Bruce Riedel
February 4, 2014

Al-Qaeda’s affiliates and al-Qaedism the idea are gradually, inexorably, surrounding Israel. Safe havens and bases are sprouting up north and south of Israel like never before in the history of the global jihad, fulfilling the dreams of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. Israel remains a very hard target for terrorists and is fully capable of defending itself, but the challenges facing Israeli counter terrorists are becoming more difficult.

Israel has always been at the core of al-Qaeda’s narrative and ideology. From the beginning of bin Laden’s jihadist war on the ”Crusader-Zionist” enemy, Israel was a key target. The “liberation” of the holy mosques of Jerusalem actually came before the “liberation” of the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina in his writings. When he endorsed the attempt to blow up an American jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009, he said attacks like it would continue as long as America supported Israel. But until recently al-Qaeda and its affiliates found it hard to get to the promised land and attack Israel. Israeli and/or Jewish targets in Kenya or Tunisia or elsewhere were attacked, but Israel itself was too hard to get to.

Most of al-Qaeda’s activity until two years ago took place in parts of the Islamic world remote from the center of the Arab world and Israel. Al-Qaeda thrived in Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria and Iraq, but it had little presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Arab Awakening has changed the geography of al-Qaedism dramatically. The Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — gave birth to a Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, in 2012 that has thrived in the Syrian civil war. Now the two groups are competitors for influence in eastern and northern Syria. Israeli intelligence sources claim that they together command the loyalty of 40,000 fighters. An American intelligence source put the number at around 25,000. Many are foreigners drawn to Syria by the vision that they are part of a campaign to liberate Jerusalem after first defeating the Assad dictatorship. US officials estimate 7,000 foreign volunteers are in Syria from 50 countries. Even tiny Luxembourg has been identified as a country from which foreign volunteers have gone to fight and die in the Syrian jihad.

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