Last summer, Hamas security forces raided a mosque affiliated with the Salafi-Jihadi group Jand Ansar Allah, killing 24 and wounding 130 in the ensuing firefight. This relatively recent episode highlights the presence in Gaza of Salafi-Jihadi groups inspired by but not yet formally affiliated with al-Qaeda. Unlike Hamas, which despite espousing violent Islamism has nevertheless occasionally agreed to short-term ceasefires, Salafi-Jihadi groups champion "pure resistance" in their dealings with Israel. The resulting tension between these groups and Hamas, the latter currently reigning as the political authority in Gaza, has created the perfect environment for further radicalization of Palestinians.
So far, none of the Salafi-Jihadi groups have established formal ties to al-Qaeda, but many intelligence analysts argue that such a relationship could develop quickly given the right combination of circumstances. Should U.S. policymakers be concerned? In The Washington Institute' s newest Policy Focus, current and former top counterterrorism officials assess the game-changing potential of a formalized al-Qaeda presence in the West Bank and Gaza, including implications for the wider Arab-Israeli conflict and international counterterrorism efforts. In the troubling words of one senior Palestinian Salafi-Jihadi leader, "So far al-Qaeda has not sponsored our work. We are waiting to carry out a big jihadist operation dedicated to Sheikh Usama bin-Laden."
Yoram Cohen was a 2009 visiting fellow at The Washington Institute. He has held a variety of positions in the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), serving until recently as the organization's deputy director. Mr. Cohen is the author, with Jeffrey White, of the 2009 Institute Policy Focus Hamas in Combat: The Military Performance of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement.
Matthew Levitt, former deputy assistant treasury secretary for intelligence and analysis (2005-2007), is a senior fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute. He is also an adjunct professor of international relations and strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. In 2008-2009, Dr. Levitt served with the State Department as a counterterrorism advisor to Gen. James L. Jones, special envoy for Middle East regional security. Previously, he provided tactical and strategic analytical support for counterterrorism operations at the FBI, focusing on fundraising and logistical support networks for Middle Eastern terrorist groups. He has published widely on issues of global jihadism, Palestinian terrorist groups, counterradicalization, and terrorism financing, and is the author of Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad (2006); Negotiating under Fire: Preserving Peace Talks in the Face of Terror Attacks (2008); and the forthcoming Hezbollah's Global Reach: The Worldwide Presence of the 'Party of God.'
Becca Wasser was a 2008-2009 Schusterman Young Scholar and research assistant in the Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. Currently, she serves as conference officer and project coordinator at the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.