Salafi-Jihadis In Gaza Weigh Acquiescing To Ceasefire Versus Continuing Jihad Against Israel
The fighting in Gaza in November 2012 caught Salafi-jihadi organizations there in a crisis. One month prior to the outbreak of Operation Pillar of Defense, on October 13, Israel assassinated Hisham Sa'idani and Ashraf Sabah, both heads of the Shoura Council of the Mujahideen (SCM), the umbrella group of Gaza's Salafi-jihadi groups. This marked the culmination of a string of assassinations targeting global jihad operatives in Gaza over the past two years. Simultaneously, the Hamas government continued to crack down on the Salafi organizations – Sa'idani himself was released from a Hamas prison some two months before Israel assassinated him. With Operation Pillar of Defense, the Salafis were granted some breathing room from a strategic and PR perspective, and even a chance for reconciliation with other organizations in Gaza, though this was ultimately cut short by the ceasefire.
The announcement of the ceasefire sparked a debate with the Salafi-jihadi movement as to how best to conduct itself vis-à-vis Hamas and whether to continue the jihad against Israel. Despite the jihadi ideology which calls for constant jihad against Israel, and notwithstanding the jihadis' historical disregard for ceasefire agreements, it would seem that the global jihad groups in Gaza will honor the latest ceasefire.
The following report will survey the activities of the Salafi-jihadi groups during the recent fighting, and will analyze their vacillations vis-à-vis the ceasefire with Israel.
Efforts To Play An Active Role In Fighting
The global jihad groups have never honored periods of calm between Hamas and Israel. In recent years, they have fired rockets at Israel at every opportunity they had. On the eve of Operation Pillar of Defense, the SCM took advantage of the escalated tensions between the Hamas government and Israel to step up their efforts and fire dozens of rockets at southern Israel, among other things to avenge the deaths of Sa'idani and Sabah.
From the outset of Israel's operation, the global jihad organizations made a heightened effort to strike Israel's southern cities and towns with rockets and to take an active part in the fighting. Over the course of the eight days of fighting, the Salafi organizations – the SCM, Jaysh Al-Islam, and Jaysh Al-Ummah – fired some 200 rockets at Israel. In comparison, Hamas's 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades launched some 1,600 rockets, and Islamic Jihad's Al-Quds Brigades some 620 rockets. This can be explained in part by the Salafi organizations' significantly inferior operational and technological abilities compared to those of the larger and better established organizations, such that the former fired most of their rockets at close targets, within a range of a few kilometers to several dozen kilometers from Gaza. It should also be noted that in the course of the fighting, the organization Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, which operates from Sinai, fired a volley of rockets at Eilat in a show of support for the Palestinians.
Apart from the actual fighting, the Salafi organizations and their supporters online made a concerted effort to publicize their rocket strikes, in a bid for legitimacy on the Palestinian street. The SCM issued proclamations and video clips in which it claimed responsibility for rocket volleys fired on Sderot, Netivot, Ashkelon, and a number of kibbutzim near the border with Gaza.
In the same vein of glorifying the Salafi-jihadis' contribution to the Palestinians' war effort, 'Abdallah Muhammad Mahmoud, a Gazan pro-jihadi blogger, wrote: "The strong presence on the ground of the Salafi-jihadi groups during this war, despite [limited] resources and the difficult circumstances of which everyone is aware, came as a surprise. All the Salafi-jihadi groups within the Gaza Strip and Sinai announced they would take part in attacking the Zionist enemy by [firing] dozens of rockets throughout the entire war... According to an unofficial estimate, the number of attacks reached 188 rockets in a week. This indicates that the Salafi-jihadi movement has become an influential element and one not to be overlooked, ignored, or denied."
Scene from SCM video showing a rocket being fired at Israel
Salafi-Jihadis Hail Palestinian Unity, Camaraderie
The Salafi-jihadis' attempt to be accepted as a legitimate part of the Palestinian fighting groups was also characterized by an emphasis on the unity and camaraderie between its fighters and those of Hamas. Likewise, in an effort to improve their image in the eyes of the Palestinian public, the Salafi-jihadis stressed the sacrifice made by their fighters and leaders, while taking advantage of the highly publicized assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmad Al-Ja'bari to point out the numerous global jihad operatives and leaders that had been assassinated.
Before the ceasefire was declared, one of SCM's leaders, 'Abdallah Al-Ashqar aka Abu Al-Muhtasib Al-Maqdisi, issued an audio message in which he praised the members of the other factions for their contribution to the fight against Israel: "To the sons of the Palestinian factions who stand tall in the face of the Jews' arrogance, conceit, and condescension toward the oppressed Muslims: You inscribe the loftiest stories of heroism, sacrifice, and devotion, and create a new image [to replace] the image of baseness and disgrace [created by] the criminal Jews. To these same freemen who shook from themselves the dust of humiliation and who shook the thieving [Zionist] entity with impressive operations, which no [other] forces in the region claiming to bear the banner of resistance were capable of carrying out [i.e. firing rockets on Tel Aviv], we send our warm blessings, strengthen their hands, and call them to redouble their efforts and heroism..."
Al-Ashqar reminded and stressed to the member of the other factions that the Salafis had never accepted any calm with Israel: "The opposition to the occupier that you are waging today is precisely what we pleaded with you to do in recent years... We know that this enemy is traitorous and cowardly, and that it cannot be trusted on anything. It will never miss an opportunity to strike against you, whether there is a hudna between you or an escalation. We all saw how the commander Ahmad Al-Ja'bari – Allah's mercy upon him – was taken out in a traitorous assassination, even though the factions at the time had committed to the hudna [truce].
"You saw, just as the world did, how the Salafi-jihadi fighters did not abandon you in the field, as some people claimed, and did not make do with [merely] observing from the sidelines the Jews' crimes against the Muslims... You and everyone [else] saw how the heroes of the SCM and the other Salafi organizations stood shoulder to shoulder to defend the Muslims' sanctities and to scourge the criminal enemies of Allah with the power Allah granted them. They spared no effort in attacking the Jews, despite the dearth of means and resources. Our hope of Allah is that this joining of ranks, [as manifest] by the battle against the Jews today, [will open] a new stage that will close the book on a past of suffering and pain which this is not the place to discuss..."
Poster distributed on pro-global jihad pages on Facebook showing slain Hamas military commander Ahmad Al-Ja'bari (right) alongside slain Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad leader Hisham Sa'idani (left)
"There Is No Solution But Jihad"
Encouraged by Hamas's renewed armed conflict against Israel, Gaza's Salafis called on Hamas and the other organizations to wage a permanent war on Israel and to persist in jihad against it. In the same audio message, 'Abdallah Al-Ashqar said: "There is no solution but jihad for the sake of Allah, which entails relief for the believers, defiance of the infidels, and prevention of harm to the weak. Therefore, we have no choice but to act against this enemy with artillery and rifle barrels in the fields of battle. The discussions, negotiations, and concessions will bring nothing but further bloodshed... The return to the option of war and the renewed emphasis on it are a good omen for the future, Allah-willing."
The SCM made a similar call in a communiqué it disseminated after the ceasefire went into effect, which read: "Our message to the national opposition factions in the [Gaza] Strip is: The last aggression proved the level of weakness and frailty of the Jews, whose contemptible state is weaker than spider webs; and it showed the level of the Muslims' strength, as they insisted on and persisted in jihad for the sake of Allah.
"We say to them: You must cling to your arms. Do not waste your efforts and your armament by being dragged into the crooked games of politics. [Remember that] policy according to the shari'a is based on the Koran and the Sunna, and its linchpin is jihad for the sake of Allah."
What's Next - Maintaining Calm Or Continuing Jihad?
Considering these calls for jihad, the history of the global jihad organizations, and their uncompromising ideology, it remains unclear whether the Salafi-jihadis will continue firing rockets on Israel, notwithstanding the current ceasefire. The answer would appear to lie in the SCM's communiqué, which warns the Muslims against Israel's cunning, which it predicts will violate the ceasefire by continuing to assassinate jihadi operatives: "We must know that the Jews will strive to make this hudna unilateral, preparing the ground for this with attacks that will escalate to the degree of assassinations of mujahideen that [they hope] will go unanswered. This was substantiated by reports in some of the media organs that the Jews had tried to enter a clause into the ceasefire agreement according to which members of the Salafi-jihadi groups, which they refer to as 'global jihad,' would not be included in the hudna, so that [the Jews] would be free to assassinate them whenever they wish...
"We hereby warn them that the blood of our sons is not cheap, and is guaranteed [retribution] by Muslim valiants who know well to avenge it and the blood of the Muslims and their sanctities, and who are not party to the hudna between the Palestinian factions and the Jews. Nevertheless, this will not change the fact that our activities are always dictated by weighty shari' considerations, whether or not there is a hudna [emphasis added]. We ask that Allah [grant us] success and guidance." This sentence can be understood as a religious justification for upholding the ceasefire. The SCM leaders thus left themselves a certain amount of discretion in terms of renewing the violence versus refraining from it.
In addition to warning Israel against killing its members, the authors of the SCM statement also demanded that Hamas stop persecuting Salafi-jihadis: "We demand that the Gazan government [i.e. Hamas] close the files on the conflict with the Salafi mujahideen and stop the surveillance, persecution, and besiegement of them. This war proved their justness and the strength of their resistance, wherever they were, side by side with the Muslim sons in fighting the Jews. Anyone who was with them in the battlefield will attest to this. All they wish for is jihad for the sake of Allah and to implement the shari'a at the exclusion of everything else. They are much closer to you [in the resistance factions] than those with whom you are reconciling [i.e. the PA]."
Poster in commemoration of Gazan Salafi-jiahdi operative killed by IDF
Jihad Supporters Debate Whether To Maintain A Low Profile Or Continue Jihad
When the ceasefire was announced, the Salafis' supporters understood immediately that a new stage had begun, and that Hamas would be careful to maintain the calm in order to strengthen its control. Supporters of the Salafiyya-jihadiyya voiced conflicting views regarding how to conduct themselves vis-à-vis Hamas in this new situation. Some called to maintain a low profile and refrain from military activity, believing this would improve the Salafiyya-jihaddiya's status vis-à-vis Hamas. Others said that in any case, the Salafis must continue trying to wage jihad.
The administrator of the blog Da'wat Al-Haqq, who supports the Salafi-jihadi stream, advised the latter to refrain from military action so as not to raise public opinion against it: "Our advice to our brother mujahideen, especially the Salafis: Do not go against the public in executing any operations, which will surely incur its anger even before incurring the anger of the Hamas government."
"At Present, Not A Single Rocket Should Be Fired"
A prominent member of the jihadi forum Shumoukh Al-Islam who uses the handle "Dar'3" and who apparently resides in Gaza advised his colleagues to lower their profile and focus on building up their military force so they could continue waging jihad in the future. He offered the following advice:
· "[The Salafi-jihadi organizations] must be rid of disputes and must resolve any problem that is hindering unity among them.
· "Take advantage of this period of calm to prepare, arm, and unite ranks.
· "Refrain from clashing with security personnel from the Gazan government or with Hamas personnel.
· "This is the most important clause, and I hope it will be well understood: Not a single rocket should be fired, nor should any jihad operation be launched from the Gaza Strip. This time must be taken advantage of to prepare and arm, and must be regarded as [a period of] rest from jihad. We saw what can be gained from such preparation, the best example being the 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades' [build up].
· "Before you take up arms, [hold] sessions dedicated to propagation [of Salafi-jihadi creed], the study of religion and the study of the laws of jihad.
· "Attract religious youth and develop new means of communication. Here it must be clarified: first and foremost [new members] must be trustworthy, so that we do not fall easy prey to the security services and their dogs.
· "Develop [new] means of communication, in light of their great importance in our war. [We] must not rely on jihadi forums alone. There must be channels of communication with all of the radio stations and TV channels, both local and international. And it goes without saying that [we] must spread throughout the mosques, universities, schools, streets, and markets.
· "This time must be taken advantage of to monitor the Jews' locations, and to prepare for large-scale jihad operations.
· "Refrain from arousing suspicion! There is no need, at this time especially, to don the 'Pakistani' garb and the taqiyah [cap worn by observant Muslim men]. Be natural in everything, and meld into your surroundings.
· "Develop weapons and equipment, especially the strategic weapon of rockets. Allah willing, you will soon lay your hands on a method of manufacturing long-range Maqadama missiles [a type of rocket produced by Hamas]..."
Another Gazan member of the forum who uses the handle "Irhabi Linusrat Al-Din" acridly rejected Dar'3's proposals, claiming that Hamas's enmity toward the Salafis had not changed following the latest round of hostilities, which therefore rendered useless any talk of refraining from clashes with Hamas operatives or maintaining a low profile. Moreover, he said that Hamas would not allow the Salafis to arm themselves or build up their forces. As for the calls to reach a compromise with Hamas, the user equated them to a man being stabbed calling for compromise with the person stabbing him in the back. Others said that even if the Salafis were compelled to refrain from operational activity for the time being, the Sinai front was still open to them and could be used to launch attacks against Israel.
Calls To Continue Jihad
The proposals that the Salafis maintain a low profile and refrain from jihad were answered with an article by a Shumoukh Al-Islam member who uses the handle "'Ani Al-'Ilm" and who would appear to be a Gazan, who is well versed in religious studies or possibly a student at a religious seminary. He wrote: "Preparing the force is obligatory, and there is no reason to neglect jihad. Even at the stage when the Muslims are preparing to meet the enemy, we do not forbid or neglect jihad. It says in the Koran: 'And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy' [Koran 8:60].
"Preparing the force is [done] for the sake of terrifying [the enemy]. [This does not mean] the preparation of a force that ends in calm and a prohibition against jihad... If the force is prepared in a state of obligatory war – as is the case on the soil of Palestine – you must not stop or neglect what you are planning to this end, since this will lead to disastrous results, the harbingers of which we saw before the eight-day war against Gaza."