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Barcelona IS attacks: Signs have been there a long time

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For those who knew where to look, the warning signs of last week’s Barcelona attacks were there. Two years ago, maps appeared in Spanish tabloids showing Spain and Portugal in black, indicating territory controlled by the Islamic State (IS) jihadi terror group, with the threat: “We will take Spain back - by 2020”.
by PAULA SLIER | Aug 24, 2017

About the same time, the first almost perfect Hebrew IS video went viral - threatening the “annihilation of the Jews” as “the first enemy of the Muslims”.

In the video IS promised Israelis that its fighters were “advancing towards you everywhere, from the north and the south, from Sinai to Damascus. From all over the world we will come to wipe you out.”

Fast-forward to today. Islamic State claims it is behind the horrific truck ramming in Barcelona and while many terror organisations are quick to take credit for such incidents, IS is a group that rarely makes false declarations of culpability.

It is clear the group is making good on past threats if you consider its claims of responsibility in June after a pair of co-ordinated shootings and stabbings by three Palestinians in and around Jerusalem’s Old City, leaving a 23-year-old Israeli policewoman, Hadas Malka, dead.

But how much of a danger is Islamic State today? And just how concerned should Israelis be?

After Malka was killed, Jerusalem was quick to refute reports that IS was responsible, but many international experts think otherwise.

At the same time, the seemingly unstoppable advance by the jihadists in Syria and Iraq in 2014 has been stalled. The group has been unable to capture new ground and is fast losing the strongholds it once held. Still, observers warn it could be too early to rule out a comeback.

Some of the socio-political scenarios that gave rise to the jihadists in the first place, still exist. In Iraq, for example - where the collapse of the Iraqi army and the dissatisfaction of minority Sunnis with the Shia government helped IS first rise to power - there exists the problem of what happens “the day after”.

Mosul, the country’s second largest city from where, three years ago, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate - Islamic state - is back in government hands. However, nearlyhalf of its citizens are displaced, 700 000 are homeless and relief agencies are warning of a humanitarian disaster.

Across the border in Syria, the “day after” scenario is just as ominous. Deadly battles between Syrian soldiers, rebel forces and IS fighters, continue. Although here too IS is expected to be driven out by the end of the year, the country looks like it could implode into a number of smaller states.

In such a scenario, each state would be controlled by a weak government, be hampered by economic problems and suffer from massive public dissatisfaction. These are the perfect ingredients for fundamentalists to again captivate a desperate population. 

IS leaders have been preparing their followers for this reality for months, admitting they’re losing territories but insisting it won’t affect their caliphate. This could be partly true, as the group has already shifted into a kind of “virtual caliphate” where terrorists are recruited and directed online. The reach of IS is truly global.

Every so often one reads about an Israeli Arab who has been arrested by Israeli authorities for joining IS. I travelled to the Israeli Arab town of Jaljulye, near Kfar Saba, where two young men had reportedly left for Syria to fight with the group.

The mayor was adamant they were the exception and had fallen through the cracks. Their families refused to talk to me and asked me to leave their properties. A sister of one was studying at the Hebrew University and said that me being there would compromise her.

Eventually one father, Sai’d Musallam, agreed to speak with me. He lives in Jerusalem, in a religious Jewish neighbourhood, and his 19-year-old son, Muhammad, was shot in the head by a child jihadist in a video that was posted online.

IS claimed Muhammad was a Mossad spy, something that has never been proven. When I asked Sai’d why he lived in that particular neighbourhood, he said it was cheaper and more convenient.

Sai’d insisted his son was killed by IS after he tried to escape. “While he was in Syria, Daesh [Arabic acronym for IS] taught him many things,” Sai’d told me.

“Muhammad trained with them for a month without talking to us and when he completed his training, he was transferred to the city of Raqqa,” said Sai’d.

The last time the two spoke, was via Skype when Muhammad asked his father to send money to help him escape. Sai’d says his son had grown disillusioned with IS and wanted to return to Israel.

“Muhammad told me there were activists from Daesh in Tel Aviv. I told him not to talk about it to anyone,” Sai’d said.

When IS claimed responsibility for killing the Israeli policewoman Malka in June, Hamas rejected the claim, saying it was aimed at sowing confusion. Instead Hamas insisted one of the attackers acted on its behalf.

To Israel’s advantage, the goals of IS and the Palestinians are counter-productive, largely because the caliphate as prophesised by al-Baghdadi, has no borders while the Palestinian dream is for a country very much defined by borders.

Palestinian observers I’ve spoken with say that the Palestinian environment also does not tolerate IS’s ideology. Most Palestinians who believe in such an ideology have already left for Iraq, Syria and Sinai, although the ongoing frustration felt by many Palestinians, especially Gazans, is making such extremist ideology more palatable, especially among the youth.

The real concern, though, is less about IS and Israel and the fact that IS might be on the back foot. What’s most alarming, is that jihadism as a movement is thriving. Experts agree that there are hundreds of thousands of jihadists across the Arab world with cells throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

As is already happening, many fighters are returning to their home countries perfectly poised to carry out attacks. There are also lone wolves who act in their own name and fall between the cracks, undetected for years. Unfortunately, it’s not a question of if there will be another Barcelona-like incident; but when. 

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

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