Gaza: Big Jihad vs. Little Jihad

Palestinian Islamic jihad militants march during a military exercise in Gaza City on February 10. (Photo: Mahmud Hams/ AFP-Getty Images)

Hamas' attack against a jihadist group inside Gaza is about to provide the Palestinian Islamist organization an opportunity to become a mainstream movement, accepted internationally as a partner in negotiations. Or at least that is what Hamas strategists think may happen as a result of crushing the minuscule militant entity known as Jund Ansar Allah (The Soldiers or the Partisans of Allah) last week. This is another murky development in the world of jihadism, where the biggest forces in holy war devour the little ones in a battle to achieve victory over the Kuffar (infidels). But in Gaza, these intra-jihadist slaughters are peculiar in that the Palestine cause is central to the Islamist political narrative worldwide.

In November 2008, a new group in Rafah declared itself the ultimate Salafi jihadist force in Palestine. After many previous attempts made by al Qaeda-inspired factions, Jund Ansar Allah (J.A.A.), led by Abel Latif Mussa, also known as Abu al Nour al Maqdissi, seized control of a local mosque and segments of a neighborhood and launched attacks against Israel in early 2009. The J.A.A. issued many declarations calling for "real jihad," ending negotiations with Fatah, the international community, and opposing any type of elections or constitutional structure in Gaza other than pure sharia. From his pulpit, Sheikh Mussa criticized Hamas' leadership for failing the jihad they promised to deliver, and for betraying their own constitution calling for an Islamic Emirate all over Palestine, not just in Gaza and the West Bank. Hundreds of already indoctrinated youth joined the J.A.A. and formed the nucleus of a jihadi militia. Their ranks were growing at a rate alarming for Hamas; the J.A.A. was on its way to devour Hamas from the inside. It was using the same doctrines upon which Hamas was founded, grew and used to overthrow Fatah from Gaza.

After a few incidents, Hamas forces overwhelmed the headquarters of J.A.A., killing dozens of militants. The fighting took its toll on both groups. Unverified reports said that Abu Jibril Shemali, commander of Izzedine al Qassam Brigades (Hamas' S.S.-like force), and Abu Abdallah al Suri, J.A.A.'s military commander, were both killed in the clashes. J.A.A.'s founder, Abdel Latif Moussa, was killed during the explosion of one of his suicide bombers as he targeted advancing Hamas fighters. By now, the "Jund" has been crushed, its Mosque seized and its survivors pursued. In return, J.A.A. underground has threatened to punish Hamas leadership for their apostasy against "Allah's true fighters." This is jihad versus jihad inside a world of indoctrinated circles of militants, one circle enjoying power, money and recognition and the smaller circle wanting to snatch it away from the most powerful.

Commentators on al Jazeera reported that Hamas chose to finish the "Jund" as a maneuver to lure the West in general—Great Britain and the United States in particular—into engaging the organization, lifting its name from terror lists and adding it to the peace process between Palestinians and Israel. Hamas spokespersons rushed to use language that resonates in Western ears, especially with the Obama Administration and the Brown Government. "We too are fighting the extremists, the terrorists, as you are fighting them and pursuing al Qaeda," declared English-speaking Hamas communicators, hours after the combat was over.

Crushing an al Qaeda-like group in Gaza would grant an immediate license to the mainstream for Hamas. One must expect sympathizing journalists, apologist academics and soon enough diplomats and envoys to be citing the deeds of Hamas as a fight against terrorism. Some analysts believe that proponents of engagement in Europe and America have even suggested a move to break the veto against Hamas. Interestingly, the U.S. narrative lately has been underlining that there is no war against global jihadsim, only a war against al Qaeda.

So those in the business of jihad, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and a plethora of other groups, can make their credential known to the West by slapping some local al Qaeda boys around and claiming a green card to the world of "accepted jihadists." Two summers ago, the Syrian regime, and to an extent Hezbollah, tried to come up with a similar model. Damascus released a copycat group in northern Lebanon, Fatah al Islam, before they claimed they beheaded the organization a few months later, suggesting to Washington that Bashar can also kill al Qaeda crowds.

Is there a link between Hamas and the J.A.A. that it sacrificed for an enhanced international image? Many Westerners may miss the connection, but seasoned observers of Middle Eastern politics and jihadi tactics can see the link. Firstly, the constituents of the J.A.A. are part of the larger indoctrinated pools created by Hamas. There are no differences in the basic doctrine between Hamas and J.A.A.; they are both adepts of jihadi Salafism. Secondly, Hamas tolerated the presence of these ultra-jihadists for tactical purposes, allowing them to grow just enough that they could be blamed for wild rocket launching.

Comparatively, Hamas couldn't tolerate Fatah in the same way. By June 2007, followers of Mahmoud Abbas were massacred in the enclave because they were credible partners in a potential peace process and real competitors. Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesperson, told al Jazeera English that his organization was always dialoguing with the Jund, which means they had a relationship with them even though Hamas was the only dominant force in Gaza. Hence there was a reason for this tolerance before Hamad admitted that Hamas stopped "tolerating." The jihadist regime in Gaza fed the little jihadists and allowed them to grow until the time of sacrifice came.

This brings us back to the decision by the Obama and Brown Administrations to let go of the counter-jihadist narrative, hoping, as they said, to drive a wedge between the so-called "good jihadists" and the extremists. Hamas understood the message and delivered the goods promptly, hoping they will be reclassified as one of the good factions. But Hamas needs to also cater to its own Gaza indoctrinated constituencies, which were made to believe for decades that Jihad fi Sabeel Allah is the only way.

Hamas was trapped by an al Jazeera English anchor who pressed their spokesperson to show the difference between Hamas and the J.A.A. "Don’t you think that the people you just killed are more faithful to your constitution calling for the establishment of an Islamic Emirate on all of Palestine than yourselves, who are in power now?" Ghazi Hamad rushed to answer, revealing too much perhaps. "These guys want to establish the Caliphate immediately on any part of liberated land. They are irrational; they don't understand how Jihad works. We do." Hamad said Hamas knows better how to achieve victory.

I have often argued that the jihadists are of three strategic schools of thought: short, medium and long term. The difference between Hamas and the J.A.A. is not about good or bad jihad, as representatives of Western governments are claiming. It is a difference about when to trigger the missile, under whose orders and within which framework of alliances. The J.A.A. wants it all the time, anytime they can. Hamas wants a perfect kill, coordinated with its allies, Hezbollah, Syria's Baath and Iran's Pasdaran. The J.A.A. doesn't care what the infidels in Washington and London think. Hamas cares strategically how the allies of its immediate enemy, Israel, behave. It wants to be part of the widest regional alliance against the Jewish state, while the latter loses all its allies before D-Day is unleashed. 

Dr. Walid Phares is the director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy. He is the author of "The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad." He teaches global strategies in Washington, D.C.