Analysis

How Credible Is ISIS' Claim of Deadly Jerusalem Terror Attack?

Jerusalem attack may encourage copycats – but it doesn't point to a new terror wave

Israeli border police arrest a Palestinian during clashes in the West Bank village of Deir Abu Mash'al near Ramallah, June 17, 2017 a day after an attack in Jerusalem killed a police officer.
ISIS claims Jerusalem terror attack - How credible is it? Israeli border police arrest a Palestinian during clashes on June 17, 2017, a day after the terror attack Nasser Shiyoukhi, AP

The knife-and-gun attack that killed a border policewoman in Jerusalem on Friday got a dubious honor a few hours later when it became the first attack in Israel to be claimed by the Islamic State. The organization has in the past only claimed responsibility for rocket fire from Sinai toward southern Israel.

ISIS made the statement via its official news agency, even giving a nom de guerre to each of the three assailants, who were killed by police on the scene of the attack. But the Israel Defense Forces has cast doubt on the statement's credibility. Military sources describe the assailants, residents of the West Bank village of Deir Abu Mash'al, as a "classic local cell" – youths who knew each other and decided to join forces, but did not belong to a terror organization. 

In some of the previous instances when ISIS took responsibility for attacks in Europe, it later emerged that the assailants maintained some contact with forums associated with the organization online. In other cases, the attackers were in fact ISIS operatives with European citizenship who returned to the continent after fighting in Syria and Iraq. 

The Palestinians behind Friday's attack certainly didn't belong to the latter category. At the moment, it appears that ISIS is trying to take advantage of the attack. At most, it's appropriating the incident based on limited online contact. As long as there isn't stronger proof – a video showing the assailants swearing allegiance, for example – it's difficult to take ISIS' claim seriously. 

Palestinian organizations Hamas and the Popular Front joined Israel in dismissing the Islamic State's involvement. So far ISIS has not perpetrated an attack within Israel. However, there has been a sharp rise in the number of Palestinians and Arab Israelis detained on suspicion of being linked to extremist Salafist organizations, including ISIS and Al-Qaida. 

Copycats

The Israeli defense establishment did not receive advance warning for Friday's terror attack, but it was prepared for a rise in such incidents during the final week of Ramadan. So far the Ramadan period has been relatively quiet, but violent incidents were expected toward the end of the month, particularly in Jerusalem, amid religious radicalization among Palestinian youth.

It is likely that the three assailants picked Jerusalem as their target in order to maximize the attack's exposure. Since the beginning of the year seven Israelis have been killed in terror attacks, six of them in Jerusalem: A policewoman on Friday, a British tourist who was stabbed to death on the Light Rail in April and four IDF cadets who were run over by a truck on the Armon Hanatziv promenade in January. (The seventh, a soldier, was run over near the Ofra settlement in April).

Compared to the violent months that began in October 2015, the past year has been quiet. The number of terror incidents has significantly dropped. Many of the assailants who perpetrated attacks in the past few months, primarily armed with knives, have acted of their own accord, and an analysis of their background indicates that they had serious personal problems. This is especially true when it comes to young women who attack soldiers and police at checkpoints with the aim of getting shot. In the last few months, border police at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron arrested more than 15 young Palestinian men and women armed with knives, without resorting to gunfire. 

But this wasn't the case on Friday. Three assailants launched a coordinated attack in two sites in East Jerusalem with the purpose of maximizing the killing. Like other local cells that carried out attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank in the past, the assailants were armed with knives and improvised submachine guns, known as Carlos. Some of the deadliest attacks carried out in the last terror wave, including the attacks that killed border policewoman Hadar Cohen in Jerusalem in February 2016 and four people in the Sarona complex in Tel Aviv in June 2016, involved Carlo guns. 

The IDF and the Shin Bet security service are waging a war on the improvised weapons industry in the West Bank by raiding workshops, making arrests and seizing property. Since the beginning of the year, 29 such workshops have been shut down and 180 weapons have been seized. The black market price of the Carlo gun, which is much less lethal than properly manufactured weapons, has risen as result of the crackdown, from 1,500 shekels ($425) to 3,000-4000 shekels ($850-$1,135). 

The latest attack doesn't amount to a turning point, despite its deadly outcome. The level of coordination between Israel and the Palestinian defense establishment is high, and so far there are no signs of a new terror wave. And yet, the end of Ramadan is expected to be a sensitive time as Israel takes broader security measures and due to the tendency among Palestinian youths to perpetrate copycat attacks following a terror incident that is perceived as successful. The fact that Palestinian organizations, including the Fatah, are disseminating false accounts of the attack that claim that the assailants were shot even though they were unarmed is stoking the fire.