A still image taken from an Islamic State (ISIS) video .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The cross-border incident Sunday morning on the Golan Heights between the IDF and Islamic State-linked terrorists in Syria represented a rare, first-time occurrence. From what is known and what has been publicized, this is the first and only time an ISIS terrorist cell has attempted to attack the IDF from Syrian territory. While there may have been such attacks in the past that were not publicized, they would have been much smaller in size and nature.
On Sunday, a unit from the Golani Brigade sat in a stakeout on the southern Golan Heights at the intersection of the borders of Jordan, Syria and Israel – a terrain of cliffs and brush which makes movement very difficult.
An ISIS cell in a pickup truck or van arrived in the area at around 8 a.m. Sunday and opened heavy machine-gun fire and launched mortar shells from a few hundred meters inside Syrian territory toward the IDF soldiers.
The soldiers responded and within a short time Israel Air Force planes located the assailants and fired a missile that hit their vehicle and killed them.
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The organization responsible for the attack was identified as the ISIS-affiliate Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade, a local tribal group established in 2012 that in 2014 pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Some six months ago it merged with another jihadist group and changed its name.
The group now calls itself J’ish Khaled bin-Walid, named after one of the Prophet Muhammad’s top generals who died in the 7th century in Syria. During the ongoing Syrian civil war the group tends to fight against other rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime, especially the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, which since then also changed its name.
After a number of Yarmuk’s Syrian commanders died in the so-far five-year-long civil war, a non-Syrian was appointed as the group’s leader for the first time. In March 2016, the Saudi-born Abdallah al-Madani took over the position and now receives his orders from ISIS headquarters in its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
One of the possible reasons for Sunday’s attack was that an ISIS lookout spotted the Golani force on its way to the stakeout. If this is the case, then it was an operational error on the part of the soldiers, which showed a lack of professional skills not expected from an elite unit.
Another question the IDF is mulling from the incident is whether the attack was the result of an order from a local commander or from the upper-ranks of Islamic State.
Answering this question is important in order to determine how to act in the future. If it was a local decision, then the IDF’s response was definitely adequate; it was meant to punish but not to open a new war with ISIS in the southern Golan. It is important to note that, during its battle with the Nusra Front, the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade placed its headquarters close to the Israeli border, signaling that it did not feel threatened by Israel.
The possibility that it was a locally made decision also seems to be the more logical possibility, given the fact that the group has in the past not seemed to relish fighting with Israel, plus the fact that ISIS is in a more weakened state in Iraq and some of Syria.
But, if for some reason the orders did come from ISIS headquarters, then there is a possibility that because of its weakened state from the battles with the Iraqi Army, the Syrian Army, Iran, Hezbollah, the US-led coalition and Russia, it is trying to provoke Israel.