In recent weeks and months there has been a cacophony of Salafi protest that has swept Gaza against the ruling Hamas government related to treatment of prisoners, corruption, and ability to practice Islam as they see fit. One of the groups speaking out has been Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, a jihadi organization that is sympathetic to al-Qaeda's worldview. By glomming onto a mainstream Salafi cause, MSM is attempting to co-opt individuals to gain a stronger footing within Gaza to challenge Hamas (albeit only at the political and not military level yet), whom they view as an enemy similar, though, on a lesser level than Israel.
Following a cross-border attack on Israel carried out by one Egyptian and one Saudi fighter, the organization's formation was first declared on 19 June 2012, which was announced in a video released from the Sinai Peninsula, featuring seven fighters. The two attackers read their martyrdom wills in the video as well.
In the first part of the video, the speaker in the center reads out a statement and begins by invoking Qur'an 61:4, 'Verily does God love those who fight in his path in a row as though they were a firm edifice,' followed by references to standard global jihadist themes such as the necessity of implementing the Shari'a on Earth and reviving the glory of the Ummah.
The Majlis also appeals to fellow Muslims in countries like Lebanon, Jordan, as well as the 'Syrian Muslim people- the mujahid [people] brutalized under the control of the idolatrous, criminal Nusayri [derogatory term for 'Alawite'] regime.'
The flag used is identical to the one pioneered by al-Qa'ida's Iraqi branch known as the Islamic State of Iraq, and the group praises 'Sheikh Osama Bin Laden' in its founding statement. Yet, while the al-Qa'ida affiliation thus illustrated is not in doubt, the group's primary focus to attack Israel has been evident from the beginning.
This is apparent in the reference to the obligation of 'the people of Tawhid [monotheism]' to heed the 'screams of al-Aqsa and the moans of prisoners under the grip of the enemy Jewish cowards.' The founding statement includes in its conclusion a call for God to defeat 'the Jews and the kuffar.'
In a video from October of last year, the Majlis likewise vowed to fight the Jews as enemies of God. In the wake of an April 2013 rocket attack on Eilat, the group released a video, part of which featured scenes of Jews praying at the Western Wall, denounced by the Majlis as the 'Judaization of al-Aqsa.' The video then continues with the recurring theme of treatment of Muslim prisoners by Israel.
MSM and Hamas
The focus on Israel is also made clear by the fact that the organization maintains a presence among Salafist jihadists located in the Gaza Strip. In light of Hamas' detention and torture of jihadist individuals, the Majlis has on more than one occasion raised the issue of Hamas' conduct towards Salafist militants.
For example, a senior Salafist in Gaza affiliated with the Majlis recently affirmed: 'We will continue the jihad regardless of the stance of Egypt or Hamas,' adding that the Majlis has 'precise knowledge on the complete cooperation between Egypt and Hamas in the war against the Salafists.'
In a similar vein, the Majlis recently released a statement calling for the release of all Salafist detainees held prisoner by the Hamas government: 'Everyone who has a free voice and noble pen, and everyone who has a living conscience and faith should raise his voice to pressure the dismissed government to put a stop to its pursuit against the rights of its mujahideen.'
Criticism of Hamas has been a recurring theme in Salafist discourse. A very noteworthy example is a Salafist-Jihadist video (NB not from an al-Qa'ida affiliate) from about a year ago that purports to document evidence on numerous counts of Hamas' perpetrating- in the words of the video title- 'massacres…in Gaza against the Salafist mujahideen.'
For example, at 17:40 onwards, the video offers a purportedly intercepted radio transmission from the leadership of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades giving orders to destroy houses and a mosque frequented by Salafists with missiles.
Like the affirmation to continue jihad despite perceived Egypt-Hamas cooperation against Salafist militants, the latest call by the Majlis for Hamas to release Salafist detainees comes following the killing by Israel of a Majlis militant called Haitham Ziyad al-Meshaal, now commemorated as a 'martyr' in a video released by the organization.
The day before Haitham was assassinated, relatives of imprisoned Salafist militants in Gaza held a demonstration calling on Hamas' security forces to release their detained kinsfolk. The al-Qa'ida flag's presence may indicate that some of the imprisoned fighters in question are members of the Majlis.
It turns out that Haitham, who was targeted as a suspect behind the rocket attacks on Eilat, had once been a member of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades but according to the Majlis, left out of disillusionment with Hamas' participation in 'the game of democracy' (a reference to the 2006 legislative elections that were judged to be free) and its 'removal of the divine Shari'a.'
One should compare this sentiment with a statement from the group that condemned Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafist parties (e.g. Egypt's an-Nour) for entering into the 'mud of democracy.' Here is a photo of Haitham from his funeral in Gaza- his coffin wrapped in the al-Qa'ida flag. His dislike of the concept of democracy is corroborated by his testimony in the video celebrating his martyrdom.
Unsurprisingly, Hamas condemned Israel's targeting of Haitham, but many in jihadist circles did not fail to notice Hamas' double standard behind the condemnation.
For instance, the jihadist outlet Ibn Taymiyyah Media released a statement noting that the Salafist jihadists in Gaza have been caught between the 'hammer of Jewish aircraft and the anvil of Hamas and its security apparatus,' noting the ongoing imprisonment and disappearances of Salafist militants.
In the meantime, however, Hamas, which has a vested interest in portraying itself as the true spearhead of 'resistance' against Israel, remains undeterred from cracking down on Salafists it perceives as its rivals, having just announced the arrest of several 'extremist' Salafist militants in Gaza on charges of stealing missiles.
The accusation of stealing weaponry- a familiar charge on Hamas' part- is strongly denied by the Salafists, including those affiliated with the Majlis, which in October of last year released a video to refute the allegation. The video purportedly shows how they themselves manufacture projectiles to fire against Israel.
The global jihadist ideology of the Majlis and its animosity towards Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood notwithstanding, it should not be thought that the group is planning on armed confrontation with Hamas or the Egyptian government anytime soon.
On the contrary, when there was an attack last year on Egyptian border guards at the Rafah crossing into Gaza, the Majlis was quick to issue a denial of responsibility, while condemning the Egyptian army's stance against jihadist fighters.
In short, the group will continue to attempt to carry out attacks on Israel, while avoiding an open fight against Egypt or Hamas. Even so, Salafist resentment about treatment under Hamas' hands could lead to a more general shift in the Salafist trend in Gaza towards the open al-Qa'ida affiliation of the Majlis. Indeed, the banners on display at that demonstration in Gaza on Monday by the relatives of imprisoned Salafists may be a strong indication that such a turn is already underway.
To an extent, it would seem Hamas heeds internal Salafist pressure to enforce Islamic law more rigidly, as illustrated by the recent initiative for gender segregation in schools. Yet in the eyes of the Salafist militants, these Islamization moves are merely cosmetic and do not compensate for imprisoning and torturing Salafist brethren and so ultimately cannot off-put attempts by the Majlis to co-opt Salafist opinion in Gaza towards its orientation.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.