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Thursday, June 21, 2007 

Giving al-Qaida credit they don't deserve.

Soumaya Ghannoushi regularly takes a battering on CiF for the more vapid of her warblings, but her latest piece in today's Grauniad probably gets more right than it does wrong. Her description of al-Qaida and how its ideology has spawned autonomous cells that have no real contact with the real leadership of the organisation and that act without hierarchy or a chain of command is probably one of the most accurate I've read in a while, in complete difference to how other commentators and reports often tend to suggest, sometimes for their own reasons, that al-Qaida is some sort of monolithic monster that threatens life as we know it.

Where she gets it wrong is in claiming that al-Qaida has gained a foothold in Palestine, and just how much it cares about what goes on there. She cites the Army of Islam, the organisation holding Alan Johnston, as proof of this.

It's certainly true that some would like al-Qaida to infiltrate the Palestinian territories or even attempt to build some kind of group there that could challenge the hegemony of Hamas and Fatah, as evidenced by an Islamic State of Iraq fighter from Palestine who recently gave an extensive interview on the Paltalk network, where he hoped that a Salafist jihadi alternative would emerge, and that the Army of Islam would be that alternative (PDF). The facts however about the group seem to speak for themselves: it appears to be made up entirely of one criminal family in Gaza, the Dogmush, who seem to have taken up the Salafi ideology more out of convenience and for effect rather than out of any real religious affiliation. They may have previously helped or worked with Hamas when the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped last year, but the abduction of Johnston has certainly not gone down well with Hamas, who made clear that they want him freed immediately and would use force to do so if necessary. It's long been assumed that they were haggling with Fatah prior to Hamas's takeover in Gaza over exactly how much Johnston was worth. To suggest that such a weak group with no support whatsoever is the first signs of al-Qaida gaining a presence in the occupied territories is disingenuous at best and downright wrong at worst.

The reality is that despite all of al-Qaida's rhetoric about Palestine since its founding statement that Ghannoushi mentions, it, much like a lot of the Arab governments, doesn't really care that much about what happens there. Indeed, if the Israel-Palestine conflict were to be solved overnight, one of the main Salafi grievances/excuses would disappear. It makes for good propaganda, how the Palestinians are being oppressed by the Zionists, but the attacks that it's launched since its "official" establishment have almost all been directed against anyone other than Israel. The only assault directly against Israelis were the 2002 Mombasa attacks - and they've never been comprehensively linked to al-Qaida in any case.

The Palestinians themselves would virulently resist any attempts by genuine al-Qaida elements to set themselves up in either the West Bank or Gaza, for obvious reasons, which half explains why they have so far failed to do so. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have also proved suitably radical for those sympathetic to the Salafist ideology; as Ghannoushi mentions, al-Zawahiri recently condemned Hamas for joining the political process, even if it refuses to recognise Israel, something met with complete indifference if not contempt by those who actually have been involved with either group while Zawahiri continues to sit comfortably wherever it is he's hiding out.

Ghannoushi also mentions the emergence of Fatah al-Islam and the other groups in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon as further proof of the growth of al-Qaida, but this again seems flawed. There's been reports suggesting that Fatah al-Islam had been funded by the US as part of an attempt to curb Hizbullah's influence, but it again seems that the group is more of a criminal nature, like the Army of Islam, taking up the Salafi ideology for its own ends. The conditions in the camps are also likely to be a factor in some in them becoming radicalised, and like the Army of Islam, the others in the camp who were shelled and killed in the crossfire were by no means of supportive of their actions.

Her conclusion however is accurate: the blatant idiocy of ignoring the democratic choice of the Palestinian people, while deciding to recognise the use of violence as an opportunity to ditch the boycott does nothing to encourage further steps towards the end of violence as a means of resisting. Sticking it to Hamas for being too radical, as Jonathan Freedland argued yesterday, could have consequences which might result in the rise of a group that does have mass support and genuinely does share al-Qaida's ideology.

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