive concealed in his pants onto a plane in 2010. Suggested targets in the video include Air France and British Airways, as well as how to shape explosives for specific purposes, like damaging aircraft or carrying out an assassination.

The plight of Palestinians and America’s military and political support for Israel are part of al-Qaeda’s foundational narratives. These issues appeared among Osama bin Laden’s charges against the West, and the organization has long attempted to present an image of being the true protectors of the Palestinian people. In some of the group’s most successful and devastating attacks against the United States and U.S. targets, including the 1998 embassy bombings and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the group cited Palestine as an important motivating factor. Al-Qaeda has a muddled history of harsh condemnations of Hamas as well as periods of cooperation. When Hamas won the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, al-Qaeda’s leadership lambasted them for participation in “polytheistic councils,” and Osama bin Laden went so far as to say in 2007 that Hamas had “lost its religion” over Hamas’s participation in international diplomacy.

But after the attacks of Oct. 7, the organization’s General Command in Afghanistan and Pakistan released a statement calling the slaughter a “turning point in history” and suggesting that it presented a unique opportunity to liberate Palestine. It also asked for support from the Ummah to limit Iran’s influence on Hamas.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated media sources have reacted to actions taken in the West since October as well, including the arson attacks in Montreal. Wolves of Manhattan, an Arabic language pro-al-Qaeda magazine targeted at readers in the West, praised “the heroic operations in the Canadian city of Montreal.”

Lone-actor attacks inspired by propaganda can occur with little or no detectable warning. Historically, directed attacks—like the shooting at Air Base Pensacola in Florida or the Charlie Hebdo shooting in France—have been the most deadly, but attacks by inspired sympathizers are more difficult for security services and law enforcement to predict and prevent. As of yet, al-Qaeda’s calls for action have not resulted in a plot or an attack tied directly or indirectly to the organization.

The Islamic State’s Aggressive Approach

The Islamic State, its Afghanistan-Pakistan branch, and pro-Islamic State propagandists have taken a different position on the Israel-Hamas war. These actors have taken to directly criticizing Hamas and have been much more bellicose in threatening and calling for violence against Jewish and Western interests around the world. The Islamic State has already yielded greater success than al-Qaeda in its campaign to incite violence in Europe and the West.

The Islamic State views Hamas as apostates and tools of Shiite Iran. Notably, statements and media from pro-Islamic State sources cast Hamas as an impediment to rule by Islamic law and have even gone so far as to categorize them as the “Jews of Jihad,” according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

The Islamic State has sought to exploit hostile sentiments among Muslims over the bombardment and invasion of Gaza. In an editorial featured in its weekly al-Naba newsletter, “Practical Steps to Fight the Jews,” it called for “a serious and rapid field effort to target the Jewish presence in the entire world,” specifically urging attacks on “Jewish neighborhoods, in America and Europe, which constitute the backbone of the Jewish economy and the hotbeds of control in Western Crusader decision-making circles supporting the Jewish statelet.” Additionally, the article directs Islamic State followers “to target and attack Jewish and Crusader embassies everywhere.”

The Islamic State has issued calls to violence in other media as well. On Jan. 5, an audio statement by Islamic State spokesman Abu Hudhayfa al-Ansari, titled “And kill them wherever you find them,” introduced a potentially new campaign of violence, encouraging Islamic State members and supporters to target the “Jews, Christians or their allies, on the streets and roads of America, Europe, and the world.” He directed them to “detonate explosives, burn them with grenades and fiery agents, shoot them with bullets, cut their throats with sharp knives, and run them over with vehicles” to “let them know that their crimes in Palestine, Iraq, Sham, and other Muslim countries are being retaliated for in their homes in Washington, Paris, London, Rome, and other kaffir lands.”

The Islamic State’s followers in Europe were quick to mobilize in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s heavy military response. On Oct. 13, a Muslim Russian national stabbed a teacher to death outside a school in Arras, France; he made reference to Hamas and identified with the Islamic State in a video he posted before the attack.

Three days later, a Tunisian man fatally shot three Swedes in the Belgian capital of Brussels, stating in an online video that he was inspired by the Islamic State. In another video, the shooter pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader. The organization’s central media claimed the attack, saying it was in response to Sweden’s participation in the international coalition against the Islamic State. Investigators said Swedes were targeted specifically, likely over grievances from the Quran-burning incidents in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries last year.

A third attack took place near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Dec. 3, when a man inspired by the Islamic State wielding a knife and hammer killed a German tourist and injured two other people. A source close to the investigation said that the perpetrator acted in “reaction to the persecution of Muslims around the world” and that “he could not bear [the Eiffel Tower] being lit up in the colors of the Israeli flag.”

During morning mass at the Santa Maria church in Istanbul on Jan. 28, two masked assailants produced a gun and fired shots into the crowded church. The pair fled after the gun appeared to jam, leaving the scene with one person dead and another injured. Turkish officials soon claimed to have two suspects in custody and, only hours after the incident, the Islamic State released an official claim of responsibility, complete with a picture of the two shooters. By Feb. 4, a pro-Islamic State translation site released a message in Turkish claiming the attackers were “responding to the call of Islamic State” to target Jews and Christians and that “bullets tore through the body of one Christian infidel and wounded another as they performed polytheism rites in a church.”

Since Oct. 7, several Islamic State-inspired plots have been foiled and arrests made across Europe. One notable case involved an Islamic State in Khorasan province (IS-K)-linked plot possibly targeting cathedrals in Vienna and Cologne by Islamist radicals in Austria and Germany.

IS-K has been threatening Israel aggressively and working to incite supporters to attack Jewish and Western targets around the world. In the latest issue of its flagship English-language magazine, “The Voice of Khurasan,” it emphasized chastising Israel and included an English translation of al-Naba’s “Practical Steps to Fight the Jews.” Most concerningly, IS-K provided a full page of instructions in an infographic titled “Practical Ways to Confront the Jews,” which called for killing Jews wherever they can be found, conducting cyberattacks on pages affiliated with Jews, and participating in the Islamic State’s anti-Jewish propaganda campaign. In the infographic, IS-K provides ideas for weapons to use such as Molotov cocktails and homemade petrol bombs, guns obtained on the black market, crossbows, nail guns, pipe guns, knives, and vehicles. It recommends that its followers target popular tourist sites, universities, colleges, schools, and music events.

Since the mid-2010s, the Islamic State has out-competed al-Qaeda in inspiring and mobilizing its followers to violence and has posed a comparatively greater threat to European security. The Islamic State leveraged the establishment of its caliphate in Iraq and Syria and the subsequent U.S.-led military intervention to build momentum and incite its expanded supporter base to violence in the West. This cut deeply into al-Qaeda’s Western market share and took the wind out of its sails, with the organization struggling to contend with the Islamic State’s more bellicose and less restrained jihadist culture.

A New Motivation for Threats for the Foreseeable Future

The invasion of Gaza is proving to be a potent motivator for fueling hostile sentiments toward not just Israel but the West as well. Domestic and national security agencies are facing a diverse set of threat actors employing a range of tactics toward diverse targets—but typically directed at Israeli interests, Jewish institutions, and what the Islamic State views as symbols of Western complicity in the fighting.

Ideological and sectarian differences between Hamas, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State continue to pervade international jihadist networks’ responses, but all of the major franchises of these organizations are seeking to draw inspiration from the well of the conflict. Given how the war looks set to drag on for quite some time, the flow of incidents, calls for incitement, and potential attacks by these organizations are likely to continue.

Peter Smith is a researcher and journalist covering extremism and conflict throughout the world. His work has been published by Eurasia Net, Militant Wire, the Jamestown Foundation, and more.
Lucas Webber is a researcher focused on geopolitics and violent non-state actors. He is co-founder and editor at militantwire.com.

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