Al-Qaida-style Islamism comes to Gaza

Jerusalem Post- 19/08/2009

Quiet has now returned to the Gaza Strip after the weekend violence which claimed the lives of 28 people. The last of the funerals of the Jund Ansar Allah fighters killed in the suppression of the organization by Hamas authorities has taken place. This episode demonstrated the tight hold which Hamas maintains on the Gaza Strip. The weekend’s events also highlight an important but little discussed phenomenon taking place in the Strip, and to a lesser extent in the West Bank – namely, the growth of al-Qaida-style Salafi Islamism among a segment of the Palestinian population. Jund Ansar Allah did not emerge suddenly, or in a vacuum, and its defeat does not mark the final word on this matter.

Who are the Salafis? Salafiyya is an extreme trend within Sunni Islam. Salafis maintain that anyone who fails to uphold any aspect of Sharia law is no longer a Muslim, and is to be considered kufar (non-Muslim). Jihadist Salafis consider that it is incumbent upon Muslims to depose and fight all governments controlled by the kufar. A myriad of small, armed Salafi groupings exist in the Gaza Strip, of which Jund Ansar Allah was one. These groups are part of a broader subculture, estimated to command the loyalty of at least 50,000 people, and probably many more. The Taliban style of dress adopted by supporters of Salafism is becoming increasingly familiar in Gaza.

There are two main modes of Salafi activity in Gaza – namely, al-Salafiya Da’awiya – that is, civilian Salafism, which engages in missionary work and preaching, and Al-Salafiya Jihadiya, of which al-Qaida is the most well-known global representative, and which is committed to violent action. There is no hermetic division between these two modes. Rather, activity in the former is a gateway to later involvement in militancy, and missionary work builds the basis of support in society which is essential for successful military action. A number of Gaza mosques are known to be controlled by the Salafis. Sheikh Al Salam Bin Taymiyah mosque in Khan Yunis, which was the center of operations for the Jund Ansar Allah group, was one of these. Abu Noor al-Makdisi, who led the Jund Ansar Allah group and died during the weekend’s events, was the imam at this mosque. Other mosques linked to the Salafis include the al-Sahabah Mosque in Daraj, Gaza City, and the al-Albani Mosque in the Jabalya refugee camp. Salafi activity is reportedly well-financed, with money coming in from the Gulf. As one source put it “millions of petrodollars are flowing in every month.” The myriad Salafi armed groupings include the Jaish al-Islam (army of Islam), al-Saif al-Haq Islamiyya (Swords of Islamic Righteousness), Jaish al-Umma (Army of the Nation) and the Jaljalat (thunder) group, formed by disaffected former Hamas fighters during the period of the cease-fire, in June 2008. Jund Ansar Allah, which was founded in November, 2008, emerged from this milieu.

The relations of the Hamas rulers of the Strip to this Salafi sub-culture are complex. Since Hamas took power in the Strip, the Salafis have engaged in numerous acts of violence against people and institutions believed to be kufar. These have included attacks on Internet cafes, book shops, beauty parlors and institutions representing the Strip’s small Christian community. Young women and men suspected of engaging in “immoral” behavior have been murdered. The Hamas authorities officially oppose such behavior, but have done little to stop or deter it. There is also a certain crossover between Hamas structures and the Salafis. Many members of Hamas’s al-Kassam brigades are known to support Salafi ideas. These reportedly include Ahmed al-Jabari, commander of the organization, and the majority of his brigade commanders.

Hamas, however, draws the line at activity which appears to challenge its own authority or right to rule. The suppression of Jund Ansar Allah took place after its leader denounced Hamas as kufar and proclaimed the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in Gaza. The swiftness and brutality of Hamas’s subsequent action attracted attention. But it was not the first time that Gaza’s rulers have made clear to the Salafis that it is worth their while to respect the limits placed on them. The al-Albani mosque in Jabalya, for example, was raided on May 17, 2008 by Hamas’s Executive Force. Thirty men and women were injured in the raid. The mosque’s imam had delivered a sermon that afternoon insulting and ridiculing Hamas.

A key question concerning the Salafi subculture in Gaza is the extent of the presence of global al-Qaida among it. Most experts believe that the al-Qaida network is present to only a very limited extent in the Strip. The al-Qaida idea, however, is flourishing, with a large number of the often quite primitively-armed and poorly-trained Salafi groups competing to be considered the “official franchise” of al-Qaida in Gaza. Abu Noor al-Makdisi is dead, and the movement he built has now been dispersed by the uncontested Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip. The Salafi subculture from which his group emerged, however, is very much alive. It is likely to make its voice heard again, in the unfolding story of the Islamic Palestinian state currently under construction in Gaza.

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