Late Friday night, the Islamic State for the first time claimed responsibility for an act of terrorism in Israel, proclaiming that its members had carried out the stabbing and shooting attacks near the Old City of Jerusalem in which 23-year-old Border Police officer Hadas Malka was killed.
Israeli and Palestinian officials doubt the veracity of the claim. Israeli officials believe no organized terror group was behind the attacks. But the IS claim, nonetheless, points to a new strategy — a declaration of intent — from the group that has carried out attacks across Europe in recent months.
In an official statement circulated by media outlets as well as by Islamic State’s own Amaq News Agency, it boasted that three “lions of the caliphate carried out a blessed attack on a gathering of Jews in al-Quds,” referring to Jerusalem by its Arabic name.
The three Palestinians were given IS-style nicknames: Abu Bra’a al-Maqdisi, Abu Hassan al-Maqdisi and Abu Rabah al-Maqdisi. And the statement warned that this would “not be the last operation” against Israeli targets.
Islamic State usually issues claims of responsibility for attacks in which it was directly involved, to which its leadership was connected, or which were carried out on its behalf. It is far from clear that any of these links apply to Friday’s attack. The giving of nicknames to the attackers also suggests a rather desperate effort to highlight a purported IS role.
For its part, Hamas has dismissed the IS claim, and said one of the attackers came from its ranks, while the other two were tied to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP, similarly, issued a claim of responsibility, declaring that the attacks were “in response to the crimes of the occupation forces and to the harm caused to the holy sites.”
The PFLP specified which two of the assailants — Adel Ankush, 18, and Bra’a Saleh Atta, 19 — were its members, and said both had served time in Israeli jails for security offenses. It did not associate itself with the third, Usama Ahmed Atta, 19.
All three hailed from the same Palestinian village, Deir Abu-Mashal near Ramallah.
The Israeli defense establishment stressed that the three were known for previous “terrorist activity,” but had no known links to Islamic State. It said the coordinated attacks, a short distance apart, bore all the characteristics of a “local” terrorist cell, operating independently without the guidance of external factors.
The nature of the attacks does not indicate an extraordinary level of sophistication — two men with knives, a third with an automatic weapon, attacking seconds apart.
Still, even if the statement by the Islamic State is unreliable, it is unusual. IS does not tend to claim responsibility for just any attack, certainly not in its official media outlets.
And the fact is that there has been a significant increase in the number of Palestinians arrested by Israel and the Palestinian Authority who are affiliated with Islamic State. According to a 2015 report by Amos Harel in Haaretz, there were 12 Islamic State activists detained in Israeli jails at the time. By 2016, the number had jumped to 83.
Islamic State affiliates have claimed rocket fire into Israel, and previous terror attacks in Israel have been Islamic State-inspired. At least two 2016 attacks were inspired by Islamic State, according to Israeli officials: a January 1, 2016, shooting in Tel Aviv that left two bar-goers and a cab driver dead, and a truck attack in Jerusalem in December 2016 in which four soldiers on a tour of cultural sites were slain.
The PA has stepped up efforts to counter IS activity in the West Bank, in response to the jihadist group’s attempts to orchestrate out attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem via guidance from afar — that is, through internet training of some sort, including via the Dark Net. Israel and the PA have thwarted many such plots.
In March 2016, Islamic State published an article explaining why it was not attacking the Jewish state, arguing that the Palestinian issue should not get preferential treatment. Whether or not IS was indeed instrumental in Friday’s murderous attack, its statement claiming responsibility underlines that things have changed.
Jerusalem, and especially the Damascus Gate area, have long been an attractive target for terrorists from various organizations. After all the recent defeats Islamic State has suffered in the battlefields of Syria and Iraq recently, it would not come as a surprise to see it shift some of its focus to Jerusalem.