March 06, 2006,
An interesting war of words has broken out in the Palestinian Authority. In an interview published March 2, Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas stated that he has intelligence information that al Qaeda has set up shop on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. He calls the information very serious and troubling, and the implication is that al Qaeda was allowed to enter the PA by the local security forces, particularly in Gaza, which the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) controls. Hamas quickly denied that al Qaeda is present in Gaza, but added that if in fact they are there, it is Israel’s fault. Also, they stated that if their group is not treated favorably by the U.S., al Qaeda may just as well be there, to teach us a lesson. Not exactly an unequivocal rejection.
To complicate matters further, as this exchange was taking place al Jazeera ran excerpts from a new videotape from al Qaeda number-two Ayman al Zawahiri, urging Hamas to stick to the radical program. The group should hold firm against U.S. threats of withholding aid until they recognize Israel’s right to exist. Zawahiri counseled instead taking a hard line, rejecting calls for a coalition government and renouncing the “Madrid and Oslo accords, the road map, and other agreements of surrender that violate, and even clash with the Shar'iah [Muslim law].” Zawahiri chastised those in Hamas who might seek compromise for political gain, even if the compromise is only temporary. His alternative? “Well,” he said, “it is the path of the prophets and messengers, the path of da'wah [Islamic call] and jihad; da'wah for the pure faith and jihad in its name until the land is liberated and the Muslim caliphate emerges, God willing.” Meanwhile leaflets were scattered across southern Gaza by “The Army of Jihad and Preventing Corruption” that praised Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
Reports of an al Qaeda presence in Gaza began circulating shortly after the Israeli pullout last August. A group styling itself the Al Qaeda Organization Jihad in Palestine announced its formation on a radical Islamist website in October 2005. The official Hamas Palestinian Forum website also carried the announcement. During Ramadan, the new group published and distributed religious booklets in various Strip mosques. Other reports have al Qaeda recruiting rigorously from disheartened members of the Gaza branch of the Fatah-affiliated al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, as well as among Hamas members stewing in Israeli prisons.
Making for Gaza is a natural move for al Qaeda, which has been seeking an Afghanistan-style base of operations since the fall of the Taliban. A sub-sovereign zone like the Strip, run by aggressive radicals, tolerant of criminality, and protected by international agreements, is the perfect outpost to pursue the violent task of erecting God’s Kingdom on Earth. In addition, it will place al Qaeda on the frontlines of the struggle with Israel, the last cause that can generate any significant unity among the Muslim (and especially Arab) world.
In the past, al Qaeda was decidedly unwelcome on that particular front. There were ideological differences; the mainstream Palestinian terror outfits were more nationalist than sectarian. Al Qaeda’s Palestinian co-founder Abdulla Azzam split from the PLO in the early 1970s for that very reason, and his influential work “Defense of Muslim Lands” lays out a no-negotiation, no-compromise program with Israel, the U.S., or anyone else. (Azzam also helped found Hamas before his death from complications of a car bombing in 1989.) But beyond the ideological divide there was also an ego conflict, the clash of the terror divas. Yasser Arafat was synonymous with terrorism for decades. Palestine was his show; no room for a kid from Saudi on that stage.
Bin Laden’s scorn for Arafat was evident in his January 1999 interview with Time magazine, in which he denounced “those who sympathize with the infidels such as the PLO in Palestine, or the so-called Palestinian Authority have been trying for tens of years to get back some of their rights. They laid down arms and abandoned what is called ‘violence’ and tried peaceful bargaining.” To no avail, in bin Laden’s opinion. After that, al Qaeda sent annual messages of support to the Palestinians, for example in 2003 stating, “We will continue in the path of jihad; we are still with you; your blood is our blood, your honor is our honor, and your sons are our sons. Your blood will not be wasted; I swear that we will support you until Palestine is Islamic again.” With Arafat gone, Israel withdrawn from Gaza and Hamas in control, means, motive, and opportunity are in perfect alignment.
Some analysts observe that it is in Fatah’s interest, as well as Israel’s, to associate Hamas with al Qaeda, in order to discredit them; they thus seek to discount the potential links, or even al Qaeda presence, as propaganda. But the evidence is slowly mounting that al Qaeda is active in the Palestinian Authority, doing what they have been promising to do for years. It is odd indeed to be arguing which of three terrorist organizations is the most extreme, and how that reflects on the others. Would we somehow think less of Hamas if they were consorting with al Qaeda? The two groups have virtually identical worldviews, programs, and propensities to kill the innocent. We should not think much of Hamas in any case. However, the possibility that the Islamic Resistance Movement is aligning with our principle enemy in the global war on terrorism should give pause to those who, in this country and elsewhere, seek to secure millions of dollars in aid money for the PA. The U.S. and its Coalition partners have spent years developing the tools necessary to disrupt terrorist financing; we should not indirectly become the terrorists’ new state sponsors.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.