Security and Defense: Smoke screen?

The clashes last weekend in Rafah demonstrate that the threat against Israel may be worse than initially assumed.

jund Ansar Allah abdel-Latif Moussa  (photo credit: )
jund Ansar Allah abdel-Latif Moussa
(photo credit: )
The first documented case of Hamas assistance to global jihad organizations in Israel was in 1998 A year before that, Nabil Ukal, a nondescript 27-year-old resident of the Jabalya refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, decided to travel to Pakistan for religious instruction. After several months there, Ukal was recruited by al-Qaida, and in February 1998 he traveled to Afghanistan to undergo military training at one of the terror group's bases. After completing his training three months later, Ukal returned to Gaza and paid a visit to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound Hamas spiritual leader. Ukal told him about his training and how he had been sent back to Gaza by al-Qaida to set up the Palestinian branch of the global terror group. Yassin gave Ukal a blessing, an envelope filled with $5,000 and sent him on his way. Ukal became known as al-Qaida's representative in Israel. A month before his arrest in June 2000, he received a distinguished visitor from England at his home in Gaza - Richard Reid, a.k.a. the "shoe bomber." Since Ukal's capture, the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) have captured numerous Palestinians and Israeli-Arabs suspected of maintaining ties with al-Qaida and global jihad terror networks that have planned terror attacks on Israeli targets. The clashes last weekend in Rafah between Hamas and the Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Partisans of God), a Gaza-based group thought to be ideologically affiliated with al-Qaida, demonstrate that the threat against Israel may be worse than initially assumed. As the smoke cleared, 24 people lay dead, including Jund Ansar Allah's spiritual leader Sheikh Abdul Latif Abu Mousa. The fighting began after Mousa, a popular cleric, gave a sermon at a mosque in Rafah named for Ibn Taymiyyah, a famous 13th-century Muslim scholar whose writings are used by al-Qaida to justify jihad. In the presence of armed and masked gunmen, Mousa declared the establishment of an Islamic emirate in direct challenge to the Hamas-run government in the Gaza Strip, which he accused of being too moderate and moving toward the West. Mousa, 49, was a doctor by training and used to work for the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry. In recent years he had served as the imam at the Ibn Taymiyyah Mosque, as well as a spiritual leader for several terror groups aligned with al-Qaida, including Jund Ansar Allah and the Army of Islam, which was behind the 2007 abduction of BBC reporter Alan Johnston. Another Palestinian killed during the clashes was Fuad Hassan Mahmoud Banat, also known as Abu Abdullah al-Suri, the official military leader of Jund Ansar Allah. Banat, 45, was born and raised in Syria, and was a former senior Hamas operative. He left Hamas after claiming the group had become too moderate. He was also one of the masterminds of a major terror attack that was thwarted by the IDF in June when 10 gunmen and explosives-laden horses tried infiltrating near Nahal Oz. In addition to Jund Ansar Allah, several other groups in Gaza are believed to be affiliated with al-Qaida. There is the Dughmush clan's Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), Jahafil al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (The Unification and Jihad Legions), which began operating in 2008, the al-Qaida in Palestine organization and Jaish al-Umma (Army of the Nation). Hamas has been known to cooperate with some of these groups from time to time. One example was the June 2006 abduction of Gilad Schalit, which was carried out jointly by Hamas and the Army of Islam. After the Johnston abduction by the Dughmush clan, the ties grew tenuous. In the summer of 2008 though, Hamas and the Army of Islam established a joint committee to maintain a stable relationship and resolve disputes. The relations are once again tense after clashes erupted between the two groups just days after Hamas's crackdown on Jund Ansar Allah. The gunfights took place in southern Gaza City, a known Dughmush stronghold. DESPITE THE tension, Hamas knows how to use these different groups to its advantage. While it has almost completely stopped its attacks against Israel since Operation Cast Lead, it has activated some of these groups as proxies to continue launching attacks while it focuses on its rehabilitation and the Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks with Fatah. In Israel, the crackdown is interpreted as Hamas's way of exerting its power throughout Gaza and declaring that it is the sole authority. Hamas knew of the existence of Jund Ansar Allah immediately following its establishment, but decided to attack only after its authority was openly challenged. Had it not been challenged, Hamas likely would have gone on tolerating the group's existence. On the other hand, the attack is part of Hamas's response to the Sixth Fatah Conference in Bethlehem last week, and the decisions the movement made against Hamas. This was demonstrated by Hamas's allegations that Fatah supplied Jund Ansar Allah with the weapons it used during last Friday's clashes. According to Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Hamas's rise to power was the catalyst for the subsequent rise of these different al-Qaida-affiliated groups. A lecturer on modern terrorism and guerrilla warfare at the National Defense College, Karmon is writing an academic paper arguing that without the support of a state or regime, al-Qaida-affiliated groups cannot develop and flourish. "This was the case in Afghanistan in the 1980s and under the Taliban in the 1990s, as well as in Sudan between 1991 and 1995," he explains. "Other attempts in Iraq and Egypt, where al-Qaida did not have the support of the local regime, failed." He says al-Qaida has not succeeded in setting up cells or connecting with preexisting terror groups in the West Bank, which is controlled by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. "The significance," Karmon says, "is that while Hamas may occasionally crack down on al-Qaida-like groups, it also supports them." For Israel, this is a point of concern. The IDF already finds itself surrounded by al-Qaida and global jihad groups in Jordan, Lebanon and the Sinai Peninsula. These groups have been behind attacks in those countries and against Israeli and Western tourist spots. The growing presence of al-Qaida in Gaza is significant for another reason: These groups usually like to carry out large-scale 9/11-like attacks, and not just launch Kassam rockets.