The latest convolution in jihadi interrelations has given even the most seasoned counter-terror experts pause. It also has them extremely worried.
A top-secret report composed by the Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad in early August shocked his movement by revealing that the al Qaeda-linked Salafi jihadist groups loyal to Osama bin Laden in the Gaza Strip had quietly built up a fighting force of some 7,000 men under arms, and they maintained close ties with covert cells in the adjoining Sinai peninsula, Sudan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
This is half the total strength commanded by the Palestinian Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources disclose. It thus poses a threat to Hamas' grip on the enclave. It also offers al Qaeda a potential haunt-cum-haven in yet another relatively lawless, strategically located territory.
Still, the Palestinian Islamist Hamas tolerated the Salafi-jihadist offshoots of al Qaeda up to a point and was even ready to collaborate with them on occasion.
That is until last Saturday, Aug. 15, when the relationship suddenly exploded into a white hot battle in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. It was triggered by the proclamation of an Islamic Emirate in the Gaza Strip by the leader of the al Qaeda affiliate Jund Ansar Allah, a preacher called Abdullah al-Latif Musa, known also as “Abir Nour al-Maqdis” (The Knight of Light from Jerusalem). In his sermon at the Ibn Thaymas Mosque of Rafah, he called on all Gazans to pledge their allegiance to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Hamas' Damascus headquarters ordered the Gaza faction to rush reinforcements to Rafah and crush the revolt before it developed further.
Several hours of carnage followed.
Hamas pounded the hundreds of worshippers inside the Ibn Thaymas Mosque with anti-tank rockets, mortars and heavy machine guns. The preacher and his military commander, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajer (known as “The Syrian”), and a few followers retreated from the beleaguered mosque to Musa's four-storey home in town.
Determined that none should escape alive, Hamas forces blew up the building with all its occupants.
Al Qaeda loses a double agent
When the dust settled, 30 dead were counted on both sides and more than 150 wounded. Both Jund leaders were among the dead, including Hamas' primary target, “The Syrian.”
Why was he so important?
The answer to this question explains how and why al Qaeda has cast the Gaza Strip in the role of Waziristan-on-the Mediterranean with access to the key waterway, the Suez Canal.
One of the best-kept secrets of the Hamas-Jund Ansar Allah clash last Saturday is that Abu Abdullah Muhajer was a double agent on behalf of al Qaeda, who had for years duped Hamas' politburo chief, the Damascus-based Khaled Meshaal, and even Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly now reveals exclusively that by 2007, the talented Muhajer, then 40, had risen to the post of senior aide on the confidential staff of Khaled Meshaal. His boss, having tagged him as a future high-ranking officer on Hamas' military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, sent him on a course with Iran's Revolutionary Guards for battalion and regimental commanders. Meshaal planned to post him to the Gaza Strip to impart to Hamas fighters on the front with Israel the special tactics he had studied at the elite course in Iran.
A year later, after graduating from the IRGC course with honors, Al Muhajer was smuggled into the Gaza Strip by Iranian intelligence through the Sinai tunnels.
Meshaal believed he now had a key man on the spot ready for new missions.
But upon arrival in Gaza, our counter-terror sources report, the bright new Hamas star immediately switched roles. Ducking the Hamas reception committee awaiting him, he vanished in the alleys of Rafah and joined up with the Jund Ansar Allah local operatives who had been told to expect him by their al Qaeda controllers in Syria.
In no time, armed with the sophisticated combat tactics imparted by the IRGC, he began organizing and training the score or more radical Islamic Salafi cells which have come to dominate the southern area of Rafah and Khan Younis near the Egyptian border.
How many others?
“The Syrian” took to the grave with him last Saturday the answers to at least five pressing questions preying on the minds of Meshaal in Damascus and Hamas' Gaza leaders:
One: How was it possible for a mole to penetrate the compartmentalized pyramid of Hamas' Damascus headquarters and work closely with its leader without being rumbled?
Two: Was he al Qaeda's only mole? Or are there more “Muhajers” planted in the Hamas hierarchies in Damascus and the Gaza Strip?
Three: How long had the Syrian been working for al-Qaeda?
Four: Was he reporting to al Qaeda from his IRGC course of instruction in Iran?
Five: How were al-Qaeda controllers able to run Muhajer at all the stages of his career in Syria, Iran and the Gaza Strip, unnoticed by Iranian, Syrian and Palestinian clandestine agencies?
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources, the elimination of Muhajer (and Sheikh Musa) still leaves two senior al-Qaeda operatives at large in the Gaza Strip; Hamas has known about them for 18 months but failed to nab them.
One is Mahmoud al-Talib, code-named Abu Muatsem, whose military talents have earned him the soubriquet of the “Baithullah Mehsud of Gaza” (after the Pakistan Taliban commander who was taken out earlier this month by a US missile.)
Though arrested by Hamas security forces in February, Abu Muatsem escaped from his cell with the help of prison guards who were undercover al Qaeda loyalists. This event left Hamas in fear that its organization had been penetrated by more al Qaeda moles than suspected.
The second al Qaeda commander badly wanted by Hamas intelligence and security is a man whose identity, origin and age are a mystery. All that Hamas knows is that he is the chief of an al Qaeda-affiliated Egyptian group called “Seif al-Haq”, or Sword of Justice.
Who are the 7,000 armed men serving al Qaeda in Gaza? Read about the makeup of this clandestine body in the next article.