ISIS attacks Iran: Is the terror group exploiting Gaza war chaos?

Nearly 100 people died when suicide bombers struck at event commemorating the killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani on January 3

ISIS fighters in Iraq's Mosul, in 2014. The scale of the Kerman attacks could indicate a resurgence for the group, analysts say. AP
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As the Middle East struggles to contain the Israel-Gaza war, which has drawn in the Lebanese Hezbollah group and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, a major ISIS attack in the Iranian city of Kerman last week only underlines the risk of a wider regional conflict.

The bombings at a memorial for Iranian general Qassem Suleimani have raised fears that ISIS is now entering the fray, if only to exploit the chaos.

The so-called “double-tap” suicide bombings that have characterised many ISIS atrocities killed almost 100 people in Kerman on January 3.

Suleimani, who was assassinated in Iraq in 2020 by a US drone, led the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force. The IRGC and its allied militias fought against ISIS in Iraq and Syria during the terror group's rise and fall to power between 2013 and 2019.

After the January 3 bombing, Hossein Salami, who now heads the IRGC, said ISIS were “mercenaries” of the US and UK. The US issued a statement saying it had nothing to do with the Kerman blasts, but this is unlikely to dispel tensions.

Fortunes have crumbled in the region for ISIS, following the group's near-total defeat during the battles of Mosul and Raqqa between 2016 and 2019.

In Iraq, where ISIS previously controlled the country's second-largest city Mosul, the group now conducts small hit-and-run attacks, in sharp contrast to hundreds of bombings and assassinations per month at the group’s peak.

But the scale of the Kerman attacks, against the backdrop of regional tension, could signal a resurgence.

ISIS in retreat?

Iran appears convinced ISIS remains a threat backed by shadowy foreign forces. Tehran has frequently repeated accusations that ISIS is supported by Israel and the US, without providing concrete evidence to support its claims.

It has blamed Israel for extremist attacks in Arab nations going as far back as 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini blamed Israel for attacks in Saudi Arabia that year.

Those attacks were the work of a fringe religious cult.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks on Kerman.

The assault does appear to be the work of ISIS, experts told The National, and fits with their obscure vision of global struggle to overthrow governments in the region, the West and Israel.

The terror group considers the attacks in line with a push against those it labels “apostates” and “polytheists.”

ISIS - including the Afghan branch of the group that allegedly carried out the Kerman attack - prioritises targets based on its extreme prejudice against religious groups or people it views as straying from its ideology.

In this light, the Kerman attack is an attempt to be seen as relevant, despite waning power in the Middle East, analysts say.

“Having studied their work since 2003, this is their playbook” says Craig Whiteside, expert on the terror group at the US Naval War College and co-author of The ISIS Reader

"The global attention on Gaza means Hamas has potential to reframe a global jihad as a nationalist enterprise against Israeli occupation," he said, which is not the way that ISIS frames jihad.

He says attacks such as the Kerman bombing distinguish ISIS from other extremist movements, including its forerunner, Al Qaeda, a trend that emerged in the early days of the Iraq invasion.

“Al Qaeda’s central leadership constantly challenged them early to avoid sectarian attacks against Shiite Iraqis because it detracted from AQ's framing of the fight against the US, which was comparable to the Hamas and Israel struggle,” he says, adding that the militant group in Gaza wants to gain support from states and various non-state groups.

ISIS' countless enemies

ISIS has a vast array of enemies across the region and beyond.

Before ISIS, Al Qaeda saw its struggle as to violently expel western influence from the Middle East. ISIS took this idea much further, vastly expanding its list of enemies to anyone the group considered to have strayed from its path.

The extremists also embraced violence for new political uses.

“Early ISIS adherents disregarded this [Al Qaeda’s vision]. It isn't about killing people,” Mr Whiteside says, explaining how ISIS uses terror not to militarily weaken opponents, but to highlight their movement.

“It is about using violence to persuade others to adopt its framing of the conflict the way ISIS sees it. First they must defeat the apostates and apostate rulers, and there are no greater apostates than the Shia,” Mr Whiteside says, referring to the attacks on Shiite-majority Iran.

ISIS gained notoriety for extreme brutality in Iraq, not only targeting such as Christians, Shiites and Yazidis, but also bombing Sunni gatherings, including funerals, to strike at Sunni sheikhs and other community figures who opposed it.

It views the Palestinian group Hamas in the same light as these “enemies”, Mr Whiteside says.

“If you look at ISIS writings on Palestine, most are critiques of Hamas. They hate the Muslim Brotherhood and fought it in Iraq for twenty years. And they probably would prioritise fighting Hamas over Israel, because if the Muslim Brotherhood wins the battles of ideas then their movement is over,” Mr Whiteside says.

Attempt to stay relevant

Aymenn Al Tamimi, a Middle East Forum Fellow, agrees with Mr Whiteside that the attack in Iran is mainly a signal of “relevance,” rather than the start of a new revival of the group.

“I think it's a bid to show relevance yes, but strictly from the standpoint of its worldview that is seen as the only legitimate path to [eventually] liberating Palestine," he said.

"This means fighting and defeating the 'apostates' around Israel so that the 'apostates' no longer have a monopoly on the Palestinian cause, while at the same time being ready to target Jews and Israeli interests in Israel and around the world in a bid to show support for the people of Palestine,” he added.

“The target and timing in Iran were definitely chosen in relation to Qassem Suleimani and the anniversary of his assassination," he said.

"I think ultimately though it's a sideshow in the picture of Gaza and the US drawdown from Iraq, and yes, the attack (and IS' other claimed attacks in Iraq, Syria and the world within this 'expedition') do not show the group is 'resurgent’” he said.

Updated: January 10, 2024, 4:49 PM