Security and Defense: Gaza’s global jihadis

Jihadi groups are said to be operating in the Strip without any consideration for Hamas’s interest.

Army of Islam militant 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Army of Islam militant 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 2006, Abu Abd Al-Rahman, a top al-Qaida operative based in Afghanistan, received a letter.
One of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates and known by a slew of aliases, Rahman – who was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2011 – was at the time a renowned Islamic religious authority in global jihad circles.
He often received letters from global jihad followers stationed across the globe, but this letter was different; It came from the Gaza Strip.
Sent by the Army of Islam, at the time a fairly obscure terrorist group, the letter included a number of questions pertaining to Islamic religious law.
Over the years, the Army of Islam has turned into a formidable force in Gaza. It assisted Hamas in kidnapping Gilad Schalit and later was behind the abduction of BBC reporter Alan Johnston. Designated as a terrorist organization by the US State Department, its members have been targets of Israeli targeted killings over the years.
The first question in the letter was whether the group could receive money from Palestinian organizations to fund its terror activities. One example it gave was the Islamic Jihad, which wanted to give the Army of Islam money to carry out attacks against Israel. The problem, the letter noted, was that Islamic Jihad was heavily funded by Iran, perceived as an “infidel” Shi’ite state by the global jihad Salafis.
The second question was whether the Army of Islam could invest in the stock market to finance its terrorist activities. Finally, the letter asked whether the organization could kill drug smugglers, steal their drugs and money and use it to finance terrorist activities.
The letter was discovered last year in the home in Abbottabad, Pakistan where United States Navy SEALs found and killed bin Laden. It was one of nearly 20 documents that were declassified and published recently by the US military’s Combating Terrorism Center.
For the Mossad and Military Intelligence, the discovery of the letter in the intelligence treasure trove reinforced what it had already known: al- Qaida and global jihad do not pose a virtual and imaginary threat but are real and have cells operating along Israel’s borders.
The attack on Monday along the Egyptian border, which killed construction worker Said Phashpashe, is believed to have been the work of another global jihad organization called Tawhid wal-Jihad, a shadowy group in Gaza that was behind the kidnapping of an Italian activist in Gaza last year. Hamas clashed with the group and eventually stormed the home where he had been held.
The group’s involvement in the attack on Monday might be one of the reasons why Hamas decided this week to break its longstanding abstention from rocket attacks. Before this week, the last time Hamas fired was in April 2011 in the round of violence that erupted following a Hamas anti-tank missile attack against a school bus, which killed an Israeli teenager.
But now, global jihad groups are operating freely and without consideration for Hamas’s interests.
The attack on Monday, for example, could have been carried out without Hamas’s knowledge or approval. As a result, it is possible that Hamas felt its status was being undermined and therefore decided to renew its rocket fire and show who the real terror leader is in the Gaza Strip.
Another possibility is that Hamas feels bolstered by the potential Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt with a possible win in the presidential elections.
As a result, it feels like it can be less restrained when it comes to attacking Israel than it has been in recent years.
Ultimately though, the IDF does not believe that Hamas is really interested in a major escalation, the scale and scope of which could lead to another Operation Cast Lead. With the school year ending this week and summer vacation about to begin, Israel is also looking to avoid a larger conflict.
For that reason, the IDF’s response has been relatively moderate with nearly 10 air strikes but none that really targeted manned Hamas positions.
In the past, Hamas has not hesitated to use force against the Salafi groups in Gaza. One memorable incident was in August 2009 when Hamas forces raided the Ibn Taymmiyah mosque in Rafah.
During the clashes, 24 Palestinians were killed and more than 130 were wounded. Several hundred more were detained by Hamas.
“The presence of these organizations in the Gaza Strip is not new,” a senior IDF intelligence officer said this week. “We have been tracking them for years.”
The lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula, though, the officer noted, has created new opportunities for these organizations, some of them ranked as more radical than Hamas.
The ability to move between Sinai and Gaza – two places where the rule of law is not prominent – has provided these groups not only with the means (weapons, explosives and money) but also with new operatives who can travel to Sinai to take up arms against Israel.
But while Sinai creates opportunities for these groups, for Israel it currently appears to be an almost unsolvable problem. The IDF, which admits to having limited intelligence on what happens there, is also voicing concern over the growing involvement of the local Beduin population in attacks against Israel, something expected to increase as the border fence is completed and the smuggling industry, which Sinai relies on, is hit hard.
The main problem for Israel is that unlike Gaza – where it feels it can operate freely against terror infrastructure – the same cannot be said about Sinai where a single Israeli incursion or air strike would be viewed as a violation of Egyptian sovereignty and likely lead to the immediate annulment of the peace treaty.
For that reason, the message coming out of Jerusalem this week was that the Egyptian government and whoever leads it as president needs to take immediate action to restore control over Sinai and remove the threat from Israel’s borders. The message has yet to include an “or else” threat but if the attacks continue, the pressure will be on Israel to begin taking action to stop them.