President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
* This article was originally published in Arabic at Al Siyassa Al Dawliya Magazine
CAIRO – 21 December 2017: Arab and Islamic governments harshly criticized the Jerusalem decision as it will not only impact the peace process in the Middle East, but will have direct consequences on extremist groups in the region.
For these groups, this decision will constitute a lifeline to escape the many problems they have suffered from lately. In addition, it could contribute to the spread of terrorism. This poses an important question about the potential impact of this decision on these groups, especially since for the Palestinian cause has been used by these groups for recruitment and conscription of new individuals for decades.
Just like the Palestinian cause has had its place in Arab governments’ politics since the 1950s, it is also important for almost all extremist groups in the region. They constantly raise its slogans and use its discourse. They do so in order to keep a powerful influence on Arab streets, given how highly the cause is valued by Arab people.
Throughout the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and all its different sub-groups, they have defended the Palestinian cause. They have used different incidents to call for protests, under the pretext of defending Jerusalem and Palestine. This helped them recruit a large number of young people, then conscripting them. People have a soft spot for this cause as it is important for all segments of society.
Moreover, some extremists use the Palestinian cause to justify their crimes and terrorist attacks. Osama bin Laden, former leader of Al-Qaeda, justified the 9/11 attacks as “defending Palestine.” After the attack, he made his widely quoted statement, “America will never dream of security unless we have it in reality in Palestine.” Before the attack, he established the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders in mid-1998, under the guise of “supporting the Palestinian cause.”
The Islamic State could not miss the chance of using the Jerusalem issue and the occupation of Palestine to its own advantage. When it began to get weaker and lost its control over many areas by the end of 2015, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made statements in December of the same year, where he “suddenly” remembered Palestine. “I never forgot Palestine. The leaders of the jihad fighters will surround you on a day you think is far, but we see it as close. Palestine will not be your home, but your graveyard, and Allah has gathered you in Palestine so that Muslims may kill you;” emphasizing that his so-called “state” will free Palestine.
Given how extremist groups use the Palestinian cause for their own ends, this decision could lead terrorism to become more prevalent in the Middle East. It will be used as a pretext by these groups to promote feelings of anger, disappointment and despair, which is a growing environment for them to spread their ideas.
We can say that Washington’s unwise decision to move its embassy could create an environment that supports and promotes terrorist groups, which play on Muslims’ feelings and use such decisions to get over their crises and make up for losing territory. The most important consequences of this decision on terrorist groups can be outlined as follows:
• Getting back on the scene: We can say that Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel will be the “kiss of life” for many terrorist groups suffering loss of territory and support, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. They could use this decision to get back on the scene, by raising Palestinian cause slogans, which they have used for many years. This could lead more people to sympathize with them and give them some long-lost support. This may be the reason why they issued a statement calling for standing up to the decision of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
• More terrorist attacks: It is possible that the U.S.’ decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital will lead to more terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, especially by al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has always targeted U.S. interests, as it is the only group solely founded on absolute hostility toward the U.S. Now, Trump’s decision will allow the group to attack the U.S., especially since such attacks will arguably be approved by many extremists worldwide. This led the Somali Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen group, al-Qaeda’s East Africa affiliate, to make a statement declaring Trump’s decision as an “attack against Islam” and that it is working with its followers and other al-Qaeda affiliated groups to take a stand against U.S. interests.
• Incitement against regimes: It is almost certain that Trump’s decision will give terrorist groups the chance to distort the images of political regimes in the region, as part of their conflict with them. They will work to incite people against them, especially as the international context will not allow Arab and Islamic states to take positions against this decision that would satisfy these people. People are overzealous about the cause because they are unable to properly understand all aspects of the situation. Through this strategy, they will be able to improve the way they are perceived, as people compare their statements to governments’ standpoints.
• Changing their discourse: It is likely for extremist groups to change the discourse they use, from that promoting the idea that they are subjected to “injustice” and that they are “weak,” to one that calls for defending the nation’s holy places. Such discourse is highly appreciated by people. They will use it to improve their image. Distortion of regimes’ images usually means improving extremists’. Hostile discourses definitely led to the loss of some support, especially as some began to be violent.
Finally, based on these premises, we can say that President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognize it as the capital of Israel will help terrorist groups promote their extremist ideologies. This will help them regain their power, and will allow other extremist groups to get back into the political scene through using incitement by promoting overzealous slogans. Young people could consequently become violent, which might cause a new wave of terrorist attacks against Western interests that cannot be predicted. In addition, these groups will use this chance to frame the decision as a “declaration of war against Islam and Muslims.”
Ali Bakr is an expert in Islamists movements at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies