Militant Islamist groups in Gaza seeking an alliance with Al Qaeda may be planning to carry out a large-scale attack in order to boost their credentials, warns a report released today by the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).
“Al Qaeda-inspired groups in Gaza ‘think big’ and are regularly plotting large-scale attacks,” says the report, coauthored by a former deputy director of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service. It also quotes an anonymous member of one of these groups as saying his operatives are “waiting to carry out a big jihadist operation dedicated to Sheikh Osama Bin Laden."
Mr. Bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization, now believed to be hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, has long used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a cause célèbre for their fight against the West. But it has yet to establish authoritative operations in either the West Bank or Gaza, where both Hamas – the Islamist organization that rules the coastal territory – and its militant rivals are focused more on Israel than the vision of global jihad symbolized by Bin Laden.
While the existence of a global terrorist network under Al Qaeda's control is a matter of debate, the formation of an "Al Qaeda in Palestine" would be a propaganda coup for both the Al Qaeda brand and local militants that share its ideology, analysts say. But for the Gaza-based groups, such an alliance could severely compromise their capabilities and long-term survivability.
“The biggest beneficiary of any recognition would be Al Qaeda itself,” says Scott Sandford, a Washington-based researcher on militant Islam and contributor to Jihadica, an online clearinghouse for materials from jihadist websites. “But I don’t think Al Qaeda could offer them a whole lot in terms of logistics. Because if it [recognition from Al Qaeda] were to happen, Hamas would attack that particular group aligned with Al Qaeda immediately.”
The WINEP report said that an Al Qaeda in Palestinian affiliate is unlikely to form because most Palestinians committed to violent resistance put national interests ahead of religion – keeping them focused on Israel rather than a broader fight.
Salafists: Hamas has gone soft
Hamas, an Islamist nationalist movement, limits its activities to the Palestinian arena, preferring to attack Israel and rejecting Al Qaeda-style calls for global jihad against the West. It has cracked down heavily on the territory’s growing extremist organizations since taking control of Gaza in 2007.
The new groups, of which there are about half a dozen, claim to practice what is known as “Salafism,” or the observance of Islam in the manner of the Prophet Mohammad in the seventh century. Local Salafis say Hamas, which limits its militant activities to Israel and has so far failed to implement strict Islamic law in Gaza, has betrayed its Islamist credentials.
Salafi groups have grown in strength in recent years amid rising poverty and a crippling Israeli siege on Gaza.
August clash between Hamas, Salafists
In August last year, an organization calling itself Jund Ansar Allah (“Soldiers of the Companions of God”) openly challenged Hamas by declaring an Islamic emirate from a mosque in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. A nightlong gun battle between the two groups resulted in approximately 30 dead, including a number of Hamas security forces.
Since then, Salafis have largely been in hiding – and threats to retaliate against Hamas have yet to crystallize.
“The Salafi groups in Gaza very much went underground after the shoot-out. There were a number of threats that they would seek revenge for the attack, but none of them were actually implemented,” says Mukhamair Abusaada, a Gaza-based political analyst and professor at Al-Azhar University. “My assumption is that Hamas sent a very strong message when it attacked their mosque in Rafah: that if you challenge their rule, they will deal with it in a very massive, bloody way.”
But the threat remains, analysts say. And while these groups have yet to establish official ties with Al Qaeda – the WINEP report claims Al Qaeda itself is skeptical of their abilities and sustainability – it doesn’t mean they aren’t inspired to carry out dramatic attacks, particularly against Israel, says Mr. Sanford.
“If these groups could carry out an attack, they would do it,” Sanford says. “But it’s a matter of getting past the security measures the Israelis have put in place, as well as Hamas surveillance.”
“They have had successful operations in the past – they kidnapped Alan Johnston and helped capture [Israeli soldier] Gilad Shalit. So they definitely have the military training to carry out a spectacular attack.”