DAKAR, Senegal — When terrorists in Africa delivered two devastating attacks last month, they invoked a battle cry seldom heard in recent militant activity on the continent: the Palestinian cause.
“We emphasize and appreciate the high efforts and beautiful words of all the vibrant jihadist work to prevent the Judaization of Palestine,” a statement from the group’s leaders said, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremist content.
The rallying cry, thousands of miles away from where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is playing out, was ordered up by Ayman al-Zawahri, the head of Al Qaeda who late last year reiterated calls for the group’s franchises to target Zionists.
Major terrorist activities by Qaeda branches in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years seem motivated by other causes, security analysts said. They were intended to expand into new territory, lash out at Western military action or remind the world of Al Qaeda’s relevance as global powers focused on its headline-grabbing rival, the Islamic State.
In the last two weeks, thousands of people have been streaming out of the last parcels of land under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria. The group once controlled an area the size of Britain.
“The Islamic State is, to a certain extent, on its back foot right now, allowing Al Qaeda an opportunity to remind people who they are and that they too have a geopolitical agenda,” said Jason Warner, director of Africa research for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
The Qaeda affiliates behind the attacks in Mali and Kenya both cited the Palestinian cause as a motive.
In the first attack, gunmen from the Shabab, the East Africa franchise of Al Qaeda, stormed a hotel complex in Nairobi, Kenya, and killed 14, with many more wounded. Days later in Mali, JNIM, the North African franchise of Al Qaeda, targeted peacekeeping soldiers from Chad, killing 10 and wounding 25.
The attacks came fully seven months after President Trump moved the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the disputed holy city, which Mr. Trump recognized as the country’s capital. Widely seen as inflaming tensions and as a demonstration of the administration’s favoritism toward Israel in its long conflict with the Palestinians, the move drew condemnation at the time from many corners, including Al Qaeda and other extremist militant organizations.
The suffering of the Palestinians has long been an animating cause for Al Qaeda, a stand-in for the victimization of Muslims at the hands of Western powers. Biographies of Osama bin Laden say that as an adolescent, he cried watching news coverage of displaced Palestinians who had been forced off their land.
For its part, the Shabab has talked of liberating Jerusalem for more than a decade. And a past iteration of JNIM called for attacking Jews after Israel temporarily closed a prominent mosque in Jerusalem in 2017.
Al Qaeda appears to have seized on the moving of the embassy as a rationale for attacks.
“This rhetoric is, of course, exactly what it looks like: opportunistic exploitation of a major human rights issue and geopolitical controversy,” said Rita Katz, co-founder of SITE. “Outside of this rhetoric, Al Qaeda has not actually provided any sort of effective assistance to Palestinians.”
Mr. Zawahri has been hammering on the issue in communications since at least September.
“When Trump insists on moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem as an open show of American recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel, his decision does not emerge from a vacuum; rather it is a clear-cut articulation of this Judeo-Christian bias,” he said in one message, according to SITE, which provided a translation.
“Consider Palestine. Who leads the gang of criminals who have violated its sanctity? It is again America,” Mr. Zawahri said.
Then, at the end of December, he urged Saudi Muslims to wage jihad and called on them to attack American and Israeli interests, according to SITE. He specifically cited the embassy move.
“When the Americans decided to reveal their blatant hostility to the Muslims, they did so without shame, where Trump announced the new stage, starting with the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem,” he said.
For Israel, the violence may serve to advance its efforts to make common cause with African regimes, particularly on security issues.
The attacks in Kenya and Mali also coincided with Israel’s stepping up its influence on the African continent. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Chad days before the attack in Mali, which operatives cited as a reason for targeting Chadians.
Since 2016, Israel has made a concerted strategic push into Africa, from Conakry on the Atlantic Coast to the Horn of Africa in the east. It reinstated long-severed diplomatic ties, chipping away at what had been a reliable bloc of votes against Israel in the United Nations, and flexing its muscles in a part of the world where African solidarity with Muslim nations had for decades mandated rejection of relations with Israel.
“Israel has returned to Africa, and in a big way,” Mr. Netanyahu declared on a visit to Liberia in 2017.
The Israeli leader has made four trips to the continent since mid-2016, and a visit to Israel by the prime minister of Mali, another majority-Muslim country that cut its ties in the 1970s, is expected soon, according to Israeli news media.
In January, Mr. Netanyahu traveled to Chad where he restored ties that had been severed in 1972, calling it evidence of a “revolution in our relations with the Arab and Muslim world.”
The push into Africa has not been welcomed by everyone in Israel. Some think Mr. Netanyahu should deal with issues closer to home.
Avi Gabbay, head of the left-leaning Labor Party and a candidate for prime minister, said that if Israel really wants to normalize, it needs to open ties with the Persian Gulf countries. And that is not going to happen without movement on the peace process, which under Mr. Netanyahu has been at a virtual standstill for years.
“Chad, all due respect, has about 12 million people and I don’t know how many have telephones or internet,” Mr. Gabbay said. “Chad is just covering up for the fact that he’s not dealing with the Palestinian issue.”
As a tangible benefit to Israeli consumers from its African diplomacy, the Netanyahu government highlighted the possibility of commercial overflight agreements that would shorten the travel time from Tel Aviv to Latin America by a few hours. But the symbolic value of each large Muslim country that normalizes ties with Israel may far surpass any practical gains, experts said.
In East Africa, at least, Israel’s efforts involve its own security concerns like preventing Hamas, the militant group that controls the Palestinian territory of Gaza, from importing Iranian weapons and munitions by the Red Sea. According to American officials, Israel bombed a weapons convoy bound for Gaza in Sudan in 2009, before Sudan broke off relations with Iran.
Similarly, Israel sees Ethiopia and Kenya as close allies against Islamists in Somalia who perpetrated the 2013 attack on the Israeli-owned Westgate Mall in Nairobi that killed 71 people. Israel has also turned to both Rwanda and Uganda to accept African migrants it wants to deport.
For African nations, Israel is attractive as a source of military expertise, arms and, in particular, military drones. Governments like Mali’s, hard-pressed to control vast territories, see drones as a way to keep tabs on insurgent groups.
And Mr. Netanyahu’s close relationship with President Trump has given him added cachet with African leaders eager to find favor with the White House.
On the civilian side, Israeli advances in drip-irrigation, desalination and water-purification technology promise to enhance agriculture in arid regions. Israel’s small renewable-energy industry first brought solar power to Rwanda in 2015 and a year ago, Israel signed on to the American-led Power Africa initiative to bring electricity to 60 million homes.
The country’s engagement in Africa may actually be coming full circle.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Israeli and African leaders bonded over their nations’ anticolonial struggles as Israel aided African armies and paramilitary organizations. The Arab boycott in the 1970s led to pressure on African leaders to cut ties with Israel, and Israel’s response — forging close ties with what was then the apartheid government of South Africa — only worsened its standing elsewhere on the continent.
Israeli officials can barely contain their glee at seeing the once-solid ideological support for the Palestinians give way to flexible geopolitics.
“When these guys would get together at the Organization of African States, now the African Union, this was some of the paste that binded them together,” said Dore Gold, a former director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “But things have changed completely. They really don’t buy into this anymore,” he said.
“The militant Arabs, our adversaries, have less to offer the Africans. And we have a great deal to offer,” Mr. Gold said.
He recalled taking a team of emissaries to Chad in 2016 and meeting for talks at an oasis in the Sahara, where one of his counterparts mentioned that the nations’ diplomatic ties had been severed in 1972 under pressure from Muammar el-Qaddafi, then the Libyan dictator.
“I said, ‘Qaddafi’s dead, Libya itself is falling apart.’ So they said to me, ‘That’s why you’re here.’”
Orignially published in NYT.