Salafism – the worrying Process of self-Radicalization

Jerusalem Post- 24/07/2008

Over the last two months, Israeli security forces have arrested six young Arab men suspected of seeking to form an extreme Islamist cell for the purpose of carrying out high-profile terror attacks in the capital. Two of the six held Israeli citizenship, while the other four were residents of east Jerusalem. It appears that they were radicalized through involvement in an Islamic study circle and via the Internet. Two Arab Israeli citizens from the town of Rahat were arrested in recent weeks on similar suspicions. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these events reflect strange, unfamiliar patterns. Place them on a broader canvas, however, and the novelty sharply decreases. The latest events appear to reflect the arrival of global jihad methods and codes of practice to our shores.

They are the most visible part of a broader and little-remarked-upon process taking place in Jerusalem, the West Bank and (particularly) in Gaza. This is the growing presence of preachers, organizations and individuals committed to the extreme Sunni Islamist current known as “Salafiyya.” This is the ideology associated with al-Qaida. However, it is important to stress that what is happening is the penetration of ideas and models of activity, rather than the establishment of a new, centralized movement. The process whereby young men become radicalized through contact with Islamist ideas via preachers or the Internet and then go on to form ad hoc terror cells has been observed in Muslim communities in Europe and further afield. So how is Salafism gaining its foothold west of the Jordan River? Through the relatively simple formula of preaching, education, the creation of groups of devotees, and the subsequent self-organization of those devotees.

In the West Bank, the removal of Hamas-affiliated imams in over 1,000 mosques has paradoxically opened the door for the rising prominence of Salafi-oriented preachers. Some of the radical preachers are associated with the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) party. This veteran Islamist group was long regarded as a curiosity because of its failure to maintain an armed wing and its refusal to engage in active politics. However, HT has enjoyed an unprecedented rise in popularity in the West Bank over the last 18 months. Many of its imams are known to be in contact with the broader, amorphous Salafi subculture. HT itself is not a Salafi grouping. But its role as a radicalizing force and then a conduit for young men to violent activity is a key concern. Salafi Imams with significant regional links are also active. The presence of a certain Saudi-Palestinian sheikh in the city of Nablus, for example, is attracting the attention of the authorities. This individual, whose brother is in a Saudi jail accused of al-Qaida ties, has been in Nablus since early 2008. He has a lot of money (presumably from supporters in Saudi Arabia), and has been engaging in ‘Dawa’ (outreach) activities, gathering around himself a circle of young activists committed to the Salafi-Jihadi path. Despite the significance of their activities in the West Bank, it is Hamas-controlled Gaza that remains the key area of activity for the Salafis.

In Gaza, the Salafis have been particularly engaged in activities associated with the enforcement of Islamic “morality,” as they define it. These have included a rash of “honor killings” of both women and men. For example, members of the Salafi al-Saif al-Haq al-Islam vigilante group are considered responsible for the murder of the owner of the Teachers Bookshop – the only Christian bookshop in Gaza – on October 7 of last year. In the same month, Lina Suboh, daughter of a prominent Gaza university professor, was also murdered. These are two of hundreds of such killings that have taken place in Gaza over the last 18 months. They have been accompanied by bombings of various dens of iniquity in the Strip – including restaurants and cafes that allowed mixed dining. But the Salafis are not concerned only with Palestinian internal moral health. Prominent individuals within existing political organizations are known to sympathize with this trend. This is particularly noticeable in Hamas’s armed wing in Gaza, Izzadin Kassam. Sheikh Nizar Rayyan, a leading tactician in the group, is considered close to the Saudi-Palestinian imam mentioned above. Rayyan is the most prominent of a large number of individuals in Izzadin Kassam in Gaza who are known to adhere to the uncompromising ideas of Salafism.

With Fatah and Palestinian secular politics in decay, and Hamas facing the failures associated with governance in the real world, the stage is set for the further growth of the Salafi trend. Its growth should be placed within the context of a broader Islamization of Palestinian politics and society, in line with regional trends. It is not possible to draw any causal link between the growth of Salafism and the “self-radicalization” associated with it, and the three acts of terror by apparently “self-radicalized” individuals in Jerusalem over the last months. Undoubtedly, however, behind the scenes, this is an angle of investigation energetically being pursued. On Wednesday, the Israeli security cabinet held its first discussion ever on the issue of the global jihad. One may assume that this discussion was not held purely for the general education of cabinet members. Salafi-Jihadism, with its hard-to-trace links between idea and deed, its loose frameworks of organization, and its utterly uncompromising ambitions, has arrived among us.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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