Jihadi Trends: What Is On The Horizon In 2024?

Introduction

The Hamas attack against Israel on October 7, 2023, has reinvigorated jihadi groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, which are reprioritizing the cause of “Palestine” and the fight against the “Jews” and their “Crusader” allies as a key foundation of their messaging campaigns which aims at expanding their global threat landscape.

Similarly, the Hamas-Israel war has given Iran the opportunity to showcase the capacity of its restructured network of militias in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, demonstrating its strategic reach and durability.

The conflict shows no signs of abating as it approaches the four-month mark. 2024 will bring substantial challenges for counterterrorism agencies worldwide as jihadi groups plan to exploit the significant increase in antisemitic incidents in Europe and the U.S. in particular.

The following is an assessment, prepared by the MEMRI’s Jihad and Terrorism Threat Moni­tor (JTTM) research team, whose members are stationed around the world, on the global jihadi threat in 2024. This report covers select developments from 2023 into mid-January 2024.

The first section of this report examines the trajectories of Salafi jihadi groups such as Islamic State (ISIS), Al-Qaeda and their offshoots. The second section focuses on the activities of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” and its exploitation of the shifting dynamics to advance Iran’s influence in the region.

ISIS Leadership

Despite significant losses among senior ranks of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), both groups appear to have adapted by successfully decentralizing their command structures. The identity of ISIS’s fifth Caliph Abu Hafs Al-Hashimi Al-Quraishi’s remaining unknown has not led members or supporters to openly question his credentials.[1] After months of declining activity globally, ISIS marked the new year of 2024 by announcing a new military campaign[2] in support of Gaza that involved claiming a high-profile attack in Kerman, Iran.[3]

Following the January 4, 2024, audio message by ISIS Spokesman Abu Ḥudhayfah Al-Ansari[4] in which he pledged to escalate attacks across all regions in support of the “Muslims” in Gaza, a question looms as to whether the new Caliph will release his first audio speech in 2024 or be killed first. The current caliph was announced in an August 2023 audio message delivered by his spokesman Al-Ansari. His two predecessors, Abu Ibrahim and Abu Al-Hassan, were killed by U.S. forces in Syria in 2022. [5] In November 2023, the pro-ISIS Bariqah News Agency hinted that an audio or video message by the Caliph might not be ready for quite some time.[6]

Al-Qaeda Leadership

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda, in the 18 months since the July 2022 killing of Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a U.S. airstrike in Kabul, has neither acknowledged his death nor appointed a new leader,[7] though the umbrella organization remains active in Somalia, the African Sahel, and, to a lesser extent, in Yemen.

The question of succession looms large for Al-Qaeda. Many supporters hope that a new leader will be appointed in 2024 to revive globally the battered image of the organization, which has been in relative decline since the emergence of ISIS. The organization’s ability to execute attacks in the West has been the focus of many publications since the war between Hamas and Israel broke out. But the group’s last claimed attack in the West was against Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida in December 2019.[8]

Speculation among critics and supporters about who might succeed Al-Zawahiri continue to place veteran commander Sayf Al-Adl, who reportedly is living in Iran, as the top candidate, while some say he is the current caretaker of the organization.[9]

There has been an increase in Al-Qaeda media activities in 2023, such as the release of publications highlighting Sayf Al-Adl’s role, which may be seen as preparation to declare him the new leader in 2024. These have included promoting books by senior leaders and articles by Al-Adl himself.[10] If Al-Adl becomes the organization’s leader, Al-Qaeda will need to justify his residency in Iran, which is quite problematic for an organization whose Salafi ideology vilifies Shi’ites like those who run the Iranian regime, unless Al-Adl has been able to relocate to Afghanistan, as a 2023 UN report claims.[11] Al-Adl being in Afghanistan is also a public affairs challenge to the Taliban regime.

Europe

After Hamas’s October 7, 2023 attack on Israel, jihadis flooded the internet with praise for the killings of Jews, despite the historical enmity between Iran-backed Hamas and jihadi groups.[12] Capitalizing on the rise of antisemitism, particularly among pro-Palestinian protesters in the West, ISIS’s rhetoric reflects a hope that the Israeli operation in Gaza that followed the October 7 attack will inspire attacks by ISIS supporters in the West.[13] [14] In a recent speech, the ISIS spokesman recently instructed supporters in the U.S. and Europe to execute attacks in support of Gaza.

Meanwhile, ISIS’s exploitation of individual incidents similar to the burning of the Quran in Sweden is likely to continue into 2024, since doing so supports its message that the war against ISIS is a war on Islam.[15]

In 2023, European governments have tightened security after a series of ISIS-linked incidents, including attacks in Belgium[16] and France,[17] as well as activity targeting a synagogue in Germany and the arrest of ISIS sympathizers recruiting in Italy.[18]

Within this vicious cycle of incitement against the Jews and their “Crusaders” allies, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, marked the new year by re-launching its English-language magazine, “Inspire,” which advised on how to execute attacks in Western countries.[19] The publication had been in hiatus for years.

The magazine, which is now released as a video, offers supporters what it described as “open-source jihad” content inciting them to conduct attacks in the U.S., UK, France, and other EU countries as retribution for Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip following the October 7 attack.

United States

The Hamas-Israel war is also feeding into the narrative of jihadi clerics living in the West, such as the notorious Michigan-based Ahmad Jibril, who appear to be emboldened by the pro-Palestinian protests in the U.S. and Europe. Jibril recently told Muslims in Western countries that they should normalize jihad and teach it to their kids, which could promote the spread on social media of content that incites attacks.[20]

Recent reporting on undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border to commit attacks on behalf of foreign actors suggests that the border crisis in the U.S. poses a terrorism risk.[21] However, the threat to America is not restricted to Salafi jihadi groups.

Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” including Lebanese Hizbullah, Yemen’s Houthis, and Iraqi militias, which have been claiming attacks against Israel and U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq in support of Hamas, pose a parallel threat, as seen in a plot to attack Jews in Brazil that was foiled on November 9, 2023, with the arrest of two men linked to the Lebanese Hizbullah.[22]

Canada

Jihadi clerics in Canada such as Tariq Abdulhaleem are capitalizing on the Hamas-Israel war to incite violence against America.[23] On December 13, 2023, the Egyptian-born pro-Al-Qaeda cleric wrote on Telegram, countering U.S. President Joe Biden’s remarks the day before that “there is a real concern around the world that America is losing its moral center” because of its support for Israel. He went on to claim that the scenes of “merciless,” “brutal” killing of innocent native Americans, portrayed in the 1970 Hollywood movie Soldier Blue, is analogous to Israel’s actions today in Gaza, taken “with America’s support and funding.”

Additionally, on October 22, 2023, the pro-Al-Qaeda media outlet Jaysh Al-Malahem Al-Electroni (“Electronic Army of Epic Battles”) published a three-page Arabic-language statement claiming an attack on a synagogue in Montreal, Canada, using rifles and Molotov cocktails.[24]

The Gulf, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, And Jordan

The Hamas-Israel war could also trigger violence in stable Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both governments are accused by jihadis of abandoning the “Muslims of Gaza” in favor of normalizing ties with Israel.[25]

In recent weeks ISIS’s supporting entities have launched a poster campaign aiming at discrediting the governments of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Jordan, inciting their Muslim-majority populations to attack military targets as retribution for their governments’ failing to support Gaza.Iran’s alliance with Hamas and Shi’ite factions in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon make Iran a high-priority target for ISIS, as demonstrated by the January 3, 2024 attack on a ceremony commemorating the late IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Kerman, which comes as part of ISIS’s effort to disrupt Iran’s expansionist project in the Middle East. It is worth noting that on October 26, 2022, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on another Shi’ite shrine in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz.[26]

On January 28, 2024, the Islamic State (ISIS) official A’maq News Agency claimed that two of the organization’s fighters had attacked a church in the Büyükdere neighborhood of Istanbul. This is the first attack ever claimed by ISIS’s Turkey Province. Turkish officials announced that the two gunmen that they arrested were ISIS members from Tajikistan and Russia. While ISIS claimed attacks in the country in 2016 and 2017, it did not designate an official Turkey Province at the time. In an April 2019 video, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was shown perusing booklets about ISIS branches worldwide, including one marked “Turkey Province,” and in July 2019 the organization’s Turkey Province released its only official video.[27]

Philippines

In East Asia, the Philippines will be among ISIS’s top operational priorities in 2024. This projection is based on the notable rise in attacks in the country during the last weeks of 2023 and the recent editorial in the ISIS weekly, Al-Naba’. [28] The Islamic State East Asia Province (ISEAP) has claimed four attacks in Philippines since September 2023, including a deadly explosion that killed four people at a Catholic mass on December 3 at Mindanao State University in Marawi.[29] The attack rekindles fears that ISEAP might be planning to recapture Marawi, which was the site of a five-month battle between ISEAP-affiliated groups and the Philippine military in 2017 before the latter regained control.

The Al-Naba’ editorial further stoked those fears when it singled out the Philippines as a land of jihad and one of the battlegrounds on which ISIS should fight Christian governments and foreign powers aiming to change the demographics of the southern Philippines and to fight Islam there. The editorial also said that the December 3 bombing of the Catholic mass in Marawi drew attention to the Philippines, where the “chapters of war continue to this day.”

West And Central Africa

The Islamic State (ISIS) maintains several active provinces in Africa – the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), Islamic State Sahel Province, Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), Islamic State Mozambique Province (ISMP), and Islamic State Somalia Province. The ISIS provinces in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula did not claim any attacks during 2023. The Sinai Province claimed its most recent attack on the last day of 2022 and the Libya Province in January 2022. The ISIS affiliate in Tunisia, which is not officially designated as an ISIS province, has not claimed an attack since 2021. [30]

The most prolific and powerful of ISIS’s affiliates in Africa – and arguably its strongest affiliate worldwide – is ISWAP, which claimed more than 260 attacks during 2023, compared to over 530 in 2022. ISWAP is most active in northeastern Nigeria, specifically Borno State. During 2022-2023, the group expanded its operations southward and westward to include nine out of Nigeria’s 36 states, most recently furthering its activities to Jigawa State in April 2023.

The group also continued to perpetrate small-scale attacks in parts of Niger and Cameroon near the Nigerian border, although Chad saw its most recent ISWAP attack in July 2022, with no operations claimed during 2023. ISCAP claimed just over 100 attacks in 2023, compared to more than 160 in 2022. While almost all were perpetrated in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a handful of October and December operations that targeted and killed Christians, including a British citizen, were carried out across the border inside Uganda. [31]

ISMP claimed over 50 attacks in northeastern Mozambique during 2023, a marked decline from 2022, during which, according to ISIS’s official A’maq Agency, the group executed 156 attacks in that country.[32] The ISIS Somalia Province claimed only about ten small-scale attacks in 2023, targeting government forces in Mogadishu and in the Puntland State of northeastern Somalia. During 2022, it claimed 32 attacks.[33] In 2023, as in previous years, a major target of ISIS affiliates ISCAP, ISWAP, and ISMP was the local Christian population, which the mujahideen terrorized with attacks on villages, beheadings, and burnings of homes and churches, hoping to trigger a Christian exodus.

Although the vast majority of its attacks occur in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno and Yobe states, ISWAP continued to expand southward into other parts of the country throughout 2022 and 2023. As of January 2024, it has claimed attacks in ten out 36 Nigerian states.[34] A concerning phenomenon is the massacres of Christians perpetrated by ISCAP, ISMP, and ISWAP. These violent attacks seem likely to continue – and indeed have featured prominently in the “And Kill Them Wherever You Find Them” campaign launched by ISIS on January 4[35] – until the remaining Christians are displaced from areas of jihadi activity or until the ISIS affiliates in the DRC, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Cameroon are restrained.

The African Sahel

The sub-Saharan Sahel will continue to be a stage for Al-Qaeda and ISIS attacks as both sides are showing enthusiasm to further exploit the ever-changing security landscape in the region following the withdrawal of France from Mali. The armed clashes over territory, resources, and access to local populations to gain support that started around February 2020 between ISIS-Sahel and Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the African Sahel, Jama’at Nusrat Al-Islam Wal-Muslimeen (the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims – GSIM) will likely continue. Both groups will likely continue to try to push south into new territory, beyond Mali and Burkina Faso.

The end of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) mandate,[36] coupled with the advent of the Russian state-backed private military company (PMC), the Wagner Group, has contributed directly to an increase in GSIM operations and expanded the security vacuum in the counter-jihadi effort in Mali and Burkina Faso. GSIM leader Iyad Ag Ghaly announced in a December 12, 2023 video that the advance of the Malian Army, together with the Wagner Group, to northern Mali has begun a “new stage of jihad” in the Sahel, calling on Muslims in the Sahel to join GSIM and encouraging the group’s base of jihadis to manifest further adherence to jihad as a path to topple governments and defeat the “Crusader” allies.[37]

Tactically, the Sahel could witness in 2024 a surge in GSIM suicide attacks in line with Ghaly’s speech in which he noted that many fighters have joined GSIM’s “Martyrdom Units.” GISM claimed five suicide attacks in 2023, the last of which was on December 22, just a few weeks after Ghaly’s speech.[38]

Data collected by MEMRI JTTM in 2023 shows that GSIM claimed responsibility for over 290 attacks, including 117 attacks against Burkinabe forces alone, higher than any year since the conflict started. The pace of attacks in November and December indicates that GSIM attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso will continue at a faster pace moving into 2024. The scale of GSIM operations will potentially result in a shift in areas of control and would likely result in humanitarian issues as fighting continues. According to the United Nations, over 80 civilians were killed or wounded in a GSIM attack on Internally Displaced People’s camps in Djibo, Burkina Faso in which 400 GSIM fighters were reportedly killed.[39]

ISIS’s affiliate in Sahel, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), has nearly doubled the territory it controls in Mali while maintaining a modest but steady insurgency in Burkina Faso and western Niger.[40]

Even though the ISIS branch’s claims of attacks are relatively infrequent, many are large-scale operations such as the attack against a base of the Malian army and the Russian Wagner group, south of the city of Ansongo, northwestern Mali, which resulted in “complete control” of the base and seizure of a large assortment of spoils. [41]

The group’s growing interest in the Sahel was clearly demonstrated in an August 2023 article published in ISIS weekly newsletter, Al-Naba’, which detailed attacks targeting Nigerien soldiers, the pro-Malian government militia, Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (Groupe d’Autodéfense Tuareg Imghad et Alliés – GATIA), and a staffer executed for allegedly working for German forces.[42] Further, the article reflected ISIS’s interests in attracting tribes and the Muslim population by highlighting the activity of its hisbah (i.e., morality police), which had carried out several executions and amputations of alleged criminals and extended its reach northward into new areas.

Somalia

In Somalia, the violent activity of Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Al-Shabab grew significantly in 2023 with attacks on security forces[43] that will continue to escalate against regional or international forces as part of Al-Qaeda’s “Jerusalem Will Never Be Judaized” campaign after the October 7 attack, which an Al-Qaeda General Command statement commended and framed as a successful blow to the “unbelieving West” that backs Israel, calling on Muslims to support the Palestinians and to wage jihad themselves.[44]

In 2023, Al-Shabab claimed several attacks on joint convoys of U.S. and U.S.-trained Somali forces, reporting that one such operation had wounded several U.S. service members.[45] Although the group’s jihad remains confined to the Horn of Africa, it incites against the U.S. and has perpetrated major attacks in the past against U.S. forces, such as the 2019 assault on the Baledogle Airfield in Somalia and a 2020 attack on the U.S. base in Manda Bay, Kenya.[46]

Such incitement continued during 2023, and U.S. forces stationed in Somalia and Kenya should take note of the Al-Shabab leadership’s explicit vow for revenge against the U.S.

With ATMIS scheduled to end its mission at the end of 2024, Somali government officials have called for it to continue its presence in the country as part of a new mandate.[47] It is of concern that Al-Shabab attacked the Presidential Palace in Mogadishu after ATMIS handed over its security to the Somali National Army on December 17, and likely that an ATMIS withdrawal will bring an escalation of Al-Shabab attacks.

Ethiopia’s agreement with the breakaway region Somaliland, seeking port access in exchange for potential sovereignty recognition, could become a cause for cross-border attacks by Al-Shabab against Ethiopia.

The group spokesman Ali Mahmud Raji, aka Ali Dheere, rejected the MoU as an “invalid,” “shameless agreement” to steal and plunder Somalia’s resources, and threatened “to defend the country with blood.” Capitalizing on the anti-Israeli sentiment because of the war in Gaza, he alluded that Ethiopia is acting the same way that “the Jews did when they occupied the land of Palestine.”[48]

Syria

While Syria continued throughout 2023 to make its way into ISIS’s weekly infographic “The Harvest of the Caliphate Soldiers,” which tallies ISIS attacks across the regions, the majority of the attacks in Syria were limited enough to keep ISIS’s presence sustainable without attracting wide counterterrorism campaigns.

However, with Iran-backed militias in Syria being heavily engaged in the Hamas-Israel war, ISIS cells might exploit the vacuum to conduct attacks to incite sectarian tension in Deir Al-Zour. ISIS will likely take advantage of the shifting Iranian priorities to build support among the Sunni population.[49]

In its attempt to further tighten its control on Idlib and the surrounding areas, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) leader Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani will continue to crack down on his rivals. In 2023, HTS has carried out arrests and raids in Idlib to quash dissent and consolidate the group’s power. This could expand to include arresting more rising figures within its own ranks, similar to the arrest of HTS religious official Abu Maria Al-Qahtani in 2023 on accusations of espionage.[50]

Jihadis will likely exploit the announcement made by the U.N. World Food Programme (UNWFP) that it will end, after 12 years, its assistance program in Syria in January 2024 to solicit donations for refugee camps where jihadi families are held such as the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps in northeastern Syria, which hold thousands of family members of fighters and others who came to join ISIS.[51]

Arab tribes in Deir Al-Zour will continue to pose a threat to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with ISIS eying such opportunity to reactivate its cells in the area and recruit members of tribes. [52] The fighting that erupted between tribal militias and the SDF in the final months of 2023 raises fears of further destabilization amid the recent Turkish airstrikes on SDF facilities.[53]

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, where Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has been executing attacks since the Afghan Taliban took power in August 2021, it is very likely that, rather than taking control of territory, the group’s strategy will continue to focus on conducting urban warfare targeting Afghan civilians, particularly members of the Shi’ite community and Afghan Taliban officials and security personnel.[54]

Despite claims by Taliban authorities that their security forces have significantly degraded ISKP’s ability to threaten regional security, the group has claimed several attacks in Pakistan throughout 2023.[55]

The recent double suicide attack in the Iranian city of Kerman, which ISIS claimed on January 4 without identifying which branch conducted the attack is very likely to have been carried out by ISKP. Media outlets affiliated with the Iranian regime and Afghan Taliban said intelligence information suggests that one of the two ISIS bombers was a Tajik national. ISKP has recruited Tajik nationals in the past in its effort expand the geography of cross-border jihadi attacks beyond Afghanistan. In 2022, ISKP conducted cross-border attacks in Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.[56]

With its prolific multi-language media platform, the Al-Azaim Foundation for Media Productions and Communications, constantly inciting attacks against Western targets, ISKP’s threat to execute attacks in Europe and U.S. in 2024 remains viable.[57] This includes threats against international aid workers to deter collaboration between Western aid groups and the Taliban.[58]

Yemen

Over the course of 2023, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), claimed more than 80 operations in southern Yemen’s Abyan and Shabwah governorates, as part of its “Arrows of Truth” campaign, launched around September 2022 to repel the “Arrows of the East” campaign started by United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed local forces.[59]

The majority of the attacks targeted armed groups backed by the UAE, such as the Southern Transitional Council, Security Belt, Shabwani Elite, and Shabwah Defense Forces, all accused by AQAP of being “Emirati mercenaries.”[60]

Since June 2022, AQAP has not claimed any attacks on the Iran-backed Ansar Allah movement (i.e., the Houthis), which was once its main enemy, as it has moved its operations from Houthi-controlled western Yemen into the east of the country. However, in October 2023, AQAP claimed to have fired rockets at U.S. forces stationed at Camp Marra in Shabwah governorate.[61]

AQAP seems poised to continue its jihad against UAE-backed forces in southern Yemen, while putting its fight against the Houthis on the back burner. However, the group continues to call Yemenis to jihad against “American and Iranian proxies.”

The Al-Qaeda affiliate is particularly formidable in its media production, showing itself capable of releasing propaganda in Arabic and English that incites against Al-Qaeda’s archenemy, the U.S., and against other foes in the Middle East and the West, as well as providing concrete tips for would-be lone-wolf attackers.

The ambition to expand its regional scope of attack remains among AQAP’s media priorities. One of the main targets of its messaging, which seeks to provoke jihad over the entire Arabian Peninsula, is Saudi Arabia, which AQAP has attacked in the past.[62] A February 2023 video by AQAP’s Shahed media outlet detailed the reasons for jihad to overthrow the kingdom, accusing its rulers of waging war on Islam and corrupting Muslim society.[63] AQAP repeated the message of that video in a September statement.[64]

AQAP remains a major influence for jihadi attackers in the West, as AQAP demonstrated with its masterminding of the December 2019 shooting at the U.S. Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.[65] Over the course of 2023, AQAP’s prolific media revived two of its long-dormant productions. Issue 17 of the Sada Al-Malahem (“Echo of Epics”) Arabic-language magazine was released in September 2023 after the previous issue was published in 2011. The new issue called on supporters to retaliate for Quran burnings in Europe by attacking the embassies and ministries of Sweden and other European countries.[66]

More notably, a new issue of the English-language magazine Inspire, in which AQAP had in the past incited attacks in the West and provided practical guidance toward executing them, was released in video format on December 30, 2023. The video production – the first Inspire issue since 2021 – advised lone wolf attackers to make “hidden bombs” out of “simple kitchen materials,” and included a list of suggested targets in the U.S., UK, France, and other European countries, including Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and other “American economy high profile personalities.”[67]

Iran’s Axis of Resistance

The Israel-Hamas war will cast a long shadow over 2024. Revisionist powers, like Iran, will continue exploiting the conflict to its advantage – destabilizing the Middle East in the process – because doing so serves several of Tehran’s longstanding strategic objectives: isolating Israel, expelling the U.S. from the region, and projecting power in neighboring countries.

To these ends, Iran is likely to continue driving regional escalation primarily by means of its powerful network of proxy fighters in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Such destabilizing activities – besides increasing the risk of regional war – are also likely to have secondary implications for regional security, which are considered below.

Iraq

In Iraq, Iran-backed militias have attacked U.S. forces almost two hundred times in the country and in Syria. U.S. counterattacks have reinvigorated Iraqi political efforts to oust American and Coalition forces from the country; on January 5, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al-Sudani announced his intention to work towards removing the forces of the U.S.-led international coalition, which have remained in the country to prevent a resurgence of ISIS. ISIS failed in carrying out any major attacks in Iraq during 2023 and the level of its insurgency has declined significantly inside Iraq.[68]

Ending the Coalition’s mandate in Iraq has long been an objective of Iran and its partners in Iraq. Iran-backed politicians in Iraq are thus likely to intensify pressure on the government, while at the same time continuing military strikes on U.S. forces in order to provoke additional counterattacks, which they can then exploit to drive anti-U.S. sentiment in the country. Iran’s many proxies inside Iraq are united against the United States and Coalition presence but divided by personal and institutional rivalries between contending factions.

Lebanon

In Lebanon, Hizbullah faces major challenges. Tolerating the Israeli strikes that target its key commanders projects an image of weakness among its supporter base. However, responding to Israeli strikes might trigger a full scale war with Israel that Lebanon’s fragile economy and fractious politics cannot endure. However, the group’s military power which, according to some reports includes at least 100,000 missiles and rockets,[69] should not be underestimated just as its tolerance of Israeli attacks should not be overestimated. Hizbullah’s media and political surrogates in Lebanon are making a concerted effort against internal skeptics of a new war against Israel, targeting especially the Maronite Catholic church leadership and recalcitrant Christian leaders in propaganda campaigns.

Yemen

Iran has driven an escalation against the U.S. and Israel in Yemen which has been eagerly embraced by Iran’s proxies in that country. Since October 2023, the Iran-backed Houthi Ansar Allah movement has launched successive barrages of rockets and drones at Israel and attacked several shipping vessels in the Red Sea. Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, besides the obvious effects of disrupting global maritime shipping, also bodes ill for the movement’s fragile peace negotiations with Saudi Arabia, especially after the Unites States has designated the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) [Specially Designated Global Terrorist group].[70] A new Houthi offensive, breaking the fragile UN-brokered ceasefire, aimed at seizing the oil-producing regions around Marib is also possible.

Iran

The possibility that Tehran and its allies will expand their campaign to target shipping vessels in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and other waterways in the Arabian Sea cannot be discounted. Indeed, in December 2023, an Iranian drone struck and damaged a commercial vessel near India, perhaps demonstrating Tehran’s willingness to expand the attack area.[71]

The recent Iranian missile and drone strikes that targeted Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan are part of Tehran’s exploitative activities to further destabilize the region under the pretext of self-defense. Further, Iran’s direct military action in these three countries comes within the regime’s attempts to reinforce its image of strength both internally and regionally, particularly after ISIS claimed two suicide attacks in Kerman.

Some early surveys suggest that the events of the Israel-Hamas war may be hardening Arab public opinion toward the U.S., Israel, and Arab Gulf partners, and softening it toward Iran and its so-called Axis of Resistance.[72] While many still see Iran as a major threat, some elements of the so-called Arab street also now appears to be somewhat more favorable toward the approach of armed struggle, a trend that Tehran will doubtless seize to try to incite regional “resistance” to the U.S., Israel, and the Arab Gulf states. But public opinion in the region is fickle and can be manipulated relatively easily.

To be sure, Iran has repeatedly signaled that it does not seek to enter into direct conflict with the United States or Israel. Tehran’s primary proxy, Lebanese Hizbullah, has signaled the same. Yet, Iran’s ability to manage escalation across multiple theatres remains undeterminable; the movement of Iran-backed militias in Syria near the Israeli border, ongoing attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria,[73] and the Houthi disruption of maritime trade, all increase the probability of dangerous miscalculations that could cause the region to spiral into a wider conflict in 2024. Iran’s preferred method of advancing its interests will remain having its diffuse network of proxies do the dirty work while preserving both itself and the crown jewel of its proxy empire, Lebanese Hizbullah, intact for future wars.

[1] See MEMRI JTTM report, In Attempt To Demonstrate Unity, ISIS Operatives Pledge Loyalty To Abu Hafs – The Organization’s Fifth Leader And Third New Leader In Last Year And A Half, August 30, 2023.

[2] See MEMRI JTTM report, Islamic State (ISIS) Spokesman Instructs Muslims To Renew Lone Wolf Attacks In U.S., Europe, In Support Of Gaza; Discredits Palestinian Factions For Their Alliance With Iran, Call On Arabs To Rebel Against Their Rulers, January 4, 2024.

[3] See MEMRI JTTM report, Islamic State (ISIS) Claims Responsibility For Twin Blasts In Iran As Part Of New Security Campaign Launched By ISIS Spokesman, January 4, 2024.

[4] Islamic State (ISIS) Spokesman Instructs Muslims To Renew Lone Wolf Attacks In U.S., Europe, In Support Of Gaza; Discredits Palestinian Factions For Their Alliance With Iran, Call On Arabs To Rebel Against Their Rulers, January 4, 2024.

[5] See MEMRI JTTM report, New Islamic State (ISIS) Spokesman Announces New Caliph Is Abu Hafs Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi, Accuses Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Of Killing Caliph Predecessor; Warns: Allah’s Punishments – Including COVID, War In Ukraine – Will Continue To Weaken America, August 3, 2023.

[6] Telegram, November 27, 2023.

[7] State.gov/the-death-of-ayman-al-zawahiri, August 1, 2023.

[8] See MEMRI JTTM report, Pro-Al-Qaeda Outlet Devoted To Inciting Lone Wolf Attacks In The West Releases Poster Marking The Fourth Anniversary Of 2019 Pensacola Shooting Which Killed Three U.S. Sailors, December 6, 2023.

[9] See MEMRI JTTM report, Anonymous Pro-Al-Qaeda Source Urges Al-Qaeda To Confirm Death Of Al-Zawahiri Before ISIS Exploits Leadership Vacuum To Recruit Supporters In Africa, August 18, 2022.

[10] See MEMRI JTTM report, Book Authored By Potential Al-Qaeda Leader Offers Glimpse Into His Strategy For Attacks In The West, September 20, 2023 and Al-Qaeda Book Released On 9/11 Anniversary Confirms For First Time The Identity, Pseudonym Of Al-Qaeda’s Potential Future Leader, Sayf Al-‘Adl, September 11, 2023.

[11] See MEMRI JTTM report, Pro-Al-Qaeda Anonymous Twitter Account Disputes UN Report On Whereabouts Of Al-Qaeda’s De Factor Leader Sayf Al-‘Adl, June 20, 2023.

[12] See MEMRI JTTM report, Jihadis, Supporters Of ‘Axis Of Resistance,’ Denounce Saudi Arabia’s ‘Betrayal’ Of Gaza, Claim Kingdom Is Israel’s ‘Protection Shield’ Distracting People, Downing Houthi Missiles, November 2, 2023.

[13] See MEMRI JTTM report, Al-Qaeda Essay Calls For Civil Disobedience In Muslim Countries, U.S., Europe, To Topple Their Regimes And End Their Support For Israel, November 30, 2023.

[14] See MEMRI JTTM report, Users Of Islamic State (ISIS)-Operated Server On Rocket Chat Planned A Terror Attack In France, December 8, 2023.

[15] See MEMRI JTTM report, Islamic State (ISIS) Claims Brussels Shooting Of Swedes As Attack On Citizens Of ‘Crusader Coalition,’ Threatens More, October 18, 2023.

[16] See MEMRI JTTM report, Islamic State (ISIS) Claims Brussels Shooting Of Swedes As Attack On Citizens Of ‘Crusader Coalition,’ Threatens More, October 18, 2023.

[17] See MEMRI JTTM report, In Video: Perpetrator Of Paris Stabbing Attack Claims To Be ISIS Supporter; Pro-ISIS Outlet Praises His Act As Response To ISIS Call To Target Non-Muslims In West For Their Support Of Israel, December 4, 2023.

[18] Ft.com/content/5b5d083b-6195-4b91-a192-365c0829afe6, October 17, 2023.

[19] Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Revived English-Language ‘Inspire’ Magazine – Now In Video Format – Says It’s Time To Avenge Gaza, Provides Instructions For Building A ‘Hidden Bomb’ For Blowing Up Planes In The U.S., Encourages Targeting ‘American Economy High Profile Personalities’ Such As Bill Gates, Elon Musk, December 30, 2024.

[20] See MEMRI JTTM report, Michigan-Based Pro-ISIS Cleric Calls On Muslims In America, West To ‘Normalize’ The Use Of Jihad In Their Terminology; Promotes Donations To Gaza, November 28, 2023.

[21] Nytimes.com/2023/11/15/us/politics/immigration-terrorism-watch-list.html, November 15, 2023.

[22] Reuters.com, November 8, 2023.

[23] See MEMRI JTTM report, Canada-Based, Egyptian-Born Jihadi Cleric On Biden’s Remarks: The U.S. Has No Moral Center; Israel’s Actions In Gaza Analogous To ‘Massacre’ Of Native Americans, December 4, 2024.

[24] See MEMRI JTTM report, Pro-Al-Qaeda Media Outlet Incites Muslims To Conduct Martyrdom Operations In The “Heart Of Crusaders’ Lands,” Praises Attacks On Synagogues In Montreal, Threatens Similar Attacks To 2015 Attacks In Paris, November 16, 2024.

[25] See MEMRI JTTM report, Pro-ISIS Posters Depict Arab Armies As ‘Unbelievers,’ Anti-Muslim Protectors Of Israel, Claim Attacks On Military Personnel Empower Jihadi Cause, December 12, 2023.

[26] See MEMRI JTTM report, In First Attack In Iran Since 2018, ISIS Claims Attack On Shi’ite Shrine In Shiraz, October 26, 2022.

[27] See MEMRI JTTM report, Islamic State (ISIS) Claims First Ever Attack Carried Out By Its ‘Turkey Province’, Targeting Istanbul Church, Following ISIS Spokesman’s Directive To ‘Target Jews And Christians Everywhere’, January 29, 2024.

[28] See MEMRI JTTM report, ISIS Weekly Editorial Proclaims The Philippines As ‘Arena Of Jihad,’ Jihadi Foothold To Confront Christian ‘Tyranny,’ Launchpad To ‘Conquer’ East Asia, December 8, 2023.

[29] See MEMRI JTTM Reports: WARNING – GRAPHIC: Islamic State (ISIS) Claims Killing Christian Civilians In Multiple Attacks Within Two Weeks In DRC, Uganda, Mozambique, Nigeria, October 30, 2023; Warning – GRAPHIC: Islamic State (ISIS) Weekly Claims Previously Unreported Operations In Syria, DRC; Includes New Details And ‘Exclusive’ Photos Of Attacks In Nigeria, Iraq, Philippines, Mozambique, December 17, 2023.

[30] See MEMRI JTTM Report: ISIS Claims Killing Of Four Tunisian Soldiers And Tunisian Army ‘Spy’, February 19, 2021.

[31] See MEMRI JTTM Reports: Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP) Claims It Killed ‘Three Christians,’ Including a UK Citizen, In Attack In Ugandan National Park, October 18, 2023; and WARNING – GRAPHIC: Islamic State (ISIS) Claims Killing Christian Civilians In Multiple Attacks Within Two Weeks In DRC, Uganda, Mozambique, Nigeria, October 30, 2023.

[32] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Islamic State (ISIS) Claims Killing And Wounding 6,881 People Across 22 Countries During 2022, January 5, 2023.

[33] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Islamic State (ISIS) Claims Killing And Wounding 6,881 People Across 22 Countries During 2022, January 5, 2023.

[34] See MEMRI JTTM Report: In First Four Days Of Global Campaign, Islamic State (ISIS) Affiliates Claim Over 60 Attacks In 11 Countries, January 8, 2024.

[35] See MEMRI JTTM Report: In First Four Days Of Global Campaign, Islamic State (ISIS) Affiliates Claim Over 60 Attacks In 11 Countries, January 8, 2024.

[36] MINUSMA.unmissions.org/en/minusma-closes-its-camp-kidal-marking-end-its-presence-region, October 31, 2023.

[37] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Leader Of Al-Qaeda Affiliate GSIM Calls On Muslims In Sahel To Join The Ranks Of Jihad, Praises Mujahideen In Gaza, Mocks Wagner Group As Weaker Than Weak France, December 12, 2023.

[38] See MEMRI JTTM Reports: Al-Qaeda Affiliate GSIM Claims Attacks Against Troops Across Central Mali, May 16, 2023; Al-Qaeda Affiliate GSIM Claims Suicide Operation Against Russian Wagner Group Site In Mali; Attack Against Niger Gendarmerie Forces In Niger, July 26, 2023; Al-Qaeda Affiliate GSIM Claims Attack In Burkina Faso, Touts Stolen Weapons; September 29, 2023; Al-Qaeda Affiliate GSIM Reportedly Loses Dozens Of Fighters In Failed Attack To Seize Barracks In Northern Burkina Faso, Claims Suicide Attack On Barracks In Mali, November 29, 2023; Al-Qaeda Affiliate GSIM Claims Dozens Killed In Suicide Operation In Central Mali, Five In Assault In Southern Burkina Faso, December 24, 2023.

[39] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Al-Qaeda Affiliate GSIM Reportedly Loses Dozens Of Fighters In Failed Attack To Seize Barracks In Northern Burkina Faso, Claims Suicide Attack On Barracks In Mali, November 29, 2023.

[40] Thenationalnews.com, September 25, 2023.

[41] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Islamic State (ISIS) Weekly Publishes ‘Exclusive’ Report Alleging Dozens Of Casualties Among Malian Soldiers, Wagner Group Personnel In Double Attack In Menaka, December 8, 2023.

[42] See MEMRI JTTM report, Islamic State (ISIS) Weekly: Sahel Province’s Morality Police Conduct Executions And Amputations; Extend Influence Into New Parts Of Mali, Where Locals Have Returned Following Displacement By Al-Qaeda Affiliate GSIM, August 27, 2023.

[43] See MEMRI JTTM report, Al-Qaeda Affiliate Al-Shabab Claims Killing Over 71 Soldiers, Injuring Over 31 In Two Days Of Attacks On Somali, ATMIS Forces Across Central, Southern Somalia, December 25, 2023.

[44] See MEMRI JTTM report, Leadership Of Al-Qaeda Affiliate Al-Shabab Celebrates Hamas Offensive On Israel As A Blow To ‘ Unbelieving West,’ Calls All Muslims To Wage Jihad Against ‘Jews And Their Allies’, October 12, 2023.

[45] See MEMRI JTTM Reports: Al-Qaeda Affiliate Al-Shabab Claims 27 Soldier Casualties Among American Troops, U.S.-Trained Somali Special Forces, May 14, 2023; Al-Qaeda Affiliate In Somalia Al-Shabab Claims Wounding Three American Soldiers, Including Two Officers, In Attack In Kismayo, Juba, July 7, 2023; Al-Qaeda Affiliate Al-Shabab Claims: Suicide Operation Against American Forces And American-Trained Somali Special Forces Kills And Wounds 81 Soldiers, July 12, 2023; and Al-Qaeda Affiliate Al-Shabab Claims Three Massive Attacks Against U.S. Forces And U.S.-Trained Somali Special Forces, Including Two Suicide Bombings, Killing More Than 250, August 27, 2023.

[46] See MEMRI JTTM Reports: Al-Qaeda Affiliate Al-Shabab Releases Additional Videos Showing Hundreds Of Fighters Graduating From Training Camp, April 17, 2023; and Al-Qaeda’s Somali Affiliate Al-Shabab Releases Video Of Fighters, Suicide Operatives Graduating From Training Camp, January 8, 2020.

[47] Voanews.com, December 17, 2023.

[48] See MEMRI JTTM report, Al-Shabab’s Spokesman Rejects Ethiopia-Somaliland MoU As ‘Invalid,’ Calls On Somali Muslims To Take Up Arms, Vows Al-Shabab Will Turn Ethiopia’s ‘Crusader’ Dreams Into Nightmares, January 2, 2024.

[49] See MEMRI JTTM report, Syrian Opposition Websites: Iran-Backed Militias Plan To Train Palestinian Militia In Syria To Launch Rockets And Suicide Drones; Russia Forbids Firing At U.S. Bases From Areas Under Syrian Armed Forces Control, December 25, 2023

[50]See MEMRI JTTM Reports: Anti-Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Telegram Channel Reports Group’s Strongman Al-Qahtani Arrested On Espionage Charges, Allegedly Due To Leader Al-Joulani’s ‘Fear For His Authority In Idlib’, August 16, 2023; and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Strips Senior Religious Official Abu Maria Al-Qahtani Of His Duties For his Involvement In ‘Security Breach’, August 17, 2023.

[51] See MEMRI JTTM report, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS)-Backed Government Criticizes U.N. World Food Program Decision To End Assistance Program In Syria: Decision ‘Threatens Them With The Danger Of Starvation, Which Constitutes A Crime Against Humanity‘, December 12, 2023.

[52] See MEMRI JTTM report, Article In Islamic State Khurasan Magazine, ‘Voice Of Khurasan,’ Calls Out Arab Tribes In Deir Al-Zour, Accuses U.S. Forces Of ‘Stealing Oil,’ Urges Residents of Idlib and Aleppo To Join ISIS Caliphate After Quran Burning In Sweden, October 3, 2023.

[53] Aawsat.com. December 28, 2023, last accessed December 28, 2023.

[54] See MEMRI JTTM report, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) Claims Deadly Blast Which Killed Shi’ites Near Kabul, November 8, 2023.

[55] See MEMRI JTTM report, Infographic In Islamic State (ISIS) Weekly Claims Hundreds Killed In Dozens Of Attacks In Past Month, August 18, 2023.

[56] Voanews.com/a/taliban-reportedly-dismantled-islamic-state-bases-in-western-afghanistan/7389590.html, last accessed January 5, 2024.

[57] See MEMRI JTTM report, In Pashtu-Language Booklet, Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) Vows To Liberate Jerusalem, Tells Palestinians: ‘Your Voice Will Be Heard Only By The Mujahideen Of The Islamic State, And They Will Carry Out Attacks In The Hearts Of Israel Just For Your Revenge, Allah Willing’, December 21, 2023.

[58] See MEMRI JTTM report, Issue 25 Of ISKP’s Pashtu-Language Magazine ‘Khurasan Ghag’ Declares Afghan Taliban To Be Slaves Of America, Other ‘Unbeliever’ Countries, Tells ISKP Fighters: ‘Sharpen Your Swords And Knives, Wear Your Vests, And Keep Your Car Bombs Ready’, September 15, 2023.

[59] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Escalates Attacks On UAE-Backed Security Belt Forces In Southern Yemen, Claims: Enemy’s Military Offensive Failed, September 20, 2022.

[60] For recent examples, see MEMRI JTTM Reports: Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Claims Attack On UAE-Backed Forces’ Position In Yemen’s Shabwah Governorate; Releases New Photoset Of Its Fighters In Southern Yemen, July 23, 2023; Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Claims Killing Another Commander Of UAE-Backed Forces In Abyan, Yemen, Releases Photos, August 14, 2023; and Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Claims Failed Car Bomb Attack On Commander Of UAE-Backed Yemeni Forces In Southern Yemen, October 4, 2023.

[61] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Claims It Is Firing Rockets At A Site Housing U.S. Forces In Yemen’s Southern Shabwa Governorate, October 12, 2023.

[62] See MEMRI JTTM Report: AQAP Video Documents Combined Operation Deep In Saudi Territory, July 29, 2014.

[63] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Video Describes Saudi Regime As Enemy Of Islam And The Muslims, Calls For Jihad To Overthrow It, February 6, 2023.

[64] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Following Controversial Concert By Australian Female Rapper Iggy Azalea In Riyadh, Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Calls On Muslims To Depose Saudi Regime Through Jihad, Prepare To Regain World Dominance, September 5, 2023.

[65] See MEMRI JTTM Report: AQAP Claims Responsibility For Naval Air Station Pensacola Shooting Attack And Urges Muslims In The West To Execute More Attacks, Target Heads Of State, Carry Out Cyberattacks On Banks, February 3, 2020.

[66] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Magazine Calls For Attacks On Embassies And Ministries Of Sweden, Other European Countries, In Retaliation For Quran Burnings, September 27, 2023.

[67] See MEMRI JTTM Report: Al-Qaeda In The Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Revived English-Language ‘Inspire’ Magazine – Now In Video Format – Says It’s Time To Avenge Gaza, Provides Instructions For Building A ‘Hidden Bomb’ For Blowing Up Planes In The U.S., Encourages Targeting ‘American Economy High Profile Personalities’ Such As Bill Gates, Elon Musk, December 30, 2023.

[68] Reuters, January 10, 2024.

[69] Reuters.com/world/middle-east/lebanons-hezbollah-what-weapons-does-it-have-2023-10-30, accessed January 17, 2024.

[70] State.gov/terrorist-designation-of-the-houthis, accessed January 17, 2024.

[71] BBC, December 24, 2023.

[72] Arabbarometer.org/media-news/how-the-israel-hamas-war-in-gaza-is-changing-arab-views/

[73] See MEMRI JTTM report Signs That Iran Will Open A Front Against Israel From The Syrian Golan Heights, October 31, 2023.

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