6 November 2023
By: Guy Fiennes
A broad range of Islamist extremists (including proscribed terrorist groups) and militants have responded to Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel on October 7 and the subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza with statements of support for the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel. These responses ranged across proscribed Salafi-jihadist terrorist groups including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, to Islamist extremist state actors such as the Taliban and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Across this broad spectrum of actors there was uniform support for the justness of the Palestinian cause, and the framing of Hamas’ October 7 attack as a legitimate reaction to Israeli abuses against the Palestinians. All groups framed the attack as a victory for the ummah, or the worldwide Muslim community, and emphasised the links between their respective struggles and the Palestinian struggle. Many claimed the attack had exposed Israeli weakness, and proved true previous propaganda from Islamist extremist groups that the country was as precarious as a ‘spider’s web’.
However, there were also key divergences between these actors. Notably, some groups specifically named Hamas in their congratulatory statements, while others referred only to the Palestinian people, exemplifying ambivalent views of Hamas, which is a nationalist Islamist group, among Salafi-jihadists, who often view nationalism as a pernicious Western innovation.
Additionally, groups centred different ‘enemies’ in their propaganda. Groups affiliated with the so-called ‘Resistance Axis’, for example, blamed the United States and its Western allies, while al-Qaeda and its affiliates focussed their ire on ‘crusaders’, (al-Qaeda’s preferred shorthand for the West). On the other hand, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the proscribed terrorist organisation which governs parts of north-west Syria in defiance of the Russian-backed Syrian regime, said that Israeli war crimes were reminiscent of Russian war crimes against the Syrian people. Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (IS) criticised Arab states they are in direct conflict with such as Jordan and Egypt as agents of Israel, for their normalisation of relations with the country. IS Khorasan Province (ISKP) similarly criticised the Taliban, now in government, by implying they were seeking relations with Israel.
- While all the Islamist extremists monitored defended the October 7 attack and condemned Israel, responses varied between different types of actors based on their specific priorities and ideological frame. Groups often interpreted the events through the lens of their own worldview; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), for example, described the crisis as part of its war against ‘crusaders’ and ‘agent’ Arab states, while HTS likened the Israeli assault on Gaza to the Russian bombardment of northern Syria.
- While prioritisation differed between a focus on the ‘near’ and ‘far’ enemies, a common feature was explicit calls for violent attacks on Jews, embassies, or civilians in countries allied with Israel. For example, IS in their newsletter gave practical advice on how to carry out lone wolf attacks on Jewish targets.
- There are a number of ideological fault lines between these diverse movements, from their divergent views on the Iran-backed ‘Resistance Axis’, which AQIM and JNIM consider ‘evil’ but which includes groups such as the Houthis, Hezbollah and the IRGC, to their specific singling out of Hamas from the wider Palestinian cause.
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) is an affiliate of al-Qaeda based in Yemen which formed in 2009 after the merging of the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches. It exploited the Yemeni civil war to expand its influence in the country, fighting both the Iran-backed Shia militant group Ansar Allah, colloquially known as the Houthis, in the north and the Saudi-backed government in the south.
AQAP released a statement praising the “brave attack” which had exposed Israeli military power as a “mirage” and claimed it as a victory for the ummah and “our people” in Palestine in particular. The group called on the people of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, all countries which border Israel-Palestine, to support the Palestinians and to remove the “agent leaders of the west and east” from their path. This derives from the al-Qaeda narrative that Arab state leaders are agents of foreign powers like the US or Iran.
AQAP also referenced abuses of “the filthy and abominable Jews” against mosques and Palestinian prisoners. AQAP’s leader Khalid Saeed Batarfi called for the killing of Christians and Jews as well as UK and US citizens in retaliation to the Israeli assault on Gaza, and threatened another attack against the US, citing the example of 9/11.
Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabaab)
The East African al-Qaeda affiliate Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen congratulated the “brave heroes” of the 7 October attack, which they said had demonstrated the “weakness” of Israel. The group asserted that despite the physical distance between them and the Palestinians, they have the same ‘crusader’ enemy. They did not explicitly mention Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ, an Islamist militant group which also participated in the 7 October attack, proscribed in the UK, US and EU).
Al-Shabaab called on Muslims everywhere to support mujahideen “against the Jews and their hypocritical infidel allies.” The group noted how “crusaders” gathered in “every land where the cross is raised and idols are worshiped” in support of “Jewish aggressors.” They compared the exposure of Palestinian civilians to Israeli airstrikes to Somali civilians under US airstrikes.
A recent report by GNET demonstrated how al-Shabaab capitalised on the crisis to portray themselves as Hamas’ “brothers” in a shared struggle against colonial “oppressors”, drawing a parallel between Western support for the Somali government and Western support for Israel, and the plight of Muslims in Somalia and Muslims in Gaza. By embedding themselves in the pro-Palestine narrative, the group can grow its support amongst a wider domestic and international audience concerned with the Palestinian plight.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM)
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was originally the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a militant Islamist group which emerged in Algeria in 1998 during the civil war. They were declared a foreign terrorist organisation by the US in 2002 and have since expanded their influence into the Sahel region, particularly in northern Mali. Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM) is a coalition of al-Qaeda aligned militant groups which includes AQIM but is dominated by indigenous militant Islamist groups Ansar Dine and Macina Liberation Front. The groups controlled swathes of Mali until a joint French-African military operation in 2013 dispersed them into the countryside.
AQIM and JNIM issued a statement in which they praised the October 7 attack and expressed a desire to “liberate Jerusalem”. Unlike al-Shabaab, they explicitly praised Hamas, directing their “message of love and loyalty” to “our brothers in Palestine generally” but also Hamas’ military wing, al-Qassem Brigades, in particular. They encouraged further attacks against Jews, specifically from West Bank Palestinians, saying: “Rise up and fight the Jews, and those who protect the Jews.”
In an address to the ummah, the group echoed Hezbollah’s leader’s claim that Israel is as weak as a “spider’s web” and called upon Muslims to provide financial support to militant groups in Gaza so as to reduce their dependency on the “Iranian axis of evil”. Notably, other al-Qaeda statements did not explicitly reference Hamas and PIJ’s financial benefactor, Iran.
The statement claimed that the only thing standing between the ummah and Jerusalem was the Sykes-Picot borders, which formed the basis for the carving up of the Ottoman Empire into separate states after the First World War. This speaks to al-Qaeda’s belief that nationalism is a Western imposition which has divided and weakened the ummah, a belief not shared by Hamas, which is a nationalist (Palestinian) Islamist group.
Other Islamist groups
Islamic State (IS)
IS, which is proscribed in multiple states (and referred to legally in the United Kingdom as ISIL/ISIS) celebrated the October 7 attack and called for attacks against Jews worldwide. In an article named ‘Practical Steps for Fighting the Jews’ in their weekly newsletter al-Naba, they promised: “the Jews haven’t experienced the Holocaust yet.” They further called their followers to wage war against allies of the Jews and ‘apostate’ Arab states.
IS views Hamas as apostates and took nearly two weeks to officially react to the attack. The tone in al-Naba was less celebratory than in AQ statements. They did not mention Hamas nor use their name for the October 7 attack, ‘al-Aqsa Flood’. The IS newsletter encouraged attacks against Jewish targets worldwide, including in nightclubs and religious sites, whereas AQ focussed on attacking American and Israeli targets in the Middle East.
In Voice of Khorasan, the newsletter of ISKP, the Central Asian-based group criticised Muslim governments for direct or indirect normalisation with Israel. They also accused the Taliban, one of their key competitors in Afghanistan, of seeking diplomatic relations with Israel.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)
In a video response published by HTS entitled ‘Support for Our People in Gaza’, the proscribed terrorist organisation and al-Qaeda splinter which governs parts of north-west Syria in defiance of the Russian-backed Syrian regime declared its support for the Palestinian people and explicitly praised the al-Qassem Brigades. HTS characterised the October 7 attack as an act of Palestinians who “stood up against the Israeli killing machines.” They additionally compared Israel’s actions of “killing women and children, bombing mosques and hospitals” to Russia’s “barbaric” behaviour in Syria, which they described as a “criminal policy.” Russian airstrikes frequently target HTS forces.
HTS’ spokesperson said that standing with Gaza and Palestine was the responsibility of the ummah, while also criticising the ‘so-called Resistance Axis’, who, despite going on about the Palestinian cause, and having invested in it by “killing and displacing the Arab and Muslim people in the land of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen” were now “silent as a grave” and instead “bombing villages and towns in the north of liberated Syria” (i.e. HTS territory). Thus, while HTS also sees the Palestinian people as part of a common cause, it seeks to undermine Iran and the Resistance Axis’ role as supporters of the Palestinians, and emphasise the similarity between the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the Russian bombardment of northern Syria.
State-based and state-linked Islamist actors
The Taliban has controlled Afghanistan since August 2021 and is listed as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist Group’ by the US. Their response to the 7 October crisis was described by a former Afghani diplomat as “curiously muted and unusually restrained.” The Taliban declared solidarity with the Palestinian people following the 7 October attack but not with Hamas itself. They denied farfetched allegations that they intended to provide military support to Hamas following a post from a satirical account on X which purported to show the Taliban’s intention to invade Israel.
The Taliban condemned the “ongoing genocide” and said Israel’s actions amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity, in line with the response from other Muslim-majority states and prominent human rights organizations. Observers have noted the Taliban’s limited response, with one former member of parliament accusing the Taliban of “hollow words” and lack of action. The group warned that instability was likely to spread if violence continued, and called upon the international community to act beyond “mere condemnations”.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
The IRGC, which was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US in 2019 and has been described as the Iranian regime’s ideological army, is an armed Iranian institution under Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei with the objective of protecting Iran’s Islamist revolution and clerical rule. While a state-linked entity, it was characterised in one analyst’s report as “the mobilisation of a violent and extreme ideology”. The IRGC is a key vehicle for Iran’s patronage of Hamas and PIJ, which it considers part of their ‘Resistance Axis’ against Israel and the US. NB. the IRGC is not designated as a terrorist group in the United Kingdom.
Khamenei and other Iranian officials celebrated the attack and defended Hamas’ and the Palestinians’ right to target Israeli civilians as a “response to crimes” of the “Zionist usurper regime”, while simultaneously denying any Iranian involvement in the attack. The leader of the IRGC, Major General Hossein Salami, said that all anti-Zionist jihadist groups were aligned to support the Palestinians and liberate Jerusalem. IRGC Deputy Commander-in-Chief Ali Fadavi threatened to fire missiles directly at the Israeli port city of Haifa if Israel commences a ground invasion of Gaza. In a speech, Fadavi named Hamas and PIJ and said their “blessing” of an attack on 7 October had “shattered the Zionist regime’s power in the region” and owed to the sacrifice of Iranian martyrs in the Iran-Iraq war.
Iran views Israel and the US as its primary adversaries; the US has imposed sanctions on the IRGC and killed the leader of its ‘Quds Force’, the wing responsible for external operations, in a targeted airstrike in 2020, while Israel has struck Iranian targets inside Syria. Iranian officials frequently refer to Israel as a US ‘proxy’ and emphasized US responsibility in abuses of the Palestinians.
Hezbollah is a Shia militant Islamist group and a designated proscribed terrorist organisation by the UK, the US, Bahrain and others. It emerged following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, funded and trained by the IRGC. It has since become a ‘state within a state’ and forms part of Lebanon’s current government. Since 7 October, Hezbollah has been involved in rocket attacks on military targets, infrastructure and residential areas in northern Israel, while Israeli retaliatory strikes have reportedly killed nearly 50 Hezbollah fighters. The two parties fought a 34-day long war in 2006 that ended in a stalemate, despite Israel’s stated goal of neutralising the group.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah praised the 7 October attack, calling it a “divinely supported heroic operation, promising complete victory.” He called for the “Arab and Islamic nation and the free people around the world” to declare support for the Palestinian movement and Resistance movement, and said the attack was a message for countries that would normalise with Israel. US President Biden previously attributed the timing of the attack to Saudi Arabia’s nearing of a normalisation agreement with Israel, which would have facilitated military and intelligence cooperation between the ‘Resistance Axis’’ regional adversaries.
On 21 October, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem announced on Telegram that Hezbollah would ‘keep pace’ with the conflict, and escalate if events compelled them to, without specifying what steps would be taken. He implied that they would act if Israel conducted its ground invasion of Gaza, promising that that “the Israeli ground incursion into Gaza will be a graveyard for the enemy.” Israeli officials warned that Lebanon’s involvement would provoke a devastating retaliation. Lebanon is currently suffering from a severe economic crisis and a parallel political crisis, and many Lebanese fear that war would be catastrophic for the country.
Ansar-Ullah, (the Houthis)
Ansar-Ullah, colloquially known as the Houthis, are a militant Shia group that govern parts of northern Yemen. They are considered a key part of Iran’s ‘Resistance Axis’ and rely on Iran for support in their struggle against the Saudi and US-backed government in the south of Yemen. Their flag includes the slogans ‘death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews.’
On 10 October the Iran-backed Houthis threatened to partake in military action should the US join the Israeli assault on Gaza. Houthi Leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi said that they were in full coordination with the “axis of jihad” – referring to the IRGC, Hezbollah and Hamas, and that they would do everything they could to support the Palestinian people. On 31 October the Houthis claimed missile and drone attacks targeting Israel, effectively declaring their entry into the war.