For the first time, Palestinian security forces have announced the arrest of Al Qaeda-inspired radicals with explosives in the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has called on his forces to "strike with an iron fist" the extremist groups suspected to be behind a spate of terror attacks against Hamas and civilian targets. These developments mark an uptick in the identification of Palestinian militants with Al Qaeda's ideology, and their willingness to translate belief into action. It also comes on top of polls which report that 51% of Palestinians have confidence in Osama bin Laden's struggle on their behalf.
The first appearance of Al Qaeda-inspired militants in Gaza, the Jund Ansar Allah (JAA), ended in an explosion of violence. The JAA, which perceived the Hamas leadership as "nationalist" and insufficiently Islamist, denounced them and declared an Islamic emirate in their place. In response, Hamas brutally crushed the organization, killing 24 including their leader and arresting many more. However, the violence has not ceased and other Al Qaeda-inspired groups continue bombing the de facto Hamas government and other targets (including the few remaining Christian facilities in Gaza).
The growth of Al Qaeda-style terrorists in the West Bank is the latest worrisome sign in the fight against terror. Contrary to blockaded Gaza, the West Bank possesses a strong civil society and a growing economy, long thought by some analysts to be barriers to this type of extremism. The popular theory today is that counterterrorism efforts should place heavy emphasis on reducing poverty and unemployment. However, as terrorism expert Matt Levitt points out, the discovery of the West Bank cell brings the validity of this strategy into question. The internationalization of Jihadist violence threatens even groups like Hamas, who faces competition from even more extreme terrorists.
In addition, there are other factors contributing to the rise of Al Qaeda in Gaza and the West Bank. As the United States pulls out of combat in Iraq, more fighters are transferring to the Palestinian front or are calling for joint attacks with Palestinian "resistance" across the political spectrum. Likewise, bin Laden has increased his purported focus on Palestine, as he stated in a recent audiotape address to President Obama.
Militants from Iraq bring with them advanced insurgency tactics, a more radical ideology, and international contacts with the world's most prolific terror organizations. The same can be said for Yemeni fighters, who alongside other foreign militants, have established a base of a few hundred Jihadists in Gaza. Simply controlling the borders of Palestinian territory is not enough anymore, as the few foreign Jihadists who slip through the cracks play on already popular sentiment. New strategies must be developed. Unfortunately, that will necessarily include cooperation with PLO security forces, whose brigades are still transitioning from their own involvement in terror. This is a slow process, as evidenced by a terror attack by a Palestinian policeman as recently as a few days ago.
There are also some positive signs coming out from the fight against terror. Despite the obvious danger that Al Qaeda-like groups present, they do not yet receive material support from bin Laden. Al Qaeda has also not formally announced a connection to these organizations or had them swear allegiance to its leaders. Furthermore, the conflict has made uncomfortable bedfellows of Israel and Hamas, who find themselves strangely fighting a common enemy.
However, as so many times before, Israel has proven to be the first front facing new terror threats and tactics. Ultimately, developments like these underline the commonality of the global struggle against Islamist terrorism.