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Gaza Strip

Triangulating Hamas, Abbas and al-Qaeda

By Steve Schippert | March 6, 2006

With the latest release of yet another global message from al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, there is certainly much to comb over. On its surface, it appears primarily a repeat of calls for more jihad, with merely new causations and motivations.

What stands out as somewhat different, however, is the encouragement and, at times, instruction offered to Hamas in light of their electoral victory in the Palestinian Territories. Before looking at what Zawahiri specifically had to say to the Hamas leadership, context is needed to understand what effect if any it will or will not have on Hamas. It is important to attempt to understand how al-Qaeda is viewed by Hamas. This will be a determining factor as to the impact of Zawahiri’s words.

First, consider that Hamas’ Fatah rival has publicly acknowledged that al-Qaeda has some form of presence in the Palestinian Territories. This is not a new development, but the news value is in Abbas’ public discussion of this and his aims in such a disclosure. Since the Israeli pullout of Gaza, an al-Qaeda presence has been acknowledged by the Israelis, Jordan’s King Abdullah and a statement from a new al-Qaeda group calling themselves the ‘Palestine Frontier Jihad Brigades’. For al-Qaeda, Gaza truly is a new frontier.

Abbas’ intent in such public statements, made before the public release of the Zawahiri message, is likely, on one hand, genuine concern that al-Qaeda entering the mix in the West Bank and Gaza will bring nothing but more turmoil to the region and to the Palestinian people. But another intent is an attempt to corner and weaken Hamas and their open escalation of conflict with Israel.

As part of Zawahiri’s message, he said of hamas, "Reaching power is not a goal by itself ... and no Palestinian has the right to give away a grain of the soil." Zawahri is directly insisting that Hamas not moderate its tone toward Israel nor recognize its right to exist. Both Hamas and al-Qaeda believe that Israel exists on land stolen from Muslims and therefore should never be recognized, but rather, destroyed. To that end, Zawahiri went on to say, "The secularists in the Palestinian Authority have sold out Palestine for crumbs. Giving them legitimacy is against Islam." Here, Zawahiri is openly declaring that Fatah and its participation in negotiations is acting in an un-Islamic manner and should be rejected by all Muslims.

Again, while Hamas may publicly attempt to distance themselves from these statements, at their core, the statements made by Zawahiri are in line with Hamas’ thinking to date.

Hamas needs money. The traditional sources of funds into their newly acquired Palestinian Authority have either already been cut off (nearly $60 million per month via Israeli tax collections) or is in serious doubt (hundreds of millions per year from the US and from the European Union). Both Abbas and the Hamas leadership know that any open alignment al-Qaeda will be the final death knell for European and American monies that still happen to at least remain in doubt and short of definitively being severed. Therefore, Abbas’ statements regarding al-Qaeda in the Palestinian Territories, which is not a new development, was an attempt to push the issue with Hamas, already openly in bed with Iran, the premiere State Sponsor of International Terrorism.

Abbas’ public statements, roundly discussed in the West, set the stage for what would follow after Zawahiri’s message and helped dictate the public Hamas reaction to the al-Qaeda support and instruction. Khaled Meshaal responded by saying that Hamas has “its own vision” and makes its decisions independent of al-Qaeda. While this is certainly true, that he felt compelled to react at all publicly and state as much is more a reaction to the corner Abbas had painted him into than anything else. Meshaal was not the only Hamas leader to react publicly to the al-Qaeda message, but the tone from all was that of Hamas independence and distance from al-Qaeda. All the while, while various Hamas leaders dismissed Zawahiri’s words as “opinion”, his words remain consistent with Hamas rhetoric and direction to date, regardless of Hamas’ sudden attempt at public separation from the ideology not held by al-Qaeda alone.

In fact, as Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold, reminds, there have long been ideological and political ties between al Qaeda and Hamas in Middle East, and they do indeed share a common ideology, regardless of attempts by Khaled Meshaal and others to cloud that issue. The difference between the two is more in the geographic scope of terrorist activity, not in vision and ideology.

Earlier evidence of links exists. In 2003, an Israeli ground unit in Gaza, seeking Hamas suspects, went into a school established by the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Written materials that Israeli soldiers collected revealed the writings of a famous Saudi Wahhabi religious authority, Sheikh Sulaiman al-Ulwan. His ideological entry into the world of Hamas immediately raised eyebrows. After all, his name was featured in a famous Osama bin Laden video clip from December 2001, when the al Qaeda leader entertained his entourage on camera by re-enacting with his hands the hijacked aircraft slamming into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. […]
Also, in 2003 and 2004, Israeli forces found Hamas posters that were distributed in West Bank cities that extolled the war being waged by Islamic militants in the Balkans, Chechnya and Kashmir. At the top was the portrait of Hamas leader Yassin alongside the portraits of bin Laden and Chechen militant leaders like Shamil Besayev, who took credit for the bloody attack on a Russian school in Beslan.

Gore goes on to note the importance of the fact that Hamas itself, as clearly stated in their own founding charter, is an offshoot of the same Muslim Brotherhood that served as the Islamist foundation of Ayman al-Zawahiri himself. Article Two of Hamas’ charter reads explicitly, "The Islamic Resistance Movement is one of the wings of Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine."

Abbas intends to weaken Hamas by pitting it further against the West. Hamas intends to allay any fears of an al-Qaeda linkage by publicly distancing themselves from Zawahiri’s message, lest any connection, real or implied, interfere with any existing chance Hamas has at securing the Palestinian Authority’s traditional sources of funding during its governance. Any acceptance at Hamas’ attempts to distance themselves from an already ideologically aligned al-Qaeda will be made at the West’s own peril.