Egypt becomes the first Arab country to publicly confirm al-Qaeda's presence in Gaza.
When Egypt recently became the first Arab country to publicly confirm al Qaeda's presence in the Gaza Strip, it severely undermined years of denial by the terrorist organization Hamas. In fact, the news has helped to underscore the growing role al Qaeda is now playing in Gaza.
The confirmation of al Qaeda’s existence in Gaza came when the Egyptian government announced that it had “conclusive evidence” the Gaza-based Army of Islam, an al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group, was behind the January 1, 2011, suicide car bombing in Alexandria, Egypt.
Perhaps more significantly, the attack—which killed 24 Coptic Christians, wounded over 100 and set off days of rioting in Egypt--marked the first time al Qaeda-linked forces in Gaza had turned their focus away from attacks on Israel and targeted an Arab country.
While the Army of Islam denied any involvement in the bombing, a spokesman for the terrorist organization made clear the group’s support for those that carried out the assault, saying, “The Army of Islam has no connection to the church attack in Egypt, though we praise those who did it.”
However, in a televised address, Egyptian Interior Minister, Habib al-Adly, voiced a far different opinion: “If elements of the Palestinian Army of Islam, linked to al Qaeda, thought they had hidden behind [Egyptian] recruits, we have decisive proof of their heinous involvement in planning and carrying out such a villainous terrorist attack.”
Al-Adly’s announcement came on the heels of the arrest by Egyptian security forces of 19 suspected al Qaeda members accused of trying to create terror cells in Gaza. According to al-Adly, these and other militants had been entering into Gaza through tunnels located near the city of Rafiah.
Of course, the news of al Qaeda operating freely in the Gaza Strip comes as little surprise to either Israelis or to the Fatah-led Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. As far back as 2005, when Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza, numerous reports surfaced documenting Hamas's efforts--with active support from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah--to create a safe haven for al Qaeda.
In 2008, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said, "I can say without doubt that al-Qaida is present in the Palestinian territories and that this presence, especially in Gaza, is facilitated by Hamas."
In 2009, the Israel Security Agency reported a growing spread of global jihad organizations in Gaza. In addition to the Army of Islam, these groups, known as Jihadi Salafis, included the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades; the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad; the Popular Resistance Committees; the Army of the Umma; and Fatah al-Islam.
In early January 2011, Yuval Diskin, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security forces, claimed Jihadi Salifis were behind the recent violence in Gaza: “There are about 500 militant activists and some are in touch with al-Qaida's regional command." To bolster that fact, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) recently killed two terrorists along the Gaza-Israeli border, both of whom were identified as members of al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).
Still, Hamas--while acknowledging the presence in Gaza of small groups of radical zealots-- has dismissed the notion that they are in any way linked to al Qaeda. In December 2010, Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had emphatically stated: “There is no such thing as al Qaeda in Gaza. The Palestinian resistance does not work outside the borders of Palestine.”
In response to the Egyptian report, Hamas released a statement, which read in part: “Hamas is leading the resistance against the Zionist occupation in Palestine and will never allow it [the resistance] to move outside Palestine.” Instead, Hamas laid the blame of the New Year’s Day attack squarely at the feet of Israel, arguing it was an Israeli ploy designed to falsely accuse Hamas of creating a safe haven for al Qaeda.
For some, it makes little sense that Hamas would ever allow al Qaeda to establish roots in Gaza, given the purported ideological differences between the two groups. Hamas, they argue, is a nationalist group focused on securing a Palestinian state, with its sights set solely on destroying Israel. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is engaged in waging a jihad primarily against the West.
Furthermore, Jihadi Salifis have railed at Hamas’s refusal to impose Sharia Law in Gaza, as well as its suspension of attacks on Israel. The deep enmity between the two groups was best evidenced in August 2009 when Hamas crushed the Jihadi Salfi group, Jund Ansar Allah, in a bloody street battle.
The Jihadi Salafi view of Hamas may best be summed up by a member of the Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades: "We will not stop targeting the figures of this perverted, crooked government [Hamas], breaking their bones and cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations.”
Yet, despite this, others see the two organizations subscribing to the same jihadist goal, noting that both groups practice suicide terrorism, which is influenced by radical Islamic beliefs. In fact, Hamas, founded by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in 1987, has never renounced the MB’s goal of a “world Islamist state.”
It’s a view shared by Yuval Diskin: “All the factions in Gaza want an Islamic caliphate. Hamas wants to achieve that through charity organizations, while other more radical groups want the same goal through violence."
Additionally, both Hamas and the Jihadi Salfis have worked operationally together, most notably when the Army of Islam and Hamas joined in the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006.
In truth, the only apparent differences between the two organizations seem more tactical than ideological. Nothing confirms this view more than the recent efforts employed by Hamas to dissuade these extremist groups from launching missiles at Israeli civilian and military targets.
Since early 2010, Jihadi Salafis have fired over 200 rockets into Israel. Although Hamas does not shrink from a confrontation with Israel, it wants one on its own timetable. That is why it is loath to give the IDF an excuse for invading the Gaza Strip and violating the unwritten cease-fire from the 2008-2009 Gaza war.
Yet, whether from confidence gained by their support from Iran and other regional al Qaeda groups, the Gaza-based jihadist groups have openly rejected Hamas's entreaties to stop firing missiles into Israel and refuse to call a ceasefire. The only concession they ceded was a promise to not escalate their actions.
Their intransigence has served to place Hamas in a very unenviable position, similar in many ways to the one occupied by the Taliban in Afghanistan. As the Taliban once gave safe-haven to al Qaeda, its invited guests launched the 9/11 attack against the United States. The Taliban's reward for such behavior was an unleashed American invasion and an eventual end to their rule.
To that end, if any of these al Qaeda groups in Gaza manage to carry out a comparably large-scale attack, it may provoke a crushing retaliation, and consign Hamas to a similar fate. As the suicide bombing in Alexandria demonstrated, those efforts are already underway.