After Hamas’s deadly rampage on October 7, Israel was quick to compare the group to the Islamic State. “Same tactics, different names,” the Israeli government’s official account declared on X, formerly known as Twitter. “The world defeated ISIS. We will defeat Hamas.” The sentiment was understandable: Hamas’s unspeakable brutality in massacring some 1,400 Israelis, including women and children and the elderly, much of it gleefully captured on video, recalled the savagery and bloodlust of ISIS at its height. In the days after its attack, Hamas threatened to broadcast the execution of hostages, a reminder of ISIS’s darkest days.
Since October 7, there have been concerns that Hamas’s attack and the Israeli military’s response in the Gaza Strip could provide a window of opportunity for the global jihadi movement to revive itself after years of decline. Jihadi groups and their supporters have issued numerous calls for terrorist attacks on Jewish and Western targets, and so far, responsibility for at least one attack in Europe has been claimed in the name of ISIS. A protracted Israeli campaign in Gaza that takes the lives of thousands of Palestinian Muslims could well deepen feelings of resentment that groups such as ISIS have sought to exploit.
Yet it is important to recognize that Hamas and the global jihadi groups are deeply at odds ideologically. Indeed, in its early days, ISIS declared takfir, or excommunication, on Hamas for a host of perceived transgressions. It has also pointedly refrained from praising the October 7 attack. Al Qaeda, ISIS’s competitor for supremacy in global jihadism, celebrated it and called for widening the battle, although it also has a history of reproaching Hamas over their differences in ideology. The situation on the ground could change in ways that matter. The longer and bloodier the conflict becomes, the more it stokes anger among Muslims and lends credence to the jihadi worldview of an Islam pitted against the forces of unbelief. But ideological divergences will limit the extent to which jihadis will be able to seize this moment to reenergize their movement.
The central preoccupation of the global jihadis is warfare against the “apostate” rulers of the Middle East and their supporters. Today the main targets are the regimes of Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, among others. Groups affiliated with ISIS or al Qaeda have never been particularly active in the Palestinian territories, although the Palestinian issue features prominently in jihadi discourse. One al Qaeda slogan goes, “We are coming, O al Aqsa,” a reference to the mosque in Jerusalem that Muslims consider the third-holiest site in Islam and where clashes often break out between Muslim worshipers and Israeli security forces. In a famous oath recorded by Osama bin Laden in the lead-up to the attacks of 9/11, he addressed the United States, saying, “I swear by God almighty who raised the heavens without effort that neither America, nor anyone who lives in America, shall enjoy safety until safety becomes a reality for us living in Palestine and before all the infidel armies depart the land of Muhammad.”
Hamas was founded in 1987 as a Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organization that jihadis have condemned for its gradualist approach to Islamization and its willingness to operate within existing political systems. Despite such differences, there was a time when jihadi leaders praised Hamas for its armed resistance to the Jewish state. Bin Laden himself did so in December 2001: “Our fight does not differ from the fight of our brothers in Palestine such as Hamas. We fight … to relieve the oppression of the downtrodden in Palestine and elsewhere.”
Yet in 2006, Hamas participated in and won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, going on to form a unity government with Fatah, the dominant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Al Qaeda’s leadership erupted in condemnation. Bin Laden warned Hamas about the polytheistic nature of democracy, underscoring the “prohibition on joining polytheistic assemblies.” In a 2007 speech, he went so far as to say that the Hamas leadership, by embracing the Palestinian Authority and thereby acknowledging the “agreements” that recognize Israel’s right to exist (referring to the Oslo accords), had “forsaken their religion.” In the coming years, al Qaeda would also criticize Hamas for its failure to implement Islamic law in Gaza, for forging close ties with the Shiite Iranian regime in Iran, and for persecuting local jihadi groups in Gaza, such as Jund Ansar Allah and Jaysh al-Umma. (Palestinian Islamic Jihad is another paramilitary group operating in Gaza and the West Bank. It has no ties with al Qaeda or ISIS and is even closer to Iran than Hamas is.)
Al Qaeda was careful, however, not to write off Hamas entirely, adopting a policy of distinguishing between the political branch of Hamas and its armed wing, the Qassam Brigades. But there were slip-ups. In 2009, a senior al Qaeda commander named Mustafa Abu al-Yazid made the mistake of telling Al Jazeera, “We and Hamas share the same thinking and the same methodology.” After being publicly rebuked by a leading jihadi ideologue, the commander acknowledged that he had misspoken. Al Qaeda’s approach to Hamas, he explained, was to distinguish between Hamas as a political organization that had committed numerous errors and the righteous mujahideen fighting under Hamas’s banner.
Yet for the more hard-line thinkers in the jihadi movement, this compromise approach to Hamas did not work. For instance, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, an influential Jordanian ideologue and generally a supporter of al Qaeda, rejected the idea that one can distinguish between Hamas’s political establishment and its armed wing. When hostilities broke out between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2021, he publicly disputed the assertion that Hamas’s war dead were martyrs, writing online that “whoever is killed in the path of democracy and in support of a group that refrains from implementing the sharia and chooses democracy is not a martyr; rather, he is a corpse.” When al Qaeda issued a statement at the time saluting the “mujahideen” in Gaza and offering condolences to Hamas’s killed fighters, Maqdisi questioned whether al Qaeda had lost its way. How could al Qaeda praise Hamas, he asked, when it aligns itself with Iran and with Syria’s Assad and engages in democratic processes?
ISIS has even less tolerance for Hamas, which it considers an apostate group in its entirety. In its view, Hamas is a group not just undeserving of support but warranting outright takfir—an approach that reflects ISIS’s more fanatical adherence to the exclusivist doctrinal principles of Salafism with its emphasis on purifying the religion of all things that smack of “polytheism.”
Over the years, ISIS has routinely condemned Hamas. A 2016 editorial in ISIS’s Arabic weekly newsletter, al-Naba, rebuked “the apostate Hamas movement” for practicing “the polytheism of democracy” and failing to apply sharia law. “Jihad for the purpose of recovering Jerusalem from the hands of the Jews is not permissible,” the article asserted, “unless it be in the path of eliminating the rule of the idolatrous rulers there and establishing the religion there completely.” From ISIS’s perspective, establishing an Islamic state is manifestly not the objective of Hamas. Even if the Palestinian group managed to defeat Israel, this would only mean the substitution of one system of idolatrous rule for another.
The editorial further made clear that the priority, both strategic and theological, ought to be on fighting the regimes of neighboring Arab countries. Fighting them takes precedence over fighting Israel as they are the protectors of the Jewish state and its enablers. Moreover, these rulers are considered “apostates” from Islam and not “original unbelievers” such as Jews, whose religion is for ISIS less offensive than the putative abandonment of Islam.
Hamas and global jihadi groups are deeply at odds ideologically.
Some of ISIS’s forerunners, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the one-time leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, developed the idea that the conquest of Jerusalem—meaning the destruction of the state of Israel—was a way off, belonging to a future stage of jihad. In one of his lectures, Zarqawi suggested that just as the great medieval Muslim warrior Saladin destroyed the Fatimid Empire in Egypt before he recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, getting to Jerusalem today required first battling the “apostates” collaborating with the Christians and Jews. Indeed, ISIS’s media apparatus has been loath to emphasize the priority of jihad in the Palestinian territories and has even acknowledged that it will not do so. The editorial in al-Naba, for instance, noted that unlike some Islamic groups, ISIS did not “exaggerate” the Palestinian cause.
For decades, it suggested, opportunistic political actors had made it into “the first issue of the Muslims” to the point where some treated it as an “idol.” This was wrong, ISIS contended, as no land ought to be placed above any other in terms of the priority of jihad. Five years later, another editorial in al-Naba reiterated that “the soldiers of the caliphate have not exaggerated the issue of Palestine and have not made it an exception among the issues of the Muslims.” Although the Palestinian issue mattered to ISIS, it was not something that ought to divert attention from important battlefields elsewhere.
ISIS’s activity in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as with al Qaeda’s, has been minimal but not nonexistent. In early 2022, ISIS claimed responsibility for a stabbing and ramming attack in southern Israel carried out by an Arab Israeli who had given allegiance to the caliphate.
Unsurprisingly, al Qaeda applauded the October 7 attack and cast it in the framework of a global jihad against the “Zionist-Crusader” alliance. Each of al Qaeda’s regional branches—in India, North Africa, the Sahel, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—issued statements of congratulations to the Palestinian “mujahideen.” Some named the Qassam Brigades specifically, but none of them, in keeping with official al Qaeda policy, applauded Hamas.
On October 15, an official statement was released by al Qaeda’s senior leadership, which celebrated the operation and called for a mass mobilization to aid in the fight. The intended mobilization would include opening new fronts along Israel’s borders and smuggling fighters into Gaza from Jordan and elsewhere to target “crusaders” and Israelis everywhere they could. In particular, the statement called on Muslims to “target Zionists on the streets” of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Emirates, Marrakesh and Rabat in Morocco, Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and Manama in Bahrain—the countries that normalized relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords in 2020 or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, were hoping to. The statement mentioned the “hero of Alexandria,” a reference to an Egyptian man who shot dead two Israeli tourists and their Egyptian tour guide on October 8.
It was not until October 19 that ISIS addressed the attack publicly in an editorial in that week’s issue of al-Naba. Even then, the essay did not mention the October 7 attack specifically, and it condemned Hamas by noting the folly of fighting “under the banner of the Iranian axis.” The editorial offered what it called a “practical plan” for putting an end to the “petty state of the Jews.” Such an effort would include not only fighting in the Palestinian territories but also targeting “the Jewish presence” throughout the world, in particular the Jewish communities of the United States and Europe. Eradicating the Jewish state would also require attacking the West and “the apostate Arab armies and governments” that support Israel’s existence. As for fighters in Gaza and the West Bank, the editorial called on them to “purify the banner” under which they fight—meaning embracing the version of Islam espoused by ISIS—and only then embarking on the path of jihad.
Like al Qaeda, ISIS wants to broaden the war to target just about everyone—Jews globally, the West, and Arab states. But unlike al Qaeda, ISIS expressed no support for the Palestinian militants on the ground, suggesting instead that they need to reform themselves. Although ISIS evoked sympathy for “our Muslim people in Palestine,” it did not project confidence that the Palestinians were on the right path.
Apart from words, global jihadi groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS have devoted few resources to the Palestinian cause and have little if any presence on the ground in Gaza or the West Bank. Hamas’s near-monopoly on the Palestinian Islamist militant scene likely precludes that al Qaeda or ISIS will play a significant role in any resistance to the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. Jihadi actors who are eager to join the fight there will likely face insurmountable obstacles in accessing the isolated strip. Even if foreign fighters do not join the fight in Israel or in Gaza, that does not mean jihadi violence cannot ignite elsewhere. Al Qaeda and ISIS have supporters across the Islamic world as well as in Europe and the United States, and some of them might very well respond to calls to commit acts of terrorism. In the case of ISIS, which commands a much larger network of support, the threat is greater.
On October 13, a Chechen immigrant who had pledged fealty to ISIS murdered a schoolteacher in France with a knife. And on October 16, a Tunisian immigrant shot and killed two Swedish nationals outside a soccer match in Belgium, identifying his motive as revenge for Koran burnings in Sweden and the recent murder of a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Chicago. ISIS’s media wing, for its part, claimed that the Tunisian attacker was responding to the group’s calls to attack citizens of countries fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It did not mention Israel or the Palestinian cause.
The war in Gaza may provoke individual jihadi sympathizers in the West to commit further violent acts. It is less likely that the Israel-Hamas war will energize the larger jihadi movement. ISIS’s leadership remains under assault or in prison in Syria, and the pace of the organization’s insurgent attacks there and in Iraq has slowed considerably. ISIS’s main presence today is in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan, not the Middle East. Al Qaeda likewise has a minimal presence in its former footholds in the region despite a fairly active affiliate in Yemen, and according to Washington, it has struggled to take advantage of the new Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda may be eager to profit from a new war between Israel and Hamas, but for the past decade, it has been less capable of inspiring international terrorism than ISIS. The problem for ISIS is that it has never embraced the Palestinian cause with the same fervor as its competitor al Qaeda and will not throw its support behind Hamas, the main Palestinian faction fighting Israel. Although ISIS would be happy to see terrorism against Jewish targets, it supports only what it deems “pure” jihad in the Palestinian territories, meaning jihad by those who adhere to its ideology. Unless al Qaeda or ISIS somehow establishes a foothold in the Palestinian theater, it is difficult to see the crisis in Gaza reviving the fortunes of either group.
-By Cole Bunzel.