Israeli security officials assess the likelihood of an attack by ISIS using two measures. The first is the distance of the Islamic State’s fighters from Israel’s northern border and the second is the number of Palestinian Israeli citizens who seem to identify with the movement. By either measurement, the prognosis is relatively good for Israel.
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Major ISIS forces have come no closer than 80 kilometers from the Golan frontier and now that they are beginning to face Russian bombardment, they are being pushed back even further. Meanwhile, despite frequent media reports of Arab Israelis involved with ISIS, either trying to organize local cells or going off to fight in its ranks in Syria, the number remains remarkably low — about 40 to 50 altogether. This is especially low when compared with the number of young European Muslims who have either traveled to Syria or are known to support ISIS.
ISIS isn’t high on the Israeli threat list. Palestinian attackers from the West Bank, Hamas rockets from Gaza, Hezbollah and of course Iran are all deemed much more dangerous. The West’s current obsession with ISIS, even after the recent Paris attacks, is seen in Israel as a passing fad, almost a distraction from other more pressing concerns. But things will almost certainly change because sooner or later ISIS will attack Israel. It’s inevitable, even though there are good reasons why it hasn’t happened so far.
Despite its fearsome image, ISIS is still far from being a professional fighting force. The level of experience of its members and volunteers varies wildly. It has yet to face a well-organized and motivated army — the Syrian and Iraqi units it swept aside were demoralized, ill equipped and often just looking for an excuse to desert. ISIS fighters have so far largely avoided confrontation with Hezbollah and when coming up against the Kurdish YPG have been pushed back. ISIS succeeds usually when it operates in the vacuum left by crumbling states or, as we saw two weeks ago in Paris, when it can exploit open borders and lax security in western European countries. So on either count, Israel with its fortified borders and vigilant security forces experienced in counter-terrorism is not a likely target.
That doesn’t mean they won’t try. Last month ISIS released an online video in Hebrew in which it promised that “not a single Jew will remain in Jerusalem." For a militant Islamist movement, a successful strike against the Zionist usurpers occupying Jerusalem's Al—Aqsa Mosque will be a public relations bonanza, a feat that even ISIS’ many Islamic enemies could not condemn. Iranian-sponsored websites have tried to spread the conspiracy theory that Israel (and the United States) is actually sponsoring ISIS. As ridiculous as that sounds to Western ears, it rings true to many Muslims and ISIS would naturally be eager to shoot down these theories. If the coalition of Western governments, Arab regimes and Russia finally begin to get their act together and seriously pressure ISIS, the movement will need something spectacular to garner popularity, something it hasn’t done yet. It will be focusing its efforts on an Israeli target soon, if it isn’t already.
What form will the attack take? It’s difficult to predict. ISIS is adept at probing and striking at its enemy’s vulnerable spots, and there are no obvious ones in this case. ISIS has proxies and affiliates closer to Israel’s borders — Shuhada al-Yarmuch (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) in the southern Golan, and on the Sinai border the organization formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which a year ago pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s caliph and is now officially a branch of ISIS. However, despite their proximity, both these groups are currently fighting local Arab forces and will find it hard to mount a major attack on either of those well fortified Israeli borders.
Another way to launch an attack would be to penetrate Israel’s longest and least protected border, that with Jordan. While ISIS is not officially operational in Jordan, it has many sympathizers in poor towns and neighborhoods who have so far been allowed to operate quietly as long as they do not carry out attacks on Jordanian soil. Jordan would be the most convenient base for an ISIS operation against Israel. But ISIS is unlikely to try a route which has major logistic hurdles and could jeopardize the movement’s supporters in Jordan.
The preferred methods are almost certain to be to try to take over one of the Palestinian factions in the West Bank or Gaza, something which can conceivably be done without physical contact, and continuing to maintain online contact with Arab Israeli citizens who are attracted to the movement’s ideology. Israeli intelligence experts say that the current fetish for stabbing attacks by Palestinian youths is at least partly inspired by the ISIS iconography of beheading videos, as was the attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood a year ago in which six Israelis were killed by attackers wielding knives and cleavers. If ISIS succeeds in recruiting a group of more resourceful Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who can freely travel around the country and visit like-minded activists in the West Bank, where there are still considerable quantities of weapons, it will have the makings of a major attack.
The Israeli security forces are aware of the possibility of such a development and have made a point of demonstrating their vigilance by publicizing every arrest of even the most minor local ISIS fan who is active online. But a more serious attempt to organize and strike is just a matter of time. ISIS' chances of success are not great since Israel’s intelligence agencies are much better prepared than their French counterparts. But ISIS will try and strike Israel, even if for PR purposes alone.