What Role Do The Palestinians Play In The Jihad In Syria And Iraq?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on September 6, 2014

Notification from Ibn Taymiyya Media Center's Facebook page on the "martyrdom" of Gazan Muhammad Ahmed Qanitah (March 2013)

Notification from Ibn Taymiyya Media Center’s Facebook page on the “martyrdom” of Gazan Muhammad Ahmed Qanitah (March 2013)

On August 11, Jamaat Ansar ad-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis (The Group of the Supporters of the Islamic State in Jerusalem), released a “martyrdom” notice for “the mujahid brother” Mahmoud Nayef al-Qayrnawi (Abu al-Bara) of Gaza, who was killed by the regime on July 26 while fighting for the Islamic State (I.S.) at the Sha’ar gas field in Homs.

This is not the first Gazan jihadist killed in Syria. In July 2012, Nidal al-Ashi (a.k.a. Abu Hureira al-Maqdisi or Abu Omar al-Shami) was killed near Aleppo. In March 2013, Muhammad Ahmed Qanita (a.k.a. Abu Abdul Rahman), a military trainer and commander, who had previously served with HAMAS, was killed during the siege of Aleppo. And in August 2013, a “martyrdom” statement was released for Fahd Nizar al-Habbash, a former policeman for the HAMAS dictatorship in Gaza. All had been fighting for Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria

There are two main Salafi-jihadist groups in the Gaza-Sinai area. Jamaat Ansar ad-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis, a.k.a. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM, Supporters of the Holy House), is one of them. Formed in early 2011, ABM is the leading group in the jihadist insurgency against Egypt in the Sinai, though it has also attacked Israel. On June 27, Israel killed Muhammad al-Fasih in a targeted strike on his car in Gaza. It was initially reported that Fasih was part of Salah ad-Din Brigades, the Popular Resistance Committees’ military wing; claims have emerged that ABM put out a “martyrdom” statement claiming Fasih as one of theirs. If so it would be just the second after Qayrnawi.

The other major Salafi-jihadist group is Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM, often given as “Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem” in English), which is also based in the Sinai but which operates significantly in Gaza, where it strongly opposes HAMAS. MSM was also apparently formed in 2011 but its first major attack was in June 2012, against Israel.

Of the Palestinian jihadists killed in Syria mentioned above, Ashi was associated with a Qaeda-linked Gaza group called Jaysh al-Islam—not to be confused with the Syrian rebel group of the same name led by Zahran Alloush—while the death notices of Qanita and Habbash were issued by Ibn Taymiyya Media Centre (ITMC), a jihadist media site tied to MSM, though Habbash got significant play in HAMAS media sources too.

While both ABM and MSM had been desirous of ever-closer links with al-Qaeda, both have made noises sympathetic to the Islamic State, and have done so from the beginning of I.S.’s schism with al-Qaeda/Jabhat an-Nusra. After Ayman az-Zawahiri disowned the I.S., MSM issued a statement saying it was “committed to helping ISIS and bolstering its ranks,” and denounced the “unfair view” taken of then-ISIS by the other jihadists. But it stopped well short of baya, and the formation of the I.S. group in Gaza on February 11 was separate to MSM. ABM and MSM seem to be following the path of groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia (AST): sympathetic to the I.S., even in statements from their leaderships, but not giving baya to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (The June 30 report in the Egyptian press that ABM had given baya to the I.S. was incorrect.)

Inside Syria there is an organised Gazan Salafi-jihadist unit, Kataib Shaykh Abu an-Nur al-Maqdisi, named after the founder and leader of Jund Ansar Allah, Abdel Latif Moussa, who was killed by HAMAS in August 2009 after he announced an Islamic Emirate in the Gaza. These smaller-scale, single-nationality jihadist groups are quite common in Syria: Harakat Sham al-Islam (Morocco), Katibat Suqour al-Izz and Katibat al-Khadra (both Saudi), Jamaat Jund a-Sham (Lebanon, one of the first foreign forces to intrude into Syria), Katibat al-Battar al-Libya (Libya, tied to Ansar al-Shari’a in Libya), and then much smaller groups like Usud al-Khilafa (Egypt). From beyond the Arab world there is Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (an Uzbek group of indeterminate connection to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Qaeda group that also fights in Afghanistan), Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (Sweden), and, of course, the British: Kataib Rayat at-Tawhid. The size of these groups also necessarily limits their geographic spread. Jamaat Jund a-Sham, for example, is concentrated near the Lebanese border in the Homs Province.

Gaza is clearly the epicentre of Palestinian Salafi-jihadism and takfirism, including now being the site of groups drawn into the Qaeda-I.S. schism (though that seems to be causing less friction than it might, given that they’ve all more or less sided with I.S.) But jihadism is spreading onto the West Bank too: on June 14 it was reported that a group called Dawlat al-Islam was handing out fliers in Hebron claiming the kidnapping of those three Israeli teens. True or not, the group is real enough, and represents a spread of globalist jihadism beyond Gaza. Moreover, it is not the only evidence that this is happening. In December 2013, the Israelis rolled up a Qaeda network on the West Bank that had intended to attack the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

The Palestinians attempted to stay out of the Syrian struggle, and were encouraged to stay out by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, though Abbas latterly changed his mind and seems to now favour the dictator. But the Palestinians were dragged in anyway. As part of the ethnic cleansing campaign to get the Sunnis out of the Alawi heartlands, the regime used the Navy to shell the Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia in August 2011, and about 5,000 Palestinians went missing. The regime was “literally … scrubbing blood off the streets” in preparation for the visit of the U.N. inspectors. The most horrific of the terror-sieges has been imposed on Yarmouk, where hundreds of Palestinians have been murdered by the regime using a combination of starvation and bombardment. The House of Assad had based its legitimacy in no small part on the Palestinian cause. Unlike the traitor regimes in Egypt and Jordan, Damascus would never sign a peace treaty with Israel; it was the lynchpin of the “axis of resistance” (jabhat al-muqawama). Sure, this entailed minor sacrifices for the Syrians—the erasure of democracy and a sectarian regime of plunder—but who wouldn’t give these up for a “frontline” State? This is where it had ended: anti-Zionism had been the “great alibi … for every Arab failing under the sun,” but while Israel was assisting the rebellion against Assad, the dictator was warring on Palestinian civilians.

When Jabhat an-Nusra was coming together in Syria in late 2011 and early 2012, under the leadership of foreigners dispatched into Syria by then-Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), now the Islamic State, it did so mostly around Homs, and then as now a majority of its rank-and-file were Syrians. By March and April 2012, Nusra was joined “by some important Lebanese and Palestinian jihadists, including prominent members of Fatah al-Islam with links to both Syrian intelligence officials and al-Qaeda affiliates.”

It is important to note, given the Assad regime’s long-established role in hosting and facilitating jihadists groups—and the fact that the regime’s entire strategy from the beginning of this war has been to empower jihadists to cannibalise the moderate rebels and present the world a binary choice of the regime or the takfiris in the hope the “international community” will help repress the insurgency—that an outsize number of Salafi-jihadist groups that intruded into Syria were Palestinian. One was Fatah al-Islam, which certainly has some connection with the Syrian mukhabarat. Fatah al-Islam is most famous for starting a small war in Lebanon in May 2007 in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp in Tripoli, not long after the Lebanese had expelled the Syrian occupation forces and were showing dangerous signs of independence, which it could not have done if Assad had not released its leaders and paid for it. HAMAS has of course been headquartered in Damascus for decades. HAMAS fell out with the Iran-led axis but it has fallen right back in again as the tide turned. There have been accusations that HAMAS is inside Syria helping the insurgency but they are not very credible. And then there is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command (PFLP-GC), a straight-out proxy organisation of the Assad regime, which is to say Iran.

Throughout the spring of 2012, Palestinians would continue to play a major role in the early formation of al-Qaeda’s project in Syria. In April 2012, the Assad regime announced that Fatah al-Islam member Abdel Ghani Jawhar had been killed in Qusayr, apparently mishandling a bomb he was constructing. Other reports say Jawhar was cut down in a clash with security forces. At about the same time, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) announced that al-Qaeda operative Tawfiq Taha and four other members of Fatah al-Islam—Palestinians Haitham Shaabi, Ziad Abu Naaj, Mohammad Doukhi, and Lebanese Abdel Rahman Arefi—had escaped the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon and left for Syria. Naaj was said to have been told to leave over the internet by a prominent Qaeda member in Lebanon. On May 15, 2012, a leading Fatah al-Islam authority, Osama Amin al-Shihabi (a.k.a. Abul-Zahra az-Zubeidi), called on jihadists to “join Jabhat an-Nusra to strengthen it and to avoid fragmenting its efforts.” Shihabi was soon reported to be inside Syria training jihadists. Shihabi had often been portrayed, especially by the Lebanese press, as the head of Fatah al-Islam, but in September 2012 they announced that their leader was in fact Abdelaziz al-Kourakli (a.k.a. Abu Hussam al-Shami) and he had been killed in southern Syria. On December 18, 2013, Shihabi was designated by the State Department for being the leader of Nusra’s “Palestinian wing in Lebanon.”

The Palestinian role was noticed on the ground. A defected soldier, who joined Nusra initially and then left to Suqour a-Sham, said in June 2012:

There was a lot of secrecy surrounding [Nusra’s] leadership. I left … when I discovered that many of the leaders were not Syrian but Lebanese or Palestinians that used to work with the Syrian intelligence agencies.”

The Institute for the Study of War explained:

[R]ebels confirmed that [Nusra’s] central leadership was heavily influenced by foreign jihadists who provided the group with the expertise and knowledge gained through their experience fighting in other jihad fronts as well as their intimacy with the Syrian intelligence apparatus. They described how [Nusra’s] tactics had the earmarks of the Mukhabarat, because in most cases they were not suicide bombings but car bombs left in populated areas. Despite suspicions over [Nusra’s] leadership, rebels noted that operations were typically carried out by young Syrian jihadists.”

It is often forgotten now—since so many people have an interest in believing that earlier action in Syria would have changed nothing—that right up until the late summer of 2012 it was discussed in serious venues whether Nusra was a whole-cloth invention of the Syrian intelligence agencies because visitors to the country could find so little evidence of it and its videos so conspicuously refused to even show, let alone identify, its leader. Moreover, before the I.S. eclipsed Nusra as a problem, the rebellion was on a collision-course with al-Qaeda in Syria.

The expansion of Jabhat an-Nusra on the Eastern Front was very directly spurred by what is now the Islamic State, including fighters, money, and weapons, but the expansion in the west was to a not-inconsiderable extent led by Palestinian and Lebanese jihadists. Probably the definitive study so far of foreign Wahhabi holy warriors in Syria, published in December 2013, showed between 74 and 114 Palestinians, and 65 to 890 Lebanese, inside Syria fighting with the jihadists. Many of these foreigners, where they are not dead or returned home, will now have joined the I.S., but some of the foreigners who helped expand Nusra’s leadership cell in those crucial months in late 2012 and early 2013 as the Salafists overtook the nationalists in the insurgency will be there still and must be among the most experienced holy warriors in the Fertile Crescent.

This is rather a turnaround. The Palestinians had been notoriously secular, and Wahhabism had seemed to make few of the inroads it had made elsewhere, if only because the PLO’s Police State was so efficient at monopolising power. There had also seemed to be little attraction for Palestinians in jihadism. The holy warriors were noticeably disinterested in Palestine: it was a piece of land that of course had to be returned to the House of Islam—like Spain—but there was no special call on Muslim sympathies by the reading of the jihadists, and there was certainly no call for a Palestinian State: the whole area would simply be subsumed under a Caliphate. But this neglected the fact that “the molten core of the Palestinian identity is more Islamic than it is anything else,” as Reuel Marc Gerecht has noted; that the rejectionism of the Palestinians was an essentially religious phenomenon. Added to that the spectacular failure of the ostensibly-secular nationalist cause this has only hardened the religious identity of Palestinians. Such opinion, which would probably produce a victory for HAMAS if new elections were held and thus end the peace process, is now spilling out into the wider region.

Update: On November 9, 2014, Jamaat Ansar ad-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis (a.k.a. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis or Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) formally pledged baya to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State.

2 thoughts on “What Role Do The Palestinians Play In The Jihad In Syria And Iraq?

  1. Pingback: The Islamic State, Libya, and Interventionism | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Pingback: A Myth Revisited: “Saddam Hussein Had No Connection To Al-Qaeda” | The Syrian Intifada

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