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by David Keyes


Since the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaeda has responded by splintering into affiliate groups that work along the same lines as the parent group but have a wider degree or organizational latitude. One of the newest may be taking shape in Gaza. The Israeli Ministry of Defense recently reported that al-Qaeda members had crossed from Egypt into the Gaza Strip after Israel's withdrawal from the territory[1]. If al-Qaeda gains a foothold in Gaza, it would be a most disturbing development not only for the Arab-Israeli peace process, but for America's counterterrorism efforts as well.

Historical Context

Prior to Israel's August 2005 disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank, some security experts predicted that al-Qaeda would attempt to infiltrate the evacuated areas soon thereafter. This would follow the historical pattern in which al-Qaeda has sought security vacuums from which to operate -- from Afghanistan in the 1980s to Somalia in the 1990s to the Waziristan provinces near the Pakistani border today[2]. This fear was compounded by the realization that a perceived victory in Gaza for Islamists might propel terrorism and extremist ideologies to new levels. Have predictions of al-Qaeda infiltration of Gaza proven correct?

Opportunity for Entry to Gaza

Part of Israel's disengagement plan included the withdrawal of all IDF presence from the Philadelphi route along the Egyptian-Gaza border[3]. Control of this sensitive frontier was handed over to Egyptian and Palestinian security personnel. But in the immediate aftermath of the transfer, huge numbers of people streamed into and out of Gaza with no supervision, control, or authorization. Large amounts of weapons and ammunition were reportedly smuggled across the border. Given that al-Qaeda activity has been uncovered in the Egyptian Sinai[4], there is a strong likelihood that al-Qaeda members may have sought to exploit the security vacuum along the Gaza-Egypt frontier in search of a new, more hospitable operating environment. Whatever faults the Egyptian security apparatus may suffer, it is committed to fighting all terrorist activity within its borders, because such activity poses a clear and present danger to Egyptian security. A similar assessment cannot be made of Palestinian security efforts.

Israeli and Palestinian Evidence of Al-Qaeda in Gaza

In the past, some Palestinian officials took great offense at even the mildest suggestion that al-Qaeda may have taken root in the West Bank or Gaza. In 2002, for example, Yasser Arafat flatly denied the claim of al-Qaeda infiltration, stating that it was a "big, big, big, big lie to cover Sharon's attacks and his crimes against our people."[5] Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former Palestinian information minister, said, "There are certain elements who were instructed by the Mossad to form a cell under the name of al-Qaeda in the Gaza Strip in order to justify the assault and the military campaigns of the Israeli occupation army against Gaza."

Despite these outlandish charges, there now appears to be substantial evidence that al-Qaeda has acquired a limited but growing presence in Gaza. This presence seems to have increased since disengagement:

The claim of al-Qaeda influence in Gaza is not limited to Israeli sources. Palestinians have spoken about a rise in al-Qaeda presence in the territories:

Policy Implications

The arrival of al-Qaeda operatives in Gaza has the potential to worsen an already problematic security situation. Even before Israeli disengagement, there were signs of al-Qaeda's cooperation with the local radical Islamist organization, Hamas. Ideologically, the two groups often cite the same few Saudi sheikhs to justify their terrorism. Operationally, there are links, too. In 2003, Hamas terrorists were arrested by Israeli forces after returning from an al-Qaeda training facility in Afghanistan. That same year, according to former IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen Moshe Yaalon, two al-Qaeda operatives were recruited into Hamas in order to execute the suicide bombing at the Mike's Place cafe in Tel Aviv. Both men, Mohammed Hanif and Omar Sharif, were British citizens of Pakistani descent. Because al-Qaeda is scattered and weak, it needs all the assistance it can get; ties between al-Qaeda and Hamas may strengthen in coming years.

Though al-Qaeda in Gaza currently may have only a limited numerical presence, preventing it from gaining a real foothold needs to be an important counterterrorism priority of all interested parties. This includes the Palestinians, first and foremost, as well as Egypt, Israel, the United States, and other regional and international actors. If there is one thing the already combustible Arab-Israeli arena does not need, it is the addition of a strong al-Qaeda operating from the Palestinian territories.

End Notes

1.  "Israel claims Al Qaeda in Gaza," October 31, 2005, (Pakistan).

JERUSALEM: Al Qaeda agents have infiltrated the Gaza Strip from Egypt's Sinai peninsula, a senior Israeli military official charged on Sunday.

Brigadier General Danny Arditi, head of Israel's anti-terror unit, told army radio that in the days following the Israeli troop withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which ended on September 12, Al Qaeda militants had slipped into the territory through the southern border with Egypt. "The breaching of border along the Philadelphi corridor has allowed activists from Al Qaeda and world jihad agents into the Gaza Strip," Arditi said. Hundreds of jubilant Palestinians stormed Gaza's southern border with Egypt in the immediate aftermath of the pullout, leaving Palestinian and Egyptian officials helpless to stop them.

Three weeks ago, the head of Israeli military intelligence said he believed Al Qaeda had established a base in Sinai. General Aharon Zeevi told cabinet ministers that the Egyptian authorities were aware of the base, but were wary of launching a full-frontal assault for fear of exacerbating tensions.

2.  "Al-Qaeda Comes to Gaza" By P. David Hornik, Front Page Magazine, May 25, 2005,
David Hornik wrote that

"... last November, Israeli Major-General (res.) Yaakov Amidror and David Keyes argued there was a strong possibility that after Israeli disengagement, Gaza would become not just 'Hamastan' but an Al-Qaeda sanctuary. They cited the facts that in the past 'Al-Qaeda sought to establish itself wherever there was a security vacuum -- in remote mountain areas or in economically weak, failed states'; that Hamas has an 'affinity for groups that are part of the Al-Qaeda network'; that Hamas and Al-Qaeda have the same funding sources; and that they invoke the same religious authorities to legitimize suicide bombing."

3. Aaron Bashani, "The Philadelphi Story," nov-dec 2005,

4. Reuvan Paz, "Al-Qaeda's Search for new Fronts: Instructions for Jihadi Activity in Egypt and Sinai," October 2005,

5. "Arafat accuses Bin Laden of Exploiting Palestinian Cause," December 15, 2002,

6. Ori Nir, "Al Qaeda Establishing Base in Gaza: Experts Blame Iraq Invasion, Israeli Pullout," Forward, December 30, 2005,

7. See 1.

8. David Eshel, "Is Al Qaeda Joining the Intifada?,"

9. "Hamas' plan for Palestine and their role in the Global Jihad,"

10. Aaron Klein, "Zarqawi setting up bases in Jordan, Gaza Strip?" August 24, 2005,

11. Ilan Berman, Editor, "The Future Face Of Palestinian Terrorism," Eurasia Security Watch No. 87, American Foreign Policy Council, Washington, DC, May 25, 2005,

12.  "Al Qaeda's Appearance in Gaza is a Dangerous New Terrorist Manifestation," DEBKAfile Special Report, August 3, 2005,

13. "Al-Qaida raises its head in Gaza," Jihad Watch, October 10, 2005,

David Keyes is a former research intern at The Washington Institute.

This was published as PeaceWatch #531 December 16, 2005 by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is based in Washington DC and can be contacted by phone at 202-452-0650.

See also: an interview with David Keyes in Front Page Magazine on the topic of al-Qaeda infiltration of Gaza. It is called "Al-Qaeda in Gaza" and was conducted by Jamie Glazov, December 28, 2005,


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