Analysis: The Lions’ Den and the Future of Militant Activity in the West Bank

(Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In a joint Israeli security forces’ operation, a founder of the The Lions’ Den (TLD) was killed in the old city of Nablus on Oct. 25. The Lions’ Den commander, Wadee al-Houh was wanted for several acts of terrorism, including his role in the killing of Sgt. Ido Baruch on Oct. 11.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) published a statement saying security forces targeted a “hideout” in the Old City of Nablus that served as the group’s headquarters where explosives were also manufactured.

While the IDF did not mention al-Houh in its statement, an Israeli military official confirmed to FDD’s Long War Journal that he was the target of the operation.

Following the killing of al-Houh, Israeli security forces launched another operation against TLD militants and arrested Muhammed al-Nabulsi, the brother of TLD co-founder Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, who was killed on Aug. 9 in armed clash with IDF troops.

The IDF stated Muhammed al-Nabulsi was suspected of “possessing weapons, manufacturing explosive devices, and involvement in the Lions’ Den”.

The Rise of The Lions’ Den

The rapid ascension of the Nablus-based organization caught many in the Israeli defense establishment by surprise including other Palestinian militant organizations. Of course, there were already militant organizations in the northern West Bank that preceded TLD such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. However, TLD is unique because it wasn’t created by a foreign actor or another Palestinian faction. It’s mostly comprised of militants from different organizations and unaffiliated gunmen attracted the group’s cause.

What has largely driven the group’s popularity is its use of social media platforms. TLD’s Telegram channel was created in Aug. and has been used to publish statements including videos of attacks on IDF troops and Israeli settlements. The channel’s popularity has grown so much that its follower count (~240k) has surpassed Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades, Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s Saraya al-Quds and other well-known groups that have been using the platform to spread militant propaganda for years.

Hamas, Hezbollah and other Iranian-aligned militant organizations have recognized the value of the Lions’ Den in fomenting unrest in the West Bank. Hamas routinely publishes statements lionizing the group and its martyred militants. Additionally, it is suspected that Hamas funds the TLD’s activities, but proof has yet to be published substantiating this claim.

Hezbollah has also employed a similar strategy to boost the TLD’s propaganda efforts by publishing their statements on its online propaganda channel.

Israel Attempts to Neutralize The Lions’ Den

In recent weeks Israeli security operations have made significant achievements against TLD’s operations. On Oct. 22, a vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) killed senior TLD member Tamer al-Kilani in Nablus. TLD accused Israel of planting TNT inside a motorcycle rigged to detonate when Kilani walked by. While the Israeli military did not comment on Kilani’s death, his killing is consistent with previous targeted killing operations by the Israeli defense establishment.

Then on Oct. 25, Wadee al-Houh was killed by Israeli security forces in Nablus.

On Oct. 26, senior TLD member Mahmoud al-Bana surrendered to Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces, reportedly due to concerns he would be targeted by Israeli security forces. Al-Bana was also wounded on the night of the Israeli operation targeting al-Houh.

Future Militant Activity in the West Bank

It appears that recent Israeli military operations have affected TLD activity in the West Bank. The last officially claimed attack was on Oct. 19 when the group said it targeted IDF soldiers patrolling near Mount Gerizim.

Asked by FDD’s Long War Journal whether the IDF believed Israeli security operations against TLD was having a substantial affect, an Israeli military official answered in the affirmative.

The lack of operations claimed by TLD is a positive sign for the Israeli military, but it is too soon to predict how the elimination and surrender of senior members will translate on the ground. While attacks against IDF troops and Israeli settlements may decrease in the West Bank, it’s reasonable to believe the uptick in militant-led violence since last year will not subside with the possible demise of TLD.

Organizations that spearheaded the violence in the West Bank remain present. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades continue to claim attacks. In one example, Katibat Jenin (PIJ) claimed a shooting attack on the northern West Bank settlement of Shaked earlier today.

Lastly, it is important to note there is a trend of copycat groups emerging in the West Bank with no apparent affiliation to established militant organizations. Some of these organizations have produced evidence supporting claims of attacks on Israeli targets. For example, previously unknown groups such as Saqour al-Quds (recently underwent a rebranding) and Saraya al-Sayyad have published statements and video purportedly showing attacks on Israeli targets. Though it is unlikely these groups will become a persistent threat in the West Bank.

Joe Truzman is an editor and senior research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal focused primarily on Palestinian armed groups and non-state actors in the Middle East.

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