This past Friday (August 14), dozens of members of Jund Ansar Allah (JAA), a tiny Salafi jihadi group operating in the Palestinian Gaza Strip, fought a day-long gunbattle with HAMAS security and police forces after their leader, Shaykh 'Abd al-Latif Musa, provocatively declared the formation of the "Islamic Emirate of Gaza," and the "Islamic Emirate of Bayt al-Maqdis," the Arabic name for Jerusalem's two holy shrines, Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. His declaration was a blatant challenge to the governing authority of HAMAS, the premier Palestinian Islamist-nationalist movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As worshippers who had gathered for Friday communal prayers, considered to be a religious obligation in Sunni jurisprudence, in the Ibn Taymiyyah Mosque in Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza strip, masked JAA gunmen kept a watchful eye.
By the end of the day, between 24 and 30 people had been killed (estimates vary at this point), including JAA gunmen, Shaykh Musa, and five members of HAMAS' security forces, including one commander. The confrontation included small arms fire and the use of heavier weaponry, including machine guns and explosive devices. According to some accounts, Shaykh Musa died after setting off a bomb-vest he was wearing.
In its official press release on the incident, which announced the "martyrdom" of five of its members, HAMAS condemned the "outlaw" group, calling JAA "takfiri," a term used for those Muslims who declare other Muslims with whom they disagree over doctrinal issues to be apostates. JAA and its supporters, including Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Palestinian jurist residing in the city of al-Zarqa in Jordan, have condemned HAMAS' "aggression" against "believing Muslims." Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi is widely considered to be the most infliential living Salafi jihadi scholar today. A statement bearing his name was issued within a day to the major Salafi jihadi online discussion forums, about which more discussion will follow in this post.
JAA announced its formation in mid-June of this year with the release of a 31-minute and 28-second video entitled غزوة البلاغ , roughly the "raid of proclamation/announcement," which showed its members undergoing military training as martial jihadi anasheed (songs) play in the background. The video also supported the group's claim to have carried out an attack on Israeli military forces at the Karni crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel in early June.
View Jund Ansar Allah's debut video release
HAMAS, like other Islamist-nationalist groups such as Lebanon's Hizbullah, focuses its attention on a specific geographic area, in its case the establishment of a Palestinian state. HAMAS and other Islamist-nationalist groups do not share the transnational political-ideological aspirations of Salafi jihadi groups such as al-Qa'ida "Central" (AQC) and its regional allies and affiliates such as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Jihadi-Youth) in Somalia and the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella for the most radical Salafi Sunni groups operating in that country. Israeli officials and members of HAMAS' primary Palestinian rival, the Fatah Party of Mahmoud 'Abbas, have long accused HAMAS of supporting the formation of small, radical Salafi jihadi groups in the Gaza Strip, though these allegations are primarily political propaganda. HAMAS has countered by alleging that many of these groups, such as the Jaysh al-Ummah (Nation's Army), are funded by Fatah security forces and their senior commanders, namely the corrupt Muhammad Dahlan, a longtime Fatah strongman under both the late Yasir 'Arafat and 'Abbas.
Transnational jihadi groups, unlike Islamist-nationalist groups such as HAMAS, see even local and regional conflicts, such as the ongoing insurgencies in Algeria and Somalia, as being a part of a wider, global conflict to establish an Islamic state, though this state may be sub-divided regionally. Transnational jihadis call this state a caliphate (khalifah), a term that was used for the series of Muslim states that were formed following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. Their exact concept of what a new "caliphate" would entail is usually ambiguous. Current "working models," such as the Islamic State of Iraq, ironically bear much in common with "modern" "Western" models of government, with ministries, ministers, and governing councils. For more on the ambiguity of the jihadi concept of khilafah, see HERE. Regional leaders in the khilafah are given the honorific title Amir al-Mu'mineen (Commander of the Faithful), a title reserved historically by Sunnis for the caliph. Among the current amirs are Mullah Muhammad 'Umar (Omar) in Afghanistan, Abu 'Umar al-Baghdadi in Iraq, and the late 'Abd al-Latif Musa in Gaza (according to cyber jihadi artwork I have found).
JAA is not the only Salafi jihadi group operating in Gaza. Other small likeminded groups include Jaysh al-Ummah and the Salafi-Jihadi Youth in Gaza. Some of these groups, such as JAA, maintain web sites and publish online magazines. They adhere to a a transnational Salafi jihadi ideology espoused by movements such as AQC and the Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen.
In a statement posted on their web site, JAA condemned HAMAS for its "aggression" against Muslims and accused it of stealing $120,000 in JAA funds and equipment. JAA says that vengeance will be sought against HAMAS, which it says is a Zionist client, and against the "agents of sedition" among the Palestinians. JAA, like HAMAS, then called for praise and commemoration for its "martyrs" who were killed on Friday.
In its official statement about the incident, HAMAS honored its five members who were killed "defending the people from attack" by the "outlaw group," JAA. HAMAS commander Muhammad Jibril al-Shamali, 38, and four members of the HAMAS security forces, Mustafa Husayn al-Luqa, 23, Ayman Khalid Abu Subala, 21, Ahmad Salah Jarghun, 21, and Eyhab Maher al-Qatrus, 19, were killed in the fighting. Their biographies and photographs are currently being featured on the official web site of HAMAS' military wing, the Brigades of the Martyr 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam.
In his official response to the incident, the Palestinian Salafi jihadi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi condemned HAMAS, saying that its "administration is an infidel one," and accused the movement of attacking "true believing" Muslims in JAA. HAMAS, he says, is guilty of sowing social discord (fitna) among the Muslims in Gaza. He closes by warning HAMAS "and others" that "we are not absent from Gaza," "we" being Salafi jihadis.
Signs of Salafi jihadi presence in Gaza have recently included the distribution of martyrdom literature about Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq), the posting of martyrdom artwork on Salafi jihadi online discussion forums, and the appearance of virtulently anti-Shi'i graffiti in Gaza. Many Salafi jihadis in Gaza and abroad insist that Nizar 'Abd al-Qadir Rayyan, the senior HAMAS leader assassinated by Israel in January 2009, was anti-Shi'i, thus making him an acceptable ideologue for Salafi jihadis to follow. Audio was uploaded to YouTube that purported to be Rayyan criticizing Shi'is.
The fighting between HAMAS and JAA in Gaza is a prime example of the significant ideological and organizational differences between Islamist-nationalists and transnational jihadis.