The Expansion of Al-Qaeda-Affiliated Jihadi Groups in Gaza: Diplomatic Implications

, January 4, 2010

Vol. 9, No. 17    January 4, 2010

  • In the West there is a growing trend to view Hamas as separate from al-Qaeda in order to open a political dialogue with Hamas, but is this view correct?
  • In its annual survey of terrorist threats to Israel during 2009, the Israel Security Agency noted the spread and buildup of “global jihadi” organizations in Gaza. In recent years a number of these jihadi groups have emerged that openly identify with al-Qaeda, such as Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam), Jaish al-Umma (the Army of the Nation), and Fatah al-Islam.
  • Hamas was founded in 1987 as the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Osama bin Laden was educated in Saudi Arabia by Muhammad Qutb of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Abdullah Azzam of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, came out of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood still defines its goal as “a world Islamic state.”
  • In February 2004, the U.S. designated Sheikh Abd al-Majid Zindani, president of Iman University in Yemen, as a “loyalist to Osama bin Laden.” On March 20, 2006, Zindani, who recruited volunteers for al-Qaeda, sponsored a major fundraising event for Hamas in Yemen. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit, went to hear lectures on radical Islam at Iman University.
  • The al-Qaeda affiliate Jaysh al-Islam joined Hamas in the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. This proves that Hamas and al-Qaeda affiliates have been involved in joint operations. In 2007, the Egyptian press reported that one of the heads of al-Qaeda in Egypt had escaped and sought sanctuary in Gaza. In May 2009, Egypt charged that another al-Qaeda-linked group was using Gaza for training terrorists for attacks in Egypt.

In its annual survey of terrorist threats to Israel during 2009, the Israel Security Agency (also known by its Hebrew acronym Shabak or Shin Bet) noted a number of positive trends – with one glaring exception: the spread and buildup of “global jihadi” organizations in Gaza.1 A number of these groups, like Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam), Jaish al-Umma (the Army of the Nation), and Fatah al-Islam, openly identify with al-Qaeda.2

Indeed, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas told al-Hayat on February 26, 2008, that al-Qaeda was present in Gaza and he charged that “the Hamas movement brought al-Qaeda.” He described the two groups as “allies.” However, in the West there is a growing trend to view Hamas as separate from al-Qaeda in order to open a political dialogue with Hamas.

Western Calls to Open a Dialogue with Hamas

For this reason, it should not be surprising that in the months ahead, it is likely that British, European, and even American groups will step up their efforts to demand that Hamas be brought into the political process. To advance this goal there will be increasing calls for direct political engagement with Hamas by various governments and current and former officials. Already in July 2009, the head of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael Gapes, made such a statement.3

A few months earlier an American group, including former Congressman Lee Hamilton (who co-chaired the influential Iraq Study Group during the Bush years) and former U.S. ambassador to the UN Thomas Pickering, called on the Obama administration to begin talking to Hamas without preconditions. Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led a small congressional delegation to Gaza in February 2009 without meeting Hamas officials. Nevertheless, Ahmad Youssef, the Hamas deputy foreign minister, praised the visit as a very good first step.

Those who call for granting political legitimacy to Hamas, of course, completely reject the idea that Hamas can be compared to al-Qaeda, despite the fact that both groups have used suicide terrorism backed by the doctrines of radical Islam. In fact, Hamas’ image as a more pragmatic organization was strengthened in August 2009 when its forces attacked an al-Qaeda affiliate in Gaza called Jund Ansar Allah in Rafiah, killing 15 of its members. In a speech at Oxford University last year, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband appeared to be hinting at Hamas and al-Qaeda when he implored policymakers in the future to separate between two types of Islamist groups: “Little or sometimes no distinction was drawn between those engaged in national territorial struggles and those pursuing global or pan-Islamic objectives.”4

Hamas and Al-Qaeda: Linked by a Core Ideology

But is it correct to view Hamas as completely separate from al-Qaeda? Historically, Hamas was founded in 1987 as the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Article 2 of its Charter. In the early 1990s, Osama bin Laden was educated in Saudi Arabia by Muhammad Qutb of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Abdullah Azzam of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, came out of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood remains an organization with a global mission: its website still defines its goal as “a world Islamic state.”5 Hamas has never renounced its connection to the Muslim Brotherhood or its universal ideology.

Hamas definitely sees itself as part of a global jihadi network, even if it has never attacked U.S. territory, like al-Qaeda. A Hamas poster distributed in the West Bank in 2003-2004 featured Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin alongside a group of jihadist leaders including Chechen leader Shamil Basayev and Osama bin Laden. The Arabic headlines on the poster detail the battlefields of jihad: Chechnya, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Palestine, and Lebanon.6 In this same period, the religious authorities who appeared on the Hamas website were also known to be important ideological mentors of al-Qaeda, in general, and even Osama bin Laden, in particular, like Sheikh Sulaiman bin Nasser al-Ulwan, a Saudi Wahhabi cleric. His writings were also taught in Hamas schools, illustrating the ideological overlap between the two organizations. True, the two organizations had strong tactical differences at times over such questions as entering into election races, but their long-term aims remained the same nonetheless.

Operational Links between Hamas and Al-Qaeda

Practically, there have been noticeable operational links between Hamas and al-Qaeda. When two British Muslims of Pakistani descent came to Israel under orders from al-Qaeda and attacked “Mike’s Place,” a Tel Aviv bar, on April 30, 2003, they had previously filmed themselves wearing Hamas uniforms. After the 2005 Gaza disengagement, reports of Hamas-al-Qaeda coordination multiplied, particularly with the Hamas victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. On March 20, 2006, Sheikh Abd al-Majid Zindani, who recruited volunteers for al-Qaeda, sponsored a major fundraising event for Hamas in Yemen. In February 2004, the U.S. Department of the Treasury had designated Zindani as a “loyalist to Osama bin Laden.” He is president of Iman University, the notorious terrorist breeding ground on the outskirts of Yemen’s capital, San’a, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit, went to hear lectures on radical Islam.7

David Welch, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told al-Hayat in April 2006 that Hamas orchestrated many attacks by using international terrorist links, an implicit reference to al-Qaeda.8 Factually, al-Hayat reported on April 4, 2006, a “definite presence” of al-Qaeda operatives who infiltrated Gaza from Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen. On July 18, 2007, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner admitted that al-Qaeda and Hamas were in contact with one another.9

A whole assortment of al-Qaeda affiliate organizations has emerged in Gaza since 2005, the most prominent of which is Jaysh al-Islam, which joined Hamas in the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. This proves that Hamas and al-Qaeda affiliates have been involved in joint operations. In 2007, the Egyptian press reported that one of the heads of al-Qaeda in Egypt had escaped and sought sanctuary in Gaza.10 In May 2009, Egypt charged that another al-Qaeda-linked group was using Gaza for training terrorists for attacks in Egypt. This group included Belgian, British and French Muslims.11 It is no wonder that Egypt has become more determined than ever before to block the smuggling tunnels between Egyptian Sinai and Gaza; not only has Israeli security been undermined by the tunnels but also the security of Egypt as well.

Despite these developments, the conventional wisdom has taken root that Hamas is in one category of Islamist organization and al-Qaeda is in another. As a result, it is difficult to make the argument that al-Qaeda and Hamas have anything to do with each other. Nonetheless, the counter-argument must be made.

In addition, it may be easier to point out the similarities between Hamas in Gaza and the Taliban in Afghanistan, both of which provide refuge to al-Qaeda branches. Today, the U.S., backed by NATO forces, is involved in a war in Afghanistan against the Taliban because they provided bases to al-Qaeda to attack New York and Washington. Certainly, Israel has a right to defend itself against a regime that not only harbors al-Qaeda affiliates, but also directly attacks Israel itself. If the West does not recognize the Taliban, it should apply the same rules to Hamas.

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Notes

1. See http://www.shabak.gov.il/pages/default.aspx.

2. Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan Dahoah Halevi, “Al-Qaeda Affiliate – Jaish al-Islam - Receives Formal Sanctuary in Hamas-Ruled Gaza,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 8, No. 7, August 20, 2008, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs/Institute for Contemporary Affairs, http://www.jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp?DRIT=1&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=379&PID=0&IID=2408&TTL=Al-Qaeda_Affiliate_-_Jaish_al-Islam_-_Receives_Formal_Sanctuary_in_Hamas-Ruled_Gaza.

3. “Britain Should Approach Hamas,” BBC News, July 26, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8169105.stm.

4. Julian Borger, “West Must Show Respect to Gain Trust of Muslims, Admits David Miliband,” Guardian (UK), May 21, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/21/david-milliband-iraq-middle-east.

5. Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan Dahoah Halevi, “The Muslim Brotherhood: A Moderate Islamic Alternative to Al-Qaeda or a Partner in Global Jihad?” Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 558, November 1, 2007, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, http://www.jcpa.org/JCPA/Templates/ShowPage.asp?DRIT=2&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=443&PID=0&IID=1920&TTL=The_Muslim_Brotherhood:_A_Moderate_Islamic_Alternative_to_al-Qaeda_or_a_Partner_in_Global_Jihad?

6. “Hamas Identifies With and Supports Chechen and International Islamic Terrorism on CDs found in the Palestinian Authority-Administered Territories. The CDs Are Distributed by Hamas to Palestinian Youth in Various Educational Institutions,” Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies, September 2004, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/html/final/eng/sib/9_04/chechnya.htm.

7. “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: One Boy’s Journey to Jihad,” Sunday Times (UK), January 3, 2010, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6974073.ece?print=yes&randnum=1262499494680.

8. “U.S. Concerned Over Possible Al-Qaeda-Hamas Link,” Jerusalem Post, April 28, 2008, http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1145961243718&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull.

9. “Hamas Has Contacts with Al-Qaeda – French Minister,” Reuters, July 18, 2007, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL181571520070718.

10. See http://www.almasry-alyoum.com/article2.aspx?ArticleID=68758.

11. Michael Slackman, “Egypt Arrests 7 in Bombing of Cairo Bazaar,” New York Times, May 23, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/world/middleeast/24egypt.html.

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Dr. Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the UN in 1997-99, is President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Regnery, 2003), The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).

About Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold is the President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is the author of the best-selling books: The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).