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Al-Qaida and Palestinian jihadists: The Hamas connection

First published by The Jerusalem Post

At the end of November 2013, three members of a salafi/jihadi cell operating near Hebron were killed in a military operation. The cell was planning shooting attacks and abductions of IDF soldiers, as well as attacks on Palestinian Authority targets. Majles Shura al-Mujahideen (Holy Warriors’ Assembly) declared that the three militants killed in the West Bank were its members and their presence there showed that the Islamist network had taken root in the Palestinian territory. The group denounced the peace negotiations and threatened attacks on Israel and the PA.

By the end of December 2013 the Israeli security service had arrested three members of an al-Qaida cell in Jerusalem and the West Bank planning to attack targets in Israel, including a large conference center in Jerusalem and the US embassy.

They were recruited by an al-Qaida operative in the Gaza Strip who sent them computer files that contained instructions on the manufacture of explosives. One of them, Iyad Halil Mohammad Abu Sara, was planning to go to Syria for training. Some of the attacks were to be carried out by operatives from abroad with fake Russian documents.

Until 9/11, Osama bin-Laden assigned low priority to the Palestinian cause, but following al-Qaida’s demise in Afghanistan he upgraded Palestine as a top priority; in parallel there was a sharp increase in jihadi suicide attacks against Jewish and Israeli targets, such as the April 2002 bombing of the historic synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, and the November 2002 attack against an Israeli- owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya.

Ayman al-Zawahiri emphasized at the time that “the issue of Palestine is the cause that has been firing up the feelings of the Muslim nation from Morocco to Indonesia for the past 50 years. In addition, it is a rallying point for all the Arabs, be they believers or non-believers, good or evil.”

The first known case of an al-Qaida Palestinian terrorist in Gaza is Nabil Abu Okal, a Hamas member arrested on June 1, 2000, at the Rafah checkpoint. Okal trained in Afghanistan and was dispatched to establish an al-Qaida network in the Palestinian territories and perpetrate terror attacks in Israel.

Interestingly, Okal received thousands of dollars for his terrorist activities from Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ leader in Gaza. Nevertheless, the Israeli authorities did not establish a direct link between the two organizations.

Other significant signs of operational cooperation between Hamas and al-Qaida or jihadist groups didn’t convince either, until late the Israeli security authorities that “global jihad” is a threat to the state.

Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” who attempted to bring down an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001 by igniting explosives hidden in his sneakers, visited Israel in June 2001, arriving from Europe. There has been no indication that Reid was working on behalf of any Palestinian group in the territories.

On April 30, 2003, Asif Muhammad Hanif, Britain’s first suicide bomber, blew himself up at the entrance to Mike’s Place, a pub/cafe on the Tel Aviv promenade. Three civilians were murdered, and over 50 were wounded in the attack. A second British citizen, Omar Khan Sharif, failed to detonate the bomb in his possession.

The two Brits of Pakistani origin were recruited at London’s radical Finsbury Park mosque (like shoe-bomber Richard Reid). They were dispatched by al-Qaida elements in Damascus to travel to Gaza, meet with a Hamas senior military commander and receive there their mission. The two appeared in a martyr videotape distributed by Izzadin Kassam website in August 2003.

In May 2007, US forces in Iraq captured Al Hadi al-Iraqi, who turned out to be the al-Qaida operative who trained Hanif and Sharif. Sharif and Hanif were radicalized in the UK, together with Mohammad Sidique Khan, who would later be known as the lead suicide bomber in the July 7, 2005, London subway bombings, and attended an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in July 2001.

Curiously, it would be reported shortly after the 7/7 bombings that Khan visited Israel in February 2003, seven weeks before the two Brits bombed Mike’s Place. It is strongly suspected that Khan came to Israel to help facilitate the bombing in some way.

After Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 al-Qaida and salafist elements exploited the security vacuum along the Gaza-Egypt frontier and infiltrated into the Strip. A new jihadist group called Jundallah (Allah’s Brigades) became active mostly in southern Gaza.

This group consisted primarily of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members who felt their organizations have become “too moderate.”

In May 2005, Jundallah perpetrated its first attack against IDF soldiers in Rafah and its spokesman warned of future attacks against America.

The formation of radical salafi/ jihadi groups in Gaza began in earnest only after Hamas took control through a bloody coup against the Palestinian Authority in June 2007. They include mainly Jund Ansar Allah, Tawhid al-Jihad and the Army of Islam, the latter responsible for the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai in August 2012. None has been officially recognized by al-Qaida central leadership.

Israeli security officials warned lately about the threat of “global jihad,” terror groups in the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula inspired by al-Qaida’s ideology and tactics.

Officials believe there are several hundred of these activists, known as Salafists, in Gaza. The salafi presence in the West Bank is far more limited.

Hamas’s double-game, attempting to satisfy Egypt by rhetorically cracking down on Gaza’s salafi/jihadis, but at the same time permitting them to attack Israel, backfired.

A good example of this Hamas strategy of “revolving doors” is the case of Hisham Ali Abd al-Karim Saidani (alias Abu al-Walid al-Maqdisi), an Egyptian- born Salafist with ties to al-Qaida and leader of the Gazabased salafi/jihadi group Tawhid al-Jihad (One God and Holy War).

Hamas detained Saidani intermittently since 2011 and freed him in August 2012, although he was wanted by Egypt for his involvement in attacks against Egypt’s tourist centers. On October 12, 2012, he was killed in a targeted IDF drone attack in Gaza for his group’s responsibility for shooting attacks against IDF troops and firing of rockets into Israel.

Some Gaza-based salafi/jihadi groups challenged Hamas’s authority by stepping up attacks against Israel during the last two weeks of October 2012 by firing rockets against the civilian population and by staging increasingly bold ground operations against the IDF, which led to the Israeli Pillar of Defense operation against Gaza in November 2012.

The new Egyptian military government considers Hamas to have aided the escape of ousted president Mohammed Morsi and dozens of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members from prison during the 2011 uprising prisoner escape. Hamas is accused of training MB members to undertake car bombing operations and to make explosives.

High-ranking Egyptian security sources claim Hamas was involved in the failed assassination attempt against the interior minister on September 5, 2013, and gives active support to jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula responsible for major terrorist attacks against Egypt.

Hamas keeps open the option of renewed fighting against Israel by strengthening its alliance with the Gaza salafi groups. According to leading Palestinian Salafist figure, Abu Abdullah al-Maqdisi, mediation by clerics from Kuwait and the well-known Egyptian religious leader Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi led to an agreement in October 2013 which grants the Salafists “freedom to operate in politics, the military, religious advocacy, and civil and social organizations” and in return the Salafist factions “will commit to the cease-fire and other decisions made by the ruling Hamas movement.” The arrest and harassment of Salafists have ceased recently and many detainees have been released by Hamas.

It can be concluded therefore that the symbiotic relationship between Hamas and salafi/ jihadi factions in Gaza will continue and probably expand on the background of their common interests to act against Israel, in the Sinai and Egyptian arena, and possibly in the Syrian arena too.