Israeli-Iranian escalation and international terrorism

Tokka Elnaggar
Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

The Israeli-Iranian escalation may directly influence the activities of terrorist organisations in the region, depending on the nature of their relationship with Tehran, writes Tokka Elnaggar


The Middle East region is witnessing numerous armed conflicts that are casting shadows on the global terrorism arena. The repercussions of these disturbances are impacting the activities of terrorist organisations, providing them with various spaces to expand their operations and enhance their influence. The Israeli-Iranian escalation may directly influence the activities and trajectories of terrorist organisations, especially in the light of the relationship between Tehran and some of these groups.

For the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, the Israeli-Iranian escalation may lead it to align more closely with Iran, particularly as it is seeking a lifeline to regain the momentum lost due to ideological, political, and organisational crises. The escalation could represent an opportunity for the organisation to establish a space to strengthen communication with Iran.

From a historical perspective, the relationship between Tehran and the Muslim Brotherhood has been characterised by ideological inspiration and political pragmatism. Most religious currents in Iran have drawn concepts of “Political Islam” from the Muslim Brotherhood, and Tehran has aimed to expand its influence within the region by supporting a movement sharing a similar, if not identical, ideology.

The relationship between them dates back to the period before the Iranian Revolution, crystallising in the meeting between Ayatollah Khomeini and Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna in Cairo in 1938. This interaction influenced several leaders of the Iranian Islamist movement, giving them Brotherhood ideas as a working constitution and leading to the formation of Brotherhood ideologue Sayed Qutb’s ideas as the core of the revolutionary discourse that rejected the rule of former Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

With the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood celebrated what it saw as an inspiring model for the “Political Islam” trend. After the revolution, unofficial communications between the two parties continued. The Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt after the 2011 Revolution facilitated official relations, with presidential visits exchanged between the two countries. Alongside the official diplomacy, there were also covert movements, as evidenced by reports of former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qassem Suleimani’s secret visit to Cairo in 2013 for talks with Brotherhood organisation leaders.

Given the current challenges facing the Brotherhood, including the loss of its popular base and waning influence alongside a decline in regional support, it will seek to leverage the escalation against Iran to present itself as Tehran’s ally and seek support to reclaim its functional role.

Turning to Al-Qaeda, the escalation between Tel Aviv and Tehran carries implications that could affect terrorism in Yemen and extend its repercussions to the wider region. This is particularly evident amid increasing signs of rapprochement between Al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Houthi rebel group, with the former avoiding strikes in areas controlled by the latter.

Additionally, the establishment of specialised drone units by Al-Qaeda, supported and trained operationally by the Houthis, could extend this coordination to targeting navigation in the Red Sea, especially given Al-Qaeda in Yemen’s extensive experience in maritime targeting.

Seen through the lens of history, the relationship between Al-Qaeda and Tehran has been characterised by setting aside ideological differences in favour of enhancing pragmatic interests. Communication between them began in the early 1990s when Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was in Sudan and spurred by efforts by Sudanese politician Hassan Al-Turabi to reconcile Sunni and Shia interests against their common enemy, the United States.

Iran sent an envoy to meet Bin Laden, resulting in an unofficial cooperation agreement. This led Iran to provide logistical and financial support to the organisation, allowing Al-Qaeda leaders to carry out significant operations that challenged the United States and its allies. In return, the sanctuary of Iran helped sustain the organisation and allowed freedom of movement for its leaders and members.

Some branches of Al-Qaeda are now seeking cooperation with Iran. According to senior officials in the Somali government, Tehran has established relations with the Al-Shabaab Movement (Al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia) to use Somalia as a conduit for transferring weapons to the Houthis in Yemen and to other countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique. In February 2023, the UN announced the presence of Saif Al-Adl, the current leader of Al-Qaeda, in Iran. Such intricate relationships between Al-Qaeda and Tehran may lead the former to provide various forms of support to the latter based on their shared interests.

Regarding the Islamic State (IS) group, it is evident that its approach to the Israeli-Iranian escalation will differ significantly from that of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda. The former adopts a doctrine based on the excommunication of Shia Muslims, viewing them as a polytheistic faction that should be targeted religiously. It continues to attack Shia communities, convinced that targeting them is a religious obligation.

Furthermore, the role played by Iran-backed factions in pressuring IS in its traditional strongholds cannot be overlooked. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard earlier participated in liberating areas under IS control in Iraq, and its role in coordinating military operations in Syria to regain areas seized by the organisation contributed to framing the hostility between IS and Iran.

It is anticipated that the Israeli-Iranian escalation will be utilised by various terrorist organisations to bolster their activities in the Southwest Asian arena, particularly in the light of the IS Khorasan group’s ability to recruit within Tajik networks and target Iran itself, bringing to mind the attack on the Iranian city of Kerman in January.

Despite the differing approaches of these organisations based on their different agendas, the repercussions of their actions will have wide-ranging implications for regional and international security alike.


The writer is an international terrorism researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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