Regional / MENA
Al-Qaeda bid to exploit Muslim anger over Trump’s Jerusalem move increases risk of attack against Western targets over coming months
Al-Qaeda’s main affiliates have issued calls to support the Palestinians with violence in response to US President Trump’s 6 December announcement that Washington will recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy to that city. Notably, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (JNIM), which was established in March this year as a merger between al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and other Sahel-based jihadist groups, called on Muslims to support jihad and make the “liberation of Palestine” their main cause. Somalia-based al-Shabab similarly urged Muslims to take up arms in solidarity with the Palestinians, while Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) condemned the announcement and blamed the Gulf states for building ties with Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem is an intensely emotive subject for Muslims worldwide, and jihadist groups want to associate themselves with the Palestinian cause to boost their relevance. Al-Qaeda in particular wants to exploit the issue to re-gain its former popularity among jihadist sympathisers after being sidelined by Islamic State (IS) since 2014. Indeed, IS has lost virtually all the territory it previously held in Iraq and Syria over the past year, and being seen to respond assertively to Trump’s Jerusalem statement will allow al-Qaeda to re-establish its position as the leading global jihadist movement.
As such, al-Qaeda’s affiliates will likely look to target US or Western-linked interests in the regions where they operate. The threat will be greatest in West Africa, where jihadist unity following the establishment of JNIM, as well as Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s move to merge his al-Murabitun faction with AQM, has strengthened al-Qaeda’s capabilities. Indeed, Belmokhtar led the January 2013 assault on the gas plant near Ain Amenas, south-eastern Algeria, killing around 39 hostages, soon after AQM called for attacks in response to the start of the French-led military campaign in Mali. AQM, backed by JNIM, may therefore look to target extractive facilities, but enhanced security measures since the Ain Amenas siege will limit the threat to them across the region, especially in Algeria. Instead, hotels popular with Westerners, or Western officials, will be at particular risk, especially in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where jihadists have proven themselves able to operate across borders with some ease.
Meanwhile al-Shabab may also look to retaliate against US-linked interests, but their current focus on Somalia, where there is little US diplomatic or commercial presence, will limit their ability to do this. That said, the group has carried out a spate of low-level attacks over the past few months near the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu, which is a popular tourist destination and is located just 100 km south of the Somali border. For instance, gunmen opened fire on a police vehicle south of the town on 28 November, killing two officers and wounding three others. It is therefore possible that al-Shabab may now broaden its targeting priorities beyond security forces to carry out a one-off attack at a tourist site in response to the US recognition of Jerusalem. Indeed, it has also demonstrated its ability to strike in Djibouti with a twin suicide attack at a restaurant in May 2014. Finally, AQAP has very little ability to operate outside Yemen, though it has some cells in southern Saudi Arabia. However, the group may carry out more frequent attacks on Gulf interests in Yemen in response to Gulf state ties with Israel and the US.