al-Qaeda has been given a new Sanctuary–GAZA. Following a series of violent clashes, Hamas and Jaish al-Islam established a joint committee to regulate relations between the groups and to solve disputes between them. In essence, Hamas recognized al Qaeda affiliate Jaish al-Islam as a legitimate armed movement inside the area under Hamas jurisdiction. Palestinian terrorist leader President Abbas has even warned about the growing influence of al-Qaeda in the PA.
I believe that al-Qaeda is present in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. It is the Hamas movement that brought al-Qaeda in and it abets the entry and exit [of militants]….I believe that they are allies.”
In the Foreign Policy brief below, the JPCA takes a look at al-Qaeda’s growing presence in the Gaza strip and what it means for the war on terror:
Hamas Welcomes Islamist Terror Groups in Gaza Hamas is continuing to consolidate its rule in Gaza. More than a year after its military coup and takeover of the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, no significant signs of opposition to Hamas rule are discernible. On August 2, 2008, Hamas once again demonstrated its power when it attacked the compound of the Hilles clan in Sajaiya, toppling one of the last remaining Fatah strongholds in Gaza. Furthermore, since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, Hamas has openly welcomed a host of Islamist terror groups, including organizations that openly identify themselves as al-Qaeda affiliates. Israel is monitoring developments in Gaza with concern. On July 27, 2008, Prime Minister Olmert expressed his apprehension that in Gaza “a reality is taking shape that in five years we are going to ask ourselves how we allowed this to happen?”1 Intelligence evaluations regarding the situation in Gaza are gloomy. In surveys presented to the government in July 2008, the head of the Israel Security Agency, Yuval Diskin, pointed to the strengthening and accelerated arms buildup of Hamas under the cover of the cease-fire agreement with Israel. It was reported that Hamas is equipping itself with longer range missiles that could strike Kiryat Gat and perhaps even Ashdod, is continuing to smuggle war materiel across the Egyptian border, is mining extensive areas in the Gaza Strip, is building bunkers, and is raising the level of training and preparation of Hamas forces. Diskin added that since the lull, four tons of explosive materials, fifty antitank missiles, light weaponry, and materials for manufacturing rockets (iron pipes and gunpowder) had entered Gaza.2 Islamic Terror Organizations and al-Qaeda Affiliates in Gaza Except for Fatah, which is considered an enemy of Hamas in the battle for governmental legitimacy in Gaza, the other Palestinian terror organizations enjoy full freedom of movement under Hamas rule. The most prominent of these groups are Islamic Jihad (directly tied to Iran), the Popular Resistance Committees (an extreme Islamic organization with leanings toward al-Qaeda), Al-Ahraar (a terror organization established and controlled by Hamas), the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades (of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine of George Habash), and the offshoots of al-Qaeda in Gaza: Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam; an al-Qaeda branch in Gaza), the Army of the Umma (identified with al-Qaeda), and Fatah al-Islam (an additional branch of al-Qaeda). Jaish al-Islam strongly identifies itself with al-Qaeda, posting statements and videos on jihadi websites along with photos of Osama bin Laden, and adopting his agenda.3 Some sixteen terror organizations in Gaza have accepted the authority of Hamas by their agreement to the cease-fire agreement with Israel that went into effect on June 19, 2008. Some of the groups that are identified with al-Qaeda, or that are considered its tributaries, maintain close ties with Hamas. The Popular Resistance Committees, an organization that was in contact with elements of al-Qaeda and whose leaders even adopted the dress code of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, has become a strategic ally of Hamas. It accepts the authority of the Hamas leadership and on the operational level is a partner to many joint terror activities.4 The freedom of action enjoyed by the Popular Resistance Committees can be inferred from the open training camps for its activists, as well as the unmolested manufacture of rockets at its local workshops. A CNN television crew documented a PRC military training exercise in August 2008 and presented a first-hand account of the group’s new Nasser IV rocket, which it claimed had a range of 25 km. and could reach the port city of Ashdod.5 Hamas-Jaish al-Islam Relations Relations between Hamas and Jaish al-Islam have fluctuated in recent years. The zenith of coordination and military cooperation between the two groups found expression in a joint action carried out in June 2006 during which an IDF position in Israeli territory near the Gaza border was attacked and Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted and brought into the Strip. Jaish al-Islam also adopted al-Qaeda’s modus operandi of abducting foreigners in Gaza including two Fox News journalists, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig.6 Tension between the two groups grew as a result of the May 2007 kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston by Jaish al-Islam (which was later forced and bribed by Hamas to free him). At the time, Jaish al-Islam had demanded the release from a British prison of Abu Qatada, one of the spiritual heads of al-Qaeda in Europe. The mastermind of the kidnapping had fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.7 Local power struggles also erupted between the two groups and Jaish al-Islam voiced criticism of the penetration of Shiite Iranian influence in Gaza under the protection of Hamas. In addition, Jaish al-Islam expressed its opposition to the cease-fire with Israel, and has demanded the immediate application of Islamic Sharia religious law in Gaza. Activists of Jaish al-Islam have been involved in a series of terror attacks directed against Christian targets in Gaza and some have been arrested by Hamas. This issue somewhat soured relations between the groups, which came at a time when the Hamas government had launched a diplomatic offensive in an effort to gain international legitimacy for its rule.8 Hamas has had fluctuations in its overall relationship with al-Qaeda, more generally. There have been European voices, like former Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema, who charged that the Western effort to isolate the Hamas regime has been responsible for driving it into the arms of al-Qaeda. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed the existence of Hamas-al-Qaeda contacts, but he rejected the notion that they were a product of Western pressures against the Hamas regime in Gaza.9 Hamas Reaches a Formal Agreement with Jaish al-Islam The last round of violent confrontation between Hamas and Jaish al-Islam also took place on August 2, 2008. The battle zone was the al-Sabra neighborhood in Gaza. Hamas forces attacked the homes of Jaish al-Islam activists suspected of involvement in planting the explosive charge that lead to the death of five senior Hamas activists on the Gaza seacoast.10 Following a series of violent clashes, Hamas and Jaish al-Islam established a joint committee to regulate relations between the groups and to solve disputes and crises between them. Mumtaz Durmush, the leader of Jaish al-Islam who openly admitted ties with al-Qaeda, participated in meetings with Hamas representatives that led to the final agreement to establish the joint committee. Abu Hassan al-Maqdisi, a senior member of Jaish al-Islam, divulged to a German news agency that, as a result of the talks with Hamas, agreement had been reached on all outstanding issues between the two groups.11 In essence, Hamas recognized Jaish al-Islam as a legitimate armed movement inside the area under Hamas jurisdiction. In a previous agreement between the two groups, Hamas had given Jaish al-Islam $5 million and more than a million Kalashnikov bullets in compensation for its freeing of BBC journalist Alan Johnston. Jaish al-Islam also received formal recognition from Hamas as a legitimate jihadi organization, and it was agreed that joint actions carried out in the past would not be revealed.12 In the meantime, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) warned about the emerging trend, telling Al-Hayat on February 26, 2008: “I believe that al-Qaeda is present in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. It is the Hamas movement that brought al-Qaeda in and it abets the entry and exit [of militants]….I believe that they are allies.” Mousa Abu Marzouk, the deputy to Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, provided clear expression to the fact that this has been Hamas policy in a discussion with the correspondent of Al-Hayat following his meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Damascus on July 19, 2007. Abu Marzouk noted that “when Hamas assumed power, the Palestinian Authority in its entirety became a fighting authority in the sense that the fighters are no longer subject to arrest and liquidation. Hamas has transformed the resistance (the armed struggle) into something legitimate.”13 In other words, Abu Marzouk confirmed that Gaza had become a hotbed of global Islamic terror. Jaish al-Islam, the main al-Qaeda affiliate in Gaza, like other Islamic terror organizations, therefore enjoys freedom of action under Hamas rule. Hamas Rule Recalls the Taliban Hamas rule in Gaza is reminiscent in no small degree of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, until its defeat by American forces at the end of 2001. In his testimony before the 9/11 Commission, former CIA director George Tenet said that between 1996 and 2001, Afghanistan had served as a safe haven for terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, which built the network that planned the attacks, provided extreme Islamic indoctrination, and recruited activists. The Taliban regime, according to Tenet, actively assisted al-Qaeda by assigning it guards for security, permitting it to build and maintain terrorist training camps, and refusing to cooperate with efforts by the international community to extradite bin Laden. In return, bin Laden invested vast amounts of money in Taliban projects and provided hundreds of well-trained fighters to help the Taliban expand and consolidate its control of the country. Tenet noted that terror is generally either state-supported or independent. In bin Laden’s case with the Taliban, we had something completely new: a terrorist group funding a state. Summary and Implications Hamas rule is being consolidated in the Gaza Strip, which is also becoming a hothouse for Islamic terror organizations, including terror affiliates and tributaries of al-Qaeda. The strategic alliance between Hamas and Tehran has opened the gates of Gaza to Iran as well, which is establishing a terror front under its influence paralleling Israel’s northern front in Lebanon manned by Hizbullah. At this stage Hamas is focusing on Israel as the target of its terror activities. Nevertheless, Hamas maintains networks in various Western countries and, since it is an integral part of the Muslim Brotherhood, it can in the future become involved in terror attacks against Western targets. Let us recall that the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, General Mohamed Ali Jaafri, warned in an interview with the newspaper Jame Jam on June 28, 2008, that if his country were attacked by the United States, Hizbullah and Hamas would join the battle alongside Iran and would activate sleeper cells against American and Israeli interests in the Middle East and throughout the world. It is likely that al-Qaeda affiliates would not stand on the sidelines of this struggle due to historical animosities between their Salafist ideologies and Shiite Iran. On August 18, 2008, Hizbullah signed a memorandum of understanding in Beirut with a Lebanese Salafist organization known as the Belief and Justice Movement. The agreement demonstrated how an Arab surrogate organization for Shiite Iran can work with Sunni extremists, under specific strategic circumstances.14 By reconciling itself to the existing reality in Gaza, and most definitely if it were to accord recognition to Hamas rule there, the West would be providing legitimacy for the terror hothouse that Hamas has established. This hothouse was designed to continue the jihad against apostates, pursue the struggle against Israel, secure the overthrow of the Abbas regime in the West Bank, and assist the efforts of the parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in overthrowing the moderate regimes in the Middle East headed by Jordan and Egypt. * * * Notes 1. http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/1,7340,L-3573791,00.html 2. http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3571513,00.html, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3573791,00.html 3. Michael Slackman and Souad Mekhennet, “A New Group that Seems to Share Al-Qaeda’s Agenda,” New York Times, July 8, 2006. 4. http://www.qaweim.com/alhaq/?action=detail&id=383 http://www.qaweim.com/alhaq/?action=detail&id=384 5. http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/08/14/gaza.rocket.factory/?iref=hpmostpop 6. “The Army of Islam,” Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, May 20, 2007. 7. Marie Colvin, “Al-Qaeda Veteran Led Johnston Kidnap Gang,” Sunday Times (London), July 8, 2007. 8. http://www.palvoice.com/news/index.php?id=11261 9. “Hamas Has Contacts with al-Qaeda: French Minister,” Reuters-French, July 18, 2007, http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSL181571520070718. 10. http://www.al-amanh.net/vb/showthread.php?t=1240 11. Al Quds (Palestinian Authority), August 5, 2008. 12. This according to parties close to the Army of Islam, as cited in Al Quds Al Arabi, July 5, 2007. 13. Al-Hayat (London), July 19, 2007. 14. Rami G. Khouri, “Absent the State, Watch New Pacts Arise,” Daily Star (Lebanon), August 20, 2008, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_ID=10&article_ID=95197&categ_id=5 * * * Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder with Brian Falkenstein of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.