As we saw in the previous installment of this short series on jihadis in the Gaza Strip, the leader of the Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, Abu al-Walid al-Maqdisi, was pretty defensive about his organization’s actions in his answers to questions from visitors of the Shumukh al-Islam forum. The rest of his answers indicate that the group may have grandiose plans and plenty of enemies against whom these may be applied but that in the end they are not really capable of living up to their own rhetoric.
Interestingly, one of the things Abu al-Walid mentions as – unfortunately – being an impossibility is expanding his activities to the Sinai desert in order to give his organization more strategic depth. This is the case because of “the heavy security oppression on everyone who is thought to have even the slightest link to Jihadi-Salafism” (question no. 16). Recent attacks on Israel possibly coming from this area suggest that this situation may have changed. The revolution in Egypt has made the security situation in the Sinai desert less strict, perhaps allowing groups such as Abu al-Walid’s to obtain the breathing space they so desperately need. When answering his readers’ questions in late 2010, however, none of this had occurred yet. Nevertheless, they provide context for the group’s actions today:
In Part 1 of this series, we saw that the lack of unity among Palestinian jihadi groups, despite their many similarities in background, goals, and ideology, worried several questioners. As the book in which their questions are asked progresses, some of the concerns about this issue become more explicit. In question no. 40, for example, Abu al-Walid is told (not asked): “You need to unify [with other jihadi groups], even if this leads to concessions on some issues.” Abu al-Walid’s answer is less than convincing: “May God bless you for your advice regarding unity. Rest assured, we are prepared to make concessions towards our brothers regarding many – not just some – issues.” Another questioner asks whether it would be possible to organize a major attack with other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, perhaps boosting their popularity. Despite Abu al-Walid’s claims of weakness and a difficult security situation, he states that such an attack is nevertheless not too far away (question no. 59).
Abu al-Walid’s discussion of the lack of unity and, especially, its underlying causes takes on a new dimension when questioners start offering him their help. Several questioners (for example nos. 29, 90 and 181) ask whether outsiders can come to the Gaza Strip, presumably to assist the Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in its activities. Others either explicitly offer their services as foreign jihad fighters (no. 85), want to leave the Saraya al-Quds (the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad) in order to join Abu al-Walid and his men (no. 154), or simply ask: “The Jama’at [al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad] in the Gaza Strip faces a number of challenges and we are your brothers. What can we do for you?” (no. 102)
If the organization headed by Abu al-Walid al-Maqdisi is, as he argues, weak because of the security measures of Hamas and the Israeli army and is not able to unify with other jihadi groups, one might wonder what the Jama’at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad is planning to do. “The organization’s call to Islam (da’wa) and its sons”, Abu al-Walid assures his readers, “are spread across all districts [in the Gaza Strip].” Their “strategic plan” focuses on “the Islamically legitimate” preparation of the organization’s members, “making our da’wa reach whomever we can from among the ordinary people” and “military preparation” for “action against the Jews and preparation for any war from their side” (questions no. 44-45).
The group, in other words, is “in the foundational phase”. Abu al-Walid admits that this phase has already lasted several years but claims that “several years in the life of groups amount to nothing. The groups in Gaza are still working on strengthening their power” (question no. 65). All of this sounds fair enough and possibly suggests that the group just wants to be well prepared and not rush into anything. However, the repeated questions about when the group will start attacking Hamas or Israel seem to suggest that many readers have little patience with the group’s careful approach.
Too many enemies
While it may not be his intention, Abu al-Walid actually seems to be fanning the flames of his readers’ impatience by taking every opportunity to lash out against the group’s real and perceived enemies. Obviously, Israel is seen as the most important foe but Hamas, as we saw in my previous post, is also accused of unbelief. Nor does it stop there. Abu al-Walid accuses Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah movement, of “trying to play the role of a jihad fighter that protects the Lebanese and shows enmity to the Jews but, by the grace of God, his true nature has started to become apparent. Many have been shown that he and his party are only protecting the borders of the Jews from the pure Sunni jihad fighters.” He similarly accuses the (Shiite) Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad of pretending to be “the leader of the resistance to the Jews and the Americans, while he and his regime are waging a ruthless war (harb bila hawada) against the Sunni jihad fighters in the states neighbouring Iran” (question no. 189).
That his anti-Shiite feelings are not limited to the leaders of organizations and/or countries is made clear in his answer to question no. 206, where he speaks at some length about the “Shiite danger,” equating it with polytheism (shirk) and, in his reply to question no. 279, refers to Shiites as “a greater danger to [Sunni] Muslims than the danger of the Jews and the Christians”.
None of these statements are uncommon among Salafi groups such as Abu al-Walid’s, who often have very negative views of Shiites (and Sufis, as does Abu al-Walid himself in response to question 208). The difference with many other Salafis is obviously that they, unlike Abu al-Walid, mostly either do not show outright hostility towards these “deviants” or have the military prowess to back up their threats. Abu al-Walid, on the other hand, challenges Hamas, wants to confront Israel, and has a strong desire to resist Shiites but his organization can do none of these things. He seems to have taken on too many enemies to handle and ends up defending what must seem to many as a failure in Gaza. While this need not necessarily be the case since Abu al-Walid can perhaps rightly claim to take a slow and careful approach, many of his readers may simply conclude that he and his group have bitten off more than they can chew.