Gaza-Egypt border crossing

JERUSALEM – The group representing al-Qaida in the Gaza Strip is far larger and more organized than most security officials here previously thought.

WND has obtained an internal report prepared this week by the Egyptian government, with input from Hamas, that puts the numbers of al-Qaida terrorists in Gaza at between 2,600 and 3,000 armed men.

Previous estimates, both from within Hamas and from Israel, put the number of armed al-Qaida men in Gaza in the hundreds.

Get the details from those who were there, in “Why We Left Islam: Former Muslims Speak Out”

According to the Egyptian report, there is no specific information the al-Qaida group is planning imminent large-scale attacks against Israel. Instead, the report claims, the armed Islamists are focused on building their bases in the Gaza Strip and connecting those bases to the neighboring Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.

The al-Qaida group is largely made up of two organizations that merged together – Jihadiya Salafiya (the Jihad of Ancestors) and Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam).

The new group is suspected in the kidnapping and murder of Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian activist in Gaza who was found hanged Friday, hours after he was nabbed by the Islamist group.

On Tuesday, two suspects in Arringoni’s murder, both from the Jihadiya Salafiya group, died during a Hamas raid at a home in central Gaza.

While both Hamas and al-Qaida are offshoots of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the groups often clash over a difference in tactics.

In August 2008, Jihadiya Salafiya announced it established an armed wing, which it called the Damascus Soldiers, brandishing weapons in a public display in Gaza while openly identifying with al-Qaida ideologically.

At the time, the al-Qaida group evidenced a major infusion of weapons while it was openly challenging Hamas, according to Palestinian security sources in Gaza.

Unlike other radical Islamic organizations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which have demonstrated pragmatism in some aspects of political life while still holding an Islamist worldview, the new al-Qaida organization in question believes in a strict interpretation of the Quran and that only the Quran can dictate how to act.

The Islamist group believes jihad is the primary way to spread Islam around the world, including jihad against secular Muslim states.

Hamas has worked with the al-Qaida-allied groups in Gaza. It took credit along with Jaish al-Islam for the kidnapping in June 2006 of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

But Jihadiya Salifiya and Jaish al-Islam have been regularly publishing pamphlets labeling Hamas as “non-Muslim” since the terror group ran in 2006 democratic elections, which the Islamist organizations see as an expression of Western values.

Also, for the past two years, al-Qaida leaders themselves have released audio tapes blasting Hamas for participating in elections and in the democratic process.

Hamas several times has engaged in heavy fire clashes with the Islamist organizations in Gaza.

‘Peace partner’ armed al-Qaida?

In September 2008, WND reported, information indicated that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization had been providing financial support to al-Qaida allies in the Gaza Strip, including some of the most radical Islamist organizations in the territory.

Fatah, considered moderate by U.S. and Israeli policy, had been backing the al-Qaida allies in a bid to destabilize the rival Hamas’ leadership in Gaza.

According to informed security officials, some top members of Fatah had been funneling large quantities of cash to Jihadiya Salafiya and Jaish al-Islam in a bid to build up the Islamist groups at the expense of Hamas.

The security officials said there was no official decision within Fatah to bolster the Islamist radicals but that top Fatah officials were acting independently.

A perusal in 2008 by WND of official Fatah websites, including Fatah news websites, found a strange phenomenon – Fatah was publishing the anti-Hamas pamphlets of the Islamist organizations in question and also provided the al-Qaida-linked groups a platform to espouse their ideology. Fatah news websites have traditionally been more secularly oriented and have stayed away from promoting al-Qaida.

A senior source in Hamas’ Interior Ministry told WND at the time that Hamas arrested a number of Fatah members in Gaza suspected of serving as links between the Islamist radicals and Fatah officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The source said Hamas’ Interior Ministry is contemplating the formation of an intelligence apparatus to deal with the purported threat of Fatah backing al-Qaida-linked groups in Gaza.

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