As discussed earlier in this series of articles, the entry of Sunni mujahideen
from Iraq into Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon has been a fairly visible process and
tracking it - at least in outline form - is an achievable task.
Likewise, the goal of the mujahideen from Iraq has been clear: (a) to spread
Salafi beliefs in the Levant countries and (b) to place fighters as close to
Israel as possible. These Salafi Islamists are, in essence, trying to create a
space where they can begin to
operate inside Israel. Whether they succeed in that goal is an open question,
but their intent is clear.
The bleed-through from Iraq also is having some impact in the Palestinian
territories - especially Gaza - and in Israel. In these theaters, of course,
access to Israeli targets already is assured, and so the emphasis of the newly
arrived mujahideen and a number of in-place Israeli Arabs seems to be to build
a foothold from which Salafism can be preached and have a chance to grow among
There have been anti-Israeli operations conducted by Salafi groups in Gaza -
such as the Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) - but the attacks have not been
major, and the Salafis appear to spend just as much time fighting with their
erstwhile Islamist colleagues in Hamas.
Al-Qaeda and its Salafi allies have long viewed Palestine as "an Islamic
endowment", a place to which "every Muslim has the right to set out for jihad
in its land". Osama bin Laden, moreover, has long railed against the
governments of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon for preventing non-Palestinian
mujahideen from basing themselves in their countries. Bin Laden's gripe has now
been satisfied to an extent, not by his own hand, but by courtesy of the
regional destabilization caused by the United States-led war in Iraq. Salafi
fighters of various nationalities are now flowing into the Levant from Iraq.
In Palestine, there seems to be a minor Salafi presence in the West Bank but a
steadily growing military and proselytizing presence in Gaza. The above noted
"Army of Islam" and several other Salafi organizations have created training
facilities in Gaza and have displayed them to the international media,
defiantly proclaiming, "We are coming Jews!" They have, to date, conducted some
attacks on the Israeli army when its units were engaged in raids in Gaza, and
have attacked Christian and American targets in Gaza.
The Salafi groups in Gaza claim they receive funding locally and "are linked to
the brothers of the al-Qaeda organization only from an ideological point of
view". That said, their members have been reported chanting slogans supporting
bin Laden and al-Qaeda while they are undergoing training activities.
As the Salafists in Gaza began to preach and attract followers there appears to
have been an implicit understanding reached between the Salafist leaders and
Hamas. The deal allowed the Salafists to train fighters, attack Israeli
targets, and preach in Gaza as long as they did not engage in Gaza's internal
political system and did not try to impose their ideology by force on
This has been an unstable deal at best; even as the Salafists acquiesced to
Hamas' terms, they declared their belief that "Hamas does not implement the
rule of God on earth, and does not enforce any ruling of the Islamic Sharia".
There have been fire-fights between Salafists and Hamas security forces during
the latter's raids of Salafi mosques and other sites. On one occasion this
fall, Hamas policeman killed nine members of the Army of Islam, earning a
promise of revenge from the group's leaders.
The Gaza-based Salafist leaders - with al-Qaeda's blessing - are also seeking
to recruit fighters from the group's armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam
Brigades. Media reports claim the that many of these fighters are "exasperated"
with Hamas leaders' talks with Israeli officials, as well as with the on-again,
off-again military "calm" between Hamas and Israel.
In June, for example, some Hamas fighters used a public appeal to al-Qaeda's
leadership to rebuke their leaders for "drifting away from the path of jihad
and engaging in the political process with the Western-backed Palestinian
authority that has resulted in the further tightening of the noose around
These Hamas fighters also pledged support for the "global jihad" and asked that
"al-Qaeda lend its support to their military effort". In separate Internet
comments, writers who identified themselves as Hamas fighters have said "no one
is better suited [than al-Qaeda] to offer salvation to these ill-fated
[Palestinian] people", and argued that "whoever loves Shaykh Osama bin Laden is
a believer, and whoever hates him is a disbeliever".
While it appears that the Salafists are having limited success in recruiting
Hamas members, an Arab writer has issued a timely reminder that the inflow of
Salafists from Iraq is undoubtedly going to have a negative impact on all of
the Levant. "Salafis have not yet taken root in Palestine," Urayb al-Rintawi
wrote last September:
However, who had expected to see demonstrations
in Beirut of men and women whose appearance is similar to their co-religionists
in Qandahar and Peshawar? If the Salafi tide is possible in Lebanon it is
likely it will not be impossible in the hungry and blockaded Gaza Strip. Those
who blockaded Gaza to take revenge on Hamas and champion Fatah could one
not-too-distant day see that their reprehensible deed has only led to bring
[in] al-Qaeda and draw [in] fundamentalist organizations that are more extreme
than both the hawks of Hamas and the militants of Islamic jihad.
As long ago as 2003, Israeli authorities claimed al-Qaeda had established a
presence in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon - especially in Ayn al-Hilwah.
In the same year, the media reported that the Mossad or its surrogates murdered
al-Qaeda's representative in the camp, an Egyptian named Abd al-Sattar
al-Masri. Five years ago, it was difficult to determine the validity of Israeli
claims. Were they factual, or simply Tel Aviv's usual formula of hyping
terrorist threats Washington also feared in order to secure more US military
and financial assistance?
Today there is little reason to doubt Israeli claims. As noted above, armed,
Gaza-based Salafist groups have publicly declared their presence, and in late
October the Jerusalem Post published a claim that "al-Qaeda affiliates" had
fired 21 rockets and 18 mortar rounds into Israel since June, 2008, and had
laid explosive charges near the security fence.
In addition to this claim, Israeli officials and media reported
al-Qaeda-related terrorist activities inside Israel in 2008. Early last July,
for example, Israeli officials claimed to have arrested two Bedouin Arab
Israeli citizens from Rahat on charges of having links to al-Qaeda and planning
attacks in Israel. This arrest was the first case in which Israel had charged
any of its citizens with cooperating with al-Qaeda .
Then, in mid-July, Shin Bet officials announced that they had arrested six men
- two Israeli Arabs and four Palestinians Arabs from East Jerusalem - who were
trying to set up an al-Qaeda cell. The Israelis claimed the six were part of a
religious study group at al-Aqsa mosque. One of the men - a 24-year-old
chemistry student - was reported to have been planning to attack the helicopter
US President George Bush would use when he visited Israel and had sought advice
on how to do so from al-Qaeda contacts via the Internet. Finally, in late
August, Israeli authorities announced the indictment of another Arab Israeli on
charges of conspiring with a Gaza-based al-Qaeda member named Abu Balal to
carry out terrorist attacks in Israel.
As noted before, there is a steady increase in Salafist militancy across the
Levant and there is no apparent reason to think that it will slow. In this
context, the worried conclusion of Israeli writer Amos Harel accurately sums up
the disastrous ramifications of the Iraq war for Israel's long-term security:
collection of [al-Qaeda-related] intelligence [by Mossad and Shin Bet], as well
as the wish of Arab Israelis and Palestinians with "blue" (Israeli)
identifications to carry out terrorist attacks, is troubling. No less troubling
is the growing identification they sense with the agenda of al-Qaeda, which is
more extremist than that of Hamas or of the extremist wing of the Islamic
Movement in Israel. For some years now the public declarations of Bin Laden and
his aides have increasingly focused on Israel and Jewish communities around the
world as targets for terrorist attacks. It is also known that cells linked with
al-Qaeda operate with relative ease in the Gaza Strip. The desire of al-Qaeda
to operate in Israel is finding fertile ground.
of the governments of Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon will all eventually be tested
by the Salafists. Israel's security, already compromised by the destruction of
the reliable, anti-Salafi bulwark provided by Saddam's regime, is likely to
encounter a much larger Salafist threat in any future scenario wherein US
military forces leave Iraq and the Shi'ite regime in Baghdad has no incentive
to control the exodus of Sunni militants across its western border.
What long had seemed an unattainable goal for al-Qaeda and other
non-Palestinian, Sunni Salafists - a stronger presence in Palestine and Israel
and an ability to attack inside Israel - now seems within reach thanks to the
westward-bound jihad highway through Iraq to the Levant unintentionally created
by the US-led war in Iraq.
Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004.
He served as the chief of the Bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center
from 1996 to 1999. He is the once anonymous author of Imperial Hubris:
Why the West is Losing the War on Terror; his most recent book is Marching
Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq. Dr Scheuer is a Senior Fellow with
The Jamestown Foundation.