A Jerusalem Issue Brief
by Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan Dahoah-Halevi
Institute for Contemporary Affairs
founded jointly at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
with the Wechsler Family Foundation
Vol. 7, No. 1 17 May 2007
Al-Qaeda generally thrives wherever central authority of governments is collapsing and therefore its current success in the war-torn Gaza Strip should not come as a surprise.
Just after Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, there were reports that al-Qaeda had exploited the new security vacuum that had been created and begun to dispatch its operatives to this territory. By March 2006, no less than the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) told the London Arabic daily, al-Hayat, "We have signs of the presence of al-Qaeda in Gaza and the West Bank."
In the meantime across the Middle East the external Hamas leadership maintained close ties with well-known figures associated with the al-Qaeda network, like the leader of the Kashmiri organization, Hezb ul-Mujahidin, Sayyid Salahal-Din, in Pakistan and Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a bin Laden loyalist, in Yemen. The latter met with Khaled Mashaal on March 20, 2006.
Significantly al-Hayat reported on April 4, 2006: "a definite presence" of al-Qaeda operatives in Gaza, who had infiltrated from Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen. Moreover, a little over a month later Egypt's Ministry of the Interior disclosed that two terrorist operatives involved in the April 2006 attack on the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Dahab, underwent military training in the use of weapons and explosives in the Gaza Strip.
On May 9, 2007 the "Army of Islam" organization (Jaish al-Islam) published, on a website identified with al-Qaeda (www.alhesbah.org), an official announcement in which it took responsibility for the kidnapping of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston and called for the release of the Palestinian sheikh, Abu Qatada, who is considered one of the main ideologues of al-Qaeda in Europe and is known to be the one with whom the heads of the group that carried out 9/11 consulted. Hamas spokesperson, Ayman Taha, acknowledged the fact that Hamas and "Army of Islam" had cooperated on the military operational level.
Increasingly, there are signs that al-Qaeda is gaining strength in the Gaza Strip. In the midst of the decaying internal situation in Gaza, with its regular gun battles between the well-established Hamas and Fatah militias, there are more incidents reported of attacks against symbols of any Western presence from a UNRWA school to a Christian bookstore.
Al-Qaeda generally thrives wherever central authority of governments is collapsing and therefore its current success in the war-torn Gaza Strip should not come as a surprise.1 Seeming to copy the operations of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the militants in Gaza belonging to these new terrorist organizations are targeting Western reporters, like the famous cases in which journalists from FOX News and the BBC were taken hostage. Even external appearances show al-Qaeda's growing influence as members of its affiliate movements in the Gaza Strip will often wear the same black head covering that was a trademark of the late al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. All the evidence indicates that rather than challenge al-Qaeda's bid to expand its presence in the Gaza Strip, Hamas prefers to collaborate with these new militant groups.
Al-Qaeda Enters Gaza
Just after Israel's unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, there were reports that al-Qaeda had exploited the new security vacuum that had been created and began to dispatch its operatives to this territory. The Hamas leader who would later become its first foreign minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar, admitted to Corriere della Sera, on September 13, 2005 that "...a pair of men from al-Qaeda has infiltrated into Gaza." Within a month an organization calling itself "Al-Qaeda in Palestine" was distributing leaflets in a Gaza mosque. By March 2006, no less than the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) told the London Arabic daily, al-Hayat, "We have signs of the presence of al-Qaeda in Gaza and the West Bank."
While Abbas described this as a "very dangerous situation," no Palestinian security service subsequently took any measures against al-Qaeda. Indeed, this became official Palestinian Authority policy especially after Hamas swept the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and formed a new government.
A Hamas official, Said Sayyam, who became the Palestinian Authority Interior Minister at the time, stated openly that he would not order the arrest of terrorist operatives who would attack Israel; this essentially amounted to an open invitation to global jihadi organizations that they could find a new sanctuary in post-withdrawal Gaza, under Hamas rule.
It was the first clear indication that Hamas could work together with elements from al-Qaeda coming into the Gaza Strip. In the meantime across the Middle East the external Hamas leadership maintained close ties with well-known figures associated with the al-Qaeda network, like the leader of the Kashmiri organization, Hezb ul-Mujahidin, Sayyid Salah al-Din, in Pakistan and Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a bin Laden loyalist, in Yemen. The latter met with Khaled Mashaal on March 20, 2006.
Gaza Becomes an International Terrorist Base
There was one question about al-Qaeda's presence in the Gaza Strip during 2006 that needed to be answered. Did it involve a foreign presence of al-Qaeda operatives from other Arab countries or was this Palestinian al-Qaeda affiliate just a group of Gazans who ideologically identified with global jihad, but had no actual operational links with Osama bin Laden's organization? Significantly al-Hayat answered this question when it reported on April 4, 2006: "a definite presence" of al-Qaeda operatives in Gaza, who had infiltrated from Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen.
Moreover, a little over a month later Egypt's Ministry of the Interior disclosed that two terrorist operatives involved in the April 2006 attack on the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Dahab, underwent military training in the use of weapons and explosives in the Gaza Strip. They confessed to belonging to an organization called al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which was also an earlier name for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's organization before it became al-Qaeda Iraq.3 Thus al-Qaeda related groups in Gaza appeared to have become involved in military operations and were not just propagating their religious worldview alone.
"The Army of Islam" and al-Qaeda
This year a new aspect of the al-Qaeda presence in the Gaza Strip became evident. On May 9, 2007 the "Army of Islam" organization (Jaish al-Islam) published, on a website identified with al-Qaeda (www.alhesbah.org), an official announcement in which it took responsibility for the kidnapping of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston and called for the release of the Palestinian sheikh, Abu Qatada, who is being held in a British prison. Abu Qatada is Sheikh Omar Mahmoud Othman, who is considered one of the main ideologues of al-Qaeda in Europe and is known to be the one with whom the heads of the group that carried out 9/11 consulted.
The announcement by the "Army of Islam," which also appeared in a recording delivered to al-Jazeera, made these additional points:
"We will not sit idle in the face of the Crusader attack. . .Britain more than any other state wanted to humiliate the Muslims...it settled the 'sons of monkeys and pigs' in Palestine.it fights against Islam and the Muslims.and is a partner to the Crusader war against Islam.
There is no protection for the British subjects in the Muslim states because the British government is fighting the Muslims, and therefore all of them are fighters [i.e.-they have no protection and can be killed].
Alan Johnston is being held under the laws of the Islamic shari'a concerning prisoners.Britain must release our prisoners and particularly the Palestinian Abu Qatada.We do not forget our prisoners in other countries and we say to release all of them, otherwise we will behave the same way toward all of them without exception."
The form and content "Army of Islam" recording generated press speculation about al-Qaeda in Gaza. A Palestinian security source confirmed yet again in an interview to Al-Quds Al-Arabi (May 12, 2007) that al-Qaeda branches indeed have been set up in the Gaza Strip. In fact, it emerges from his statements that there is close cooperation between al-Qaeda in Gaza and the Hamas movement. He identified the "Army of Islam" directly with al-Qaeda, and also noted that it is the one responsible for kidnapping the BBC journalist Alan Johnston and for publishing the demand to release Abu Qatada from the British prison.
The same source verified that the local branch of al-Qaeda was established by activists from various Arab states who came into the Gaza Strip from outside the Palestinian Authority. The organization was also responsible for blowing up internet cafes, barbershops, pharmacies, and cellular telephone stores.
The "Army of Islam" was indeed one of the three organizations that kidnapped the Israeli solder Gilad Shalit in the summer of 2006 together with Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committees which also had contacts with al-Qaeda.4 This means Hamas and an al-Qaeda branch in Gaza have joined together for operational cooperation in terror attacks against Israel. This fact has been largely overlooked by observers of Middle Eastern affairs. Indeed, Musa Abu Marzuk, the deputy political secretary of Hamas, has commented in the newspaper, al-Liwa (April 10, 1007) that it is an honor for the Hamas government "that it did not arrest a single jihad fighter nor condemn a single action against the Zionist enemy."
Hamas did not want the impression to be given that it had any coordination at present with local al-Qaeda affiliates. The Hamas leadership was probably relieved when the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri lashed out at it for agreeing to a Palestinian unity government. But its defensive response indicated that it was still committed to the goals of al-Qaeda, namely resistance and jihad: "Be assured, Dr. Ayman. Hamas is still the same movement it has been since its foundation."
Hamas spokesperson, Ayman Taha, acknowledged the fact that Hamas and "Army of Islam" had cooperated on the military operational level. However he claimed that "the contacts between Hamas and 'Army of Islam' existed only in the beginning while abducting the (Israeli soldier Gilad) Shalit, I think it was ended a while ago."
Nevertheless, Muhammad al-Madhoun (Hamas), a political adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, confirmed (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, May 10, 2007) that the demands that were made in the "Army of Islam's" recording detailing the terms for Johnston's release were the same ones the group conveyed clandestinely to the Hamas government. For Hamas it was clear who was responsible for the abduction. In an official announcement after the video clip was broadcasted Hamas said: "taking responsibility of Johnston's abduction made it clear and didn't leave any room for speculations with regard to the organization responsible for the abduction, which we had known from the first moment."
Just after the British journalist was abducted Hamas on its website called on the Palestinian government "to issue immediate orders and to chase the criminal group which caused harm to the supreme national interest of our people, to arrest them and to beat strongly on their hands in order to make them a lesson for others."
However, Hamas kept quiet and never took any actions against "Army of Islam." In other words Hamas knew right from the start about the "Army of Islam" operation yet did not intervene to free the British reporter and dismantle the "Army of Islam."
The Palestinian government, headed by Ismail Haniyeh, has for some time been involved in contacts aimed at freeing Johnston. Haniyeh disclosed in mid-April that there is close cooperation with British officials, who are given relevant information obtained by Palestinian security operatives.
The Johnston affair reveals, then, the complexity of the reality of Palestinian terror. The Hamas prime minister is working for the release of a British journalist who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda, which is maintaining close operational cooperation with Hamas.
Since it came to power, Hamas has had no interest in acting against the al-Qaeda branch that is functioning in the Gaza Strip but is interested in preventing an international crisis that would likely harm the Palestinian Authority, and it criticizes the "Army of Islam" only for its "mistaken choice" of a target. The Palestinian Authority thereby shows that it has no moral legitimacy to demand to be recognized as a political entity like other nations and that it is an entity providing sanctuary for international terrorism.
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Bruce Riedel, "Al Qaeda Strikes Back, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007.
2 Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan D. Halevi, "Understanding the Direction of the New Hamas Government: Between Tactical Pragmatism and al-Qaeda Jihadism" in Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 5, No. 22, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs/Institute for Contemporary Affairs, April 6, 2006.
3 "The Egyptian Interior Ministry exposed operative collaboration between terrorist elements in Sinai (connected to the Global Jihad and suspected of involvement in the attacks at Dahab) and Palestinian terrorist elements in the Gaza Strip (whose identity is unclear)," Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies (C.S.S.), May 26, 2006. See: http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/dahab_250506.htm.
4 http://www.jcpa.org/brief/brief005-24.htm http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=50340http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3388249,00.html
5 "Ayman al-Zawahiri lashed out at the Hamas movement once again, accusing it of abandoning jihad and 'selling Palestine' for seats in the Palestinian unity government. Hamas spokesmen defended their political activity, stressing the continuing adherence of the movement to its radical principles, namely 'resistance' and 'jihad,' and non-recognition of Israel." Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center (IICC), March 22, 2007. See: http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/al_zawahiri_e.htm.
6 Al-Nahar (Lebanon), May 10, 2007.
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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 founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.