GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian Islamist radical groups inspired by al Qaeda recruit thousands of members in the Gaza Strip, including senior militants from the ruling Hamas movement, a senior figure among the radicals said this week.
Speaking to Reuters a month after Hamas forces attacked a mosque and killed some 20 members of the al Qaeda-aligned Jund Ansar Allah, or Warriors of God, he said a crackdown by Hamas, involving hundreds of arrests, was driving radicals underground but also boosting recruitment to their Salafist brand of Islam.
“We’ve been forced into secret activities,” said the man, who uses the Islamist nom de guerre Abu Mohammed al-Maqdessi.
Many had shaved their beards and abandoned distinctive Afghan-style dress in order to evade a month-old Hamas manhunt, though Maqdessi insisted Hamas was only the enemy of his group insofar as the ruling Islamists thwart their attacks on Israel.
Maqdessi spoke in an interview arranged through other known figures among Salafist groups in Gaza. It was conducted by telephone. Maqdessi said he spoke for all Salafists in Gaza and was a member of Jund Ansar, whose leader Abdel-Latif Moussa died in Hamas’s attack on his mosque on the night of August 14-15.
“Hamas is going out of its mind,” said Maqdessi, who is in his 30s and declined to give more personal details for fear of being captured. “But even if they arrest all of us they will never change the thinking of one member or one leader.”
Hamas has said it wants to “re-educate” radicals who accuse it of betraying Islam by taking part in — and winning — the Palestinian parliamentary election of 2006. Those espousing the global jihad of al Qaeda also complain Hamas has pursued narrow national goals and has failed to impose Islamic law in Gaza.
Maqdessi said nearly 500 people had been detained since last month’s violence in Rafah, which followed Moussa’s declaration of an Islamic “emirate” in the town. Hamas, which seized control of the enclave in 2007, said 160 suspected Salafists had been taken in for questioning and 50 released. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said dozens more would be freed for next week’s Eid holiday.
Assessing the Salafist challenge to Hamas is far from easy. However, the number of arrests may bear out Maqdessi’s estimate of thousands of militant followers of Osama bin Laden.
“We have thousands of members and thousands of sympathizers,” he said, declining to be more specific.
He also said the groups were attracting senior militants from Hamas itself — a trend borne out by the deaths of former members of Hamas’s Qassam Brigades armed wing alongside Moussa.
“Leading Qassam figures are now attending lectures our Salafist sheikhs are giving in secret,” Maqdessi said.
Dismissing Hamas as half-hearted in introducing Islamic law in Gaza, Maqdessi referred ironically to its crackdown on the Warriors of God.
“Hamas can do anything in Gaza,” he said. “They can blow up buildings and kill dozens. But they are unable to implement the will of God.”
He said Salafists in the blockaded Palestinian territory had no formal links to al Qaeda elsewhere but regarded Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri as mentors. They had pledged loyalty also to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, suspected head of the Islamic State of Iraq, who Iraqi forces said they had captured in April.
Confirming accounts from other Salafists of a determined Hamas campaign against them, Maqdessi said Hamas’s security men were storming homes and, on occasion, detaining relatives of suspects in order to pressure them into giving themselves up.
Maqdessi denied, however, that Salafists had been behind bombings two weeks ago at security sites in Gaza, and also denied Hamas accusations that Salafist groups were behind attacks on Internet cafes and musical entertainments in Gaza.
“We have not intended to confront Hamas and our battle is only with the Zionist enemy,” he said.
Jund Ansar Allah came to notice in June when its fighters attacked an Israel border base, some of them on horseback.
Maqdessi warned, however, that Salafists opposed Hamas’s efforts to observe the ceasefire with Israel which has been in place since the war in January.
“We will be obliged to confront anyone who would try to block jihad and resistance,” he said.
Some analysts say that the rise of more radical militants in Gaza could distract Hamas from efforts to reach out to the West to end the isolation caused by Hamas violence and refusal to recognize Israel. Others argue that, by making Hamas seem more moderate, the trend could encourage detente with Western powers.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald