The Palestinian Islamist Hamas this week placed its military, police and intelligence forces on top alert following information that the 25-40 al Qaeda-linked Salafi groups operating in the Gaza Strip (the exact number is unknown) were preparing to mount massive terror attacks on Hamas government premises.
There was talk that the Gaza Strip had been set on a slippery slope to becoming a second Waziristan or Mogadishu.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources read more than empty metaphors into this analogy.
It rests on a top-secret intelligence report compiled in the first week of August by Hamas minister of the interior Fathi Hamad, whose contents were obtained by DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence sources.
The Salafi-jihadi groups of the Gaza Strip operate under an umbrella organization called Jaljalat, the first word of al Qaeda's anthem, which means: “We have been saved” [implicitly by jihad]).”
Earlier this month, Jaljalat sent a secret messenger through Sinai to Jordan to offer Khuzeifa Azzam, son of the legendary founder and leader of the global Mujahideen movement, Sheikh Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, the mantle of Gaza's Salafi leadership.
His father, Azzam Sr. was highly esteemed in jihadi circles above all as Osama bin Laden's mentor, who persuaded him to join the Afghan holy war against the Soviet invaders in the 1980s. In those days, this influential Palestinian Sunni scholar, who preached the concept of defensive jihad, organized the manpower and funding for an international Islamic legion to fight in Afghanistan.
Israel's disengagement gave Salafis first foothold
The Hamas intelligence report states that today, the al Qaeda-linked Salafi groups command some 7,000 fighting men and control about one quarter of the Gaza Strip (139 sq. miles). Under their sway is an overcrowded population of some half a million people, squeezed mainly into the two southern cities of Khan Younis (160,000 inhabitants) and Rafah on the Egyptian border (over 300,000 inhabitants). This is only slightly more than the size of the population spread out across the 4,473 sq. miles of North and South Waziristan.
For comparison, it should be noted that the Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud (believed to have been killed by a US drone) commanded no more than 2,500 fighting men, roughly the same number deployed by Tohir Yuldashev, head of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is now considered al Qaeda's main operational arm in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For al Qaeda, therefore, the Gaza force of 7,000 jihad fervent fighters are a major windfall which bin Laden is unlikely to leave unexploited in pursuing his jihad on the West.
The Salafi groups first appeared in Gaza after Israel evacuated the Strip in the summer of 2006. They multiplied like mushrooms after September 2005 when Hamas seized power and evicted the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.
Their next period of growth occurred after Israel ended its three-week Operation Cast Lead in February 2009 leading Hamas to halt its missile offensive against the Israeli population. Disenchanted by Hamas' tame new policy towards the Jewish state, thousands defected from its military wing, the hard-line Popular Resistance Committees and the various Palestinian Fronts. They gravitated with their guns to the various Salafi-jihadist groups.
Locals, Exiles and Outsiders
Hamas intelligence reports that the Salafi-jihadist armed groups derive their command structure from three sources:
1. Local Palestinians, many of whom held minor command positions with Hamas or other Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip's central and northern regions.
2. A mixed bag of some 150 seasoned Egyptian, Syrian, Sudanese, Yemenite and Iraqi Sunni fighters from various al Qaeda war zones. They entered the Gaza Strip through the smuggling tunnels from Sinai.
The report does not reveal how they were able to slip past Hamas' tunnel overseers, who levy tax on every person or commodity passing through.
3. Ex-Hamas members from Syria and Lebanon.
The Hamad report concludes that the burgeoning al Qaeda presence in the southern Gaza Strip is a threat to Hamas' rule. Without strong and expeditious action to stop them, the Salafi-jihadists will spread north and move in on the teeming Palestinian refugee camps of Gaza City. Already, the first comers have been sighted in the Sabra and Zaitun camps.
These al Qaeda affiliates enjoy an income of big bucks from two sources, according to the Hamas report.
The Palestinian Authority diverts US funds to the jihadis
The first, incredibly, is the United States, and the second, none other than Israel.
Source A. Washington transfers money to Ramallah to finance the Palestinian Authority's security and intelligence forces in the West Bank.
However, the head of Palestinian West Bank intelligence, Gen. Majd Faraj, has been given permission by the PA chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, to direct some of these funds to the Salafist-Jihadis who dominate the southern Gaza Strip. The rationale behind this is the hope of dislodging Hamas rule in the southern half of Gaza, effectively carving the enclave into two sections and toppling Hamas rule.
According to Hamas intelligence estimates, $2.5-3 million of American cash has been transferred from Ramallah to the southern Gaza Strip. Most of went on the purchase of weapons and pay for fighters and groups controlled by al Qaeda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources compare this dynamic to the goings-on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Taliban was recently discovered drawing on contributions from Persian Gulf donors and the US allocations pouring into Afghanistan to build infrastructure and aid the population. This discovery negates the prevailing wisdom in Washington until now that the Taliban subsisted on profits from the flourishing opium trade.
Presidential special envoy Richard Holbrooke commented only this week:
“In the past there was a kind of feeling that the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan. That is simply not true”.
Holbrooke has decided to co-opt a Treasury Department official to his staff to pursue the question of Taliban funding. According to the evidence from the manager of an Afghan firm, which has signed lucrative construction contracts with the US, firms like his must factor into their cost estimates of a minimum rake-off of 20 percent for the Taliban.
Source B. Israel was persuaded to transfer roughly $31.5 million to the Gaza Strip each month by the US and Egyptian governments, who argued that without this influx the local banks would collapse.
If only 5 percent of this money percolates to the Salafis, they can count on a steady revenue flow of $1.5 million per month.