New breed of radical Islamists in West Bank worries Israel, PA

Extremist Salafi jihadists threaten to exploit a power vacuum in the territories.

A crowd waves Hamas flags during an Islamist's funeral 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A crowd waves Hamas flags during an Islamist's funeral 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A day after special forces killed three members of a Palestinian Salafi-jihadi terrorist cell near Hebron, senior security sources said Wednesday that the extremist movement that drove the gunmen to act remains a marginal force, but one that could grow in scope and danger if it exploits a power vacuum in the West Bank.
The terror cell that was intercepted and found to be in possession of explosives and firearms on Tuesday night was planning a kidnapping attack on IDF soldiers, according to security sources.
The armed men, from the village of Yatta, also planned on attacking the Palestinian Authority, security sources said.
“Salafi jihadism is an idea, not an organization,” one source said. “According to this idea, everything that is a state but not ruled according to Islamic law is an infidel entity. For them, this holds true of the Palestinian Authority and Israel,” he said.
“To say that it’s a phenomenon is going too far. But the idea is spreading.” the source said. The internet plays a large role in the indoctrination, according to security assessments.
The IDF arrested five suspected accomplices on Tuesday, before special forces got into a firefight with three members of the cell, in which the gunmen were killed.
The discovery of the terror cell has however set off warning bells in the defense establishment, since it represents the first major threat posed by individuals who adopted Salafi jihadi ideas and decided to act on them in the West Bank.
The cell was not linked to a wider organization, but does represent a break in the trend of lone-wolf attackers that emerged in recent months.
“There was no organization here, but there was a localized group,” a source said.
The group left enough of an intelligence footprint to be picked up by Israel, in time to stop the attack.
Other Palestinians have adopted extreme Salafi ideas, but have refrained from taking action thus far, according to assessments. “The West Bank is a safer place now after the counter-terror raid,” another source said.
The IDF views the raid as evidence of a firm Israeli intelligence grasp over the territories.
That intelligence, combined with an ability to quickly dispatch forces to intercept cells anywhere, is the formula to keeping Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Salafi jihadis at bay in the West Bank.
“They intended to hit soldiers, but civilians might have been next on the target list, in light of the weapons in their possession,” an army source said.
Until now, Salafi-jihadis focused on social and religious activities, holding occasional meetings, but not attempting to organize terror attacks. “We don’t know if this is the first among others. It does lead to concerns about the future of this movement in the sector,” a third security source said.
In the wider picture, the decline of Hamas’s influence due to its isolation in Gaza, and the parallel decline of Fatah, which is in survival mode, leaves a vacuum for Salafi jihadis to grow into. This trend is enhanced by the growing influence of Salafi-jihadis in the Arab world.
In such a vacuum, elements that were once marginal can take a more central role. If however they begin challenging the Palestinian Authority in the territories, Palestinian security forces will likely be sent to disband them.
“On the one hand, others could try to imitate this cell. On the other, our action was a first-class signal to others who want to go in this direction. It’s a risky decision,” the source said.
The search of a car in which two gunmen were killed on Tuesday turned up two handguns and two explosive devices. A subsequent search in a hideout used by the cell found a Kalashnikov and ammunition, five car batteries, gun powder, sulfur, a car alarm system that could be used as a bomb trigger, fireworks covered in gun powder and a bomb hidden in a fire extinguisher.