Vol. 7, No. 12 August 7, 2007
- The declared policy of Hamas to provide sanctuary to any jihadi fighter invites additional terrorist groups associated with al-Qaeda to plant themselves in the Gaza Strip.
- According to Dr. Zakaria Zain al-Din, chairman of Hamas’ largest charity organization, the extremist views of al-Qaeda are spreading among the senior leadership of Hamas. Expressions of this were evident in the adoption of the radical world view of al-Qaeda that accuses other Muslims of being “infidels” and permits their being killed. Radical religious rulings permitted the killing of Fatah operatives.
- Abu Ashur, the right-hand man of Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) leader Mumtaz Durmush, confessed that their organization received funds and instructions from al-Qaeda outside of the Gaza Strip. Jaish al-Islam was responsible for the kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston in March 2007. Leading the cell that abducted Johnston was Khattab al-Maqdasi, a Palestinian who in the past had fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.
- A video clip by another group, Jaish al-Umma (Army of the Nation), is dedicated to the Shiite and Iranian threat to Palestinian society; it argues that Iran has converted Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) into a Shiite branch through which it intends to advance the spread of Shiism.
- Hamas is trying to improve its image in the eyes of the West, arguing that it is succeeding in restoring public order in Gaza. In the West – and even in Israel – there are voices calling for a dialogue with Hamas. Providing legitimacy to Hamas as an acceptable political partner – without any preconditions regarding its renunciation of terrorism – is essentially a “green light” to Hamas to continue to provide sanctuary for al-Qaeda affiliates in Gaza.
Al-Qaeda Is Next Door
The Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has already warned of the buildup of the al-Qaeda organization under the sponsorship of the Hamas movement, which seized power in the Gaza Strip in a military coup in June 2007. In a July 9, 2007, interview on Italy’s RAI TV, Abbas stated: “Thanks to the support of Hamas, al-Qaeda is entering Gaza. It is Hamas that is protecting al-Qaeda, and through its bloody behavior Hamas has become very close to al-Qaeda. That is why Gaza is in danger and needs help.”1
Senior Hamas officials repeatedly deny reports that al-Qaeda has built up a presence in the Gaza Strip. Despite the official denials, the heads of Hamas are concerned with al-Qaeda’s penetration of Gaza and the influence of its world view on their organization and its activists. The seriousness with which Hamas views the situation may be seen from a seminar held by Hamas on March 30, 2007. Dr. Zakaria Zain al-Din, chairman of al-Mujma’ al-Islami (Hamas’ largest charity organization), who summarized the discussions in a document on the website of the Muslim Brotherhood, stressed that the extremist views of al-Qaeda are spreading among the senior leadership of Hamas. He added that expressions of this were evident in the publication of radical religious rulings permitting the killing of Fatah operatives, the opposition of Hamas members to “balanced” positions taken by the Hamas movement, and the adoption of the radical world view of al-Qaeda that accuses other Muslims of being “infidels” and permits their being killed.2
The Army of Islam
As Abbas pointed out and as seen in the Hamas document, al-Qaeda is indeed present in the Gaza Strip and is establishing itself there. One of its affiliates carries the name Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam). It was established chiefly by splinter groups from the Popular Resistance Committees and from Hamas, and sought connections with al-Qaeda. In an interview with the Ilaf website on July 17, 2007, Abu Ashur, the right-hand man of Jaish al-Islam leader Mumtaz Durmush, confessed that their organization received funds and instructions from al-Qaeda outside of the Gaza Strip. He added that when they were formed, they were reinforced by “the Afghans” – Arabs who had combat experience in Afghanistan.
Jaish al-Islam cooperated with Hamas in a number of terrorist attacks, the most notable of which was the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (June 2006). Jaish al-Islam, alone, was responsible for the kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston (March 2007). Leading the cell that abducted Johnston was Khattab al-Maqdasi, a Palestinian who in the past had fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.3 Hamas, as the governing body in the Gaza Strip, pressured Jaish al-Islam to let Johnston go by means of an agreement which recognized it as a legitimate organization in the Palestinian system and by the supply of funds and ammunition from Hamas. The buildup of Jaish al-Islam and its ties to al-Qaeda have been detailed in a previous analysis (“The Growing Al-Qaeda Presence in the Hamas-Controlled Gaza Strip” – May 2007).4
The Army of the Nation
The declared policy of Hamas to provide sanctuary to any jihadi fighter invites additional terrorist groups associated with al-Qaeda to plant themselves in the Gaza Strip.5 In July, a video clip appeared on websites identifying with al-Qaeda that documented military exercises by a new group, Jaish al-Umma (the Army of the Nation), which was presented as yet another al-Qaeda branch. In the video clip at least twenty-one operatives can be identified, dressed in black with their faces covered. They are exercising in sandy Gaza terrain, apparently in the area of the Israeli settlements that were withdrawn in August 2005 in the context of the Gaza disengagement.
The maneuvers included marching in formation, crawling under barbed wire, jumping through flames, sniper fire, and use of rocket-propelled grenades (RPG). The area where this transpired appeared to be a regular training facility and the performance of the al-Qaeda recruits was high. The exercises were conducted in broad daylight and it does not seem that there was any effort to hide these activities from Hamas. The leader of the group, whose face was covered, wore civilian clothing and a hat resembling the head covering of the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which has become a symbol in Gaza for identifying with al-Qaeda.6
In the video clip, Jaish al-Umma launches three rockets in the direction of Israel that are similar to the Kassam rocket but are labeled “al-Qaeda-2.” Another video of Jaish al-Umma is dedicated to the Shiite and Iranian threat to Palestinian society; it argues that Iran has converted Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) into a Shiite branch through which it intends to advance the spread of Shiism.
A senior PIJ leader, Abdullah al-Shami, is singled out as a Shiite leader along with Hisham Salem, Omar Shalah, Dr. Abdul Aziz Oudeh, Nafiz Azzam, and Muhammad al-Bayoumi. The video also identifies PIJ charities as instruments for the spread of Shiism. The announcer warns the Palestinian people of the danger of Shiism and reminds viewers that the first connection between Iran and Hizbullah, on the one hand, and PIJ, on the other hand, transpired in 1992 when Israel deported its leadership to Lebanon. He explained that PIJ Shiite activism became more open during the Second Intifada when the organization could exploit the chaos in the Palestinian Authority.
On the official website of Jaish al-Umma (www.almqdes.net), its ideology and objectives are as follows:
- Jaish al-Umma is part of the Islamic trend seeking to enforce Islamic rule over the world and liberate the land of Palestine.
- Jihad is the means for awakening the Islamic nation and to free the holy sites.
- Renewal of jihad is necessary for countering the “Western Crusader Plan.”
- The Islamic nation is one people which must be unified without divisions, nations, or ethnic groups.
- Apply Shariah (Islamic Law) and reestablish the caliphate.
- Palestine is the most important Islamic issue and Palestinian jihad fighters are the cutting edge of the jihadist plan to liberate the Islamic nation.
- Appreciation for other jihadist groups. The organizing principle – differences in the chosen course of action should not serve as a basis for conflict, but rather a source of synergy on the way to the establishment of the Islamic caliphate.
Al-Qaeda is improving its position and getting closer physically to Israel. Its method of operation is based on giving “terrorism franchises” to local operators in order to achieve a quick build-up of operational infrastructures in different places in the world. Israel is not the only state affected by this new sanctuary for radical Islam; Egyptian security revealed in mid-July that a head of al-Qaeda in Egypt fled Egyptian territory, obtaining refuge in the Gaza Strip.7
Different al-Qaeda affiliates find Islamic regimes to be an ideal hothouse in which their organizations can develop and grow. The Hamas movement is trying to improve its image in the eyes of the West, arguing that it is succeeding in enforcing the law and restoring public order in the Gaza Strip. It publicized, as an example, the freeing of Alan Johnston. In the West – and even in Israel – there are voices calling for a dialogue with Hamas. Providing legitimacy to Hamas as an acceptable political partner – without any preconditions regarding its renunciation of terrorism – is essentially a “green light” to Hamas to continue to provide sanctuary for al-Qaeda affiliates in the Gaza Strip.
* * *
1 See: http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2007/07/10/36407.html.
2 See: http://www.ikhwan.net/vb/showthread.php?t=34404
3 Marie Colvin, “Al-Qaeda Veteran Led Johnston Kidnap Gang” The Sunday Times, July 8, 2007
4 See: https://www.jcpa.org.il and https://www.jcpa.org
5 al-Hayat (London), July 19, 2007.
6 Material on Jaish al-Umma appearing in this article is based on the organization’s official website, www.almqdes.net, which was removed from the Internet by the U.S.-based server after it was notified who it was hosting.
7 AFP, July 15, 2007, Khaleej Times.
* * *
Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan Dahoah-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.