When Mumtaz Dughmush, head of the Islamist-cum-crime gang of Gaza, was first asked what he wanted for letting the BBC correspondent kidnapped on March 12 go free, he answered simply: $50 million.
Notorious in Gaza as a crime bandit chief and gun for hire, Dughmush explained the extortionate ransom by claiming that his Al Qaeda-linked Army of Islam did not initiate the abduction. He maintained he had acted at the request of Alan Johnston himself and took it for granted that the reporter knew his principals would pay a high ransom for his release. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources confirm that this view is shared by some of the Western and Palestinian intelligence groups which assisted in his rescue.
Palestinian sources assert that the BBC had been planning to fire Johnston who had spent three years as correspondent in the Gaza Strip. In the last year, he was the only Western reporter working there, and his employers felt he had become too closely identified with the Palestinians on his beat, rather than representing the Western-British point of view.
To save his job, say these sources, Johnston staged his abduction by the Dughmush gunmen, expecting to be freed after a few days like all the other journalists snatched in Gaza in the past. The Dughmush clan would meanwhile grab world publicity and get international exposure of their importance.
The only trouble was that the plan went wrong. It was overtaken by two unexpected seismic events and the British reporter was thrown into 114 days of solitary confinement in terrifying conditions of uncertainty.
First, al Qaeda deepened its penetration of the Gaza Strip and developed close relations with Mumtaz Dughmush. They offered him greater world publicity than the Johnston case could afford plus broad, long-term political backing, weapons and money.
Second, three weeks ago, Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.
Hamas holds back from showdown with Army of Islam
To win even minimal recognition, Hamas needed to exhibit full control of the chaotic Palestinian territory and assert authority over the extremist militias and armed splinter groups roving the Gaza Strip.
Hamas leaders hit on the short cut to these goals as being to secure Alan Johnston’s release, a feat which the evicted Palestinian Authority and its head Mahmoud Abbas had failed to achieve. They counted on a small military shove in the direction of the Dughmush family compound in Gaza City’s Sabra district doing the trick. After all, they thought, Hamas and the Army of Islam are in regular communication and share guard duty over their Israeli hostage, Gideon Shalit, whom they kidnapped in a joint operation a year ago.
But Mumtaz Dughmush, who had meanwhile built up a relationship with al Qaeda, not only refused but threatened Hamas that any attempt to release Johnston by force would be resisted with force. Dughmush also threatened to publish embarrassing disclosures about Hamas in relation to the Israeli soldier.
Tempers were clearly heating up. Tuesday, June 19, al Qaeda released an angry broadside in a video tape: “How dare Hamas assume a monopoly over Gilead Shalit and go for a deal with Israel when his fate is not in their hands?
Next day, Hamas’ Executive Force units encircled the cluster of buildings housing the fortified Dughmush compound. There they halted. Hamas leaders decided to refrain from a showdown with the Army of Islam and so held back from storming its bastion.
To understand why Hamas held back, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources throw some light on its tangled partnership with the Army of Islam which extends beyond the Gaza Strip. In the battles radical Palestinians are waging with the Lebanese army near the northern town of Tripoli, now in their second month, Hamas operatives have been fighting shoulder to shoulder with the al Qaeda-linked Fatah al Islam. Hamas decided not to quarrel with al Qaeda either in Gaza or Lebanon.
A week later, on June 25, al Qaeda granted Hamas its reward.
Hamas gets al Qaeda’s kosher seal for Gaza rule
In a new audio tape, Osama bin Laden‘s deputy, Ayman Zuwahiri said: “…the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, deserves support despite all the mistakes of their leadership – especially in the light of its recent actions in assuming power in the Gaza Strip from Fatah.”
He declared: “A victory for Hamas is a victory for Palestine.”
A few hours later, Gilead Shalit’s voice was heard for the first time since his abduction on June 12, 2006.
As DEBKAfile’s counter-terror sources reported on June 25: The release of the Shalit, Johnston and Zawihiri tapes within a few hours – the first two by Hamas – strongly indicated that the timing had been coordinated between Hamas and al Qaeda.
Hamas got its reward for not storming the Dughmush compound to free Alan Johnston in the form of al Qaeda’s limited and conditional backing. The kudos for releasing the BBC reporter would indeed accrue to Hamas and underline its position as the dominant force in Gaza, while al Qaeda and its henchman in Gaza, Mumtaz Dughmush also stood to profit from the way the Johnston affair was handled.
The two extremist groups found a ladder for their climb-down in the ritual fatwa issued Tuesday night, July 3, by Suleiman A-Daya, a radical cleric acceptable to Hamas and al Qaeda. The cleric decreed the release of the British hostage at once with no ransom.
It may be inferred that the ransom had already been turned over:
The Hamas regime in Gaza has won its passport to international recognition as well as Arab-Muslim satisfaction for securing the BBC reporter’s release; Dughmush made Hamas bow to its leverage as the only armed militia in Gaza able to stand up to its Executive Force and therefore a cut above Mahmoud Abbas’ defeated Fatah; al Qaeda’s Army of Islam is an acknowledged presence in the Gaza Strip.
Only Gilead Shalit has been left behind.