Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) -- On the streets of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, clusters of men wear long tunics over baggy trousers, a costume common in Pakistan but virtually unknown among Palestinians -- until recently.
It is an emblem of the Salafi, a branch of Islam that advocates restoring a Muslim empire across the Middle East and into Spain. Some preach violence, even killing Muslims deemed not pious enough. While historically a fringe group in the southeastern Mediterranean, they have sought inroads in Lebanon and Jordan and are battling Hamas in Gaza.
While al-Qaeda, which shares the Salafis’ conservative religious views and promotion of holy war, hasn’t gained a foothold in the region, Salafis may be the wave of the future. In Algeria and Morocco, similar movements have expanded in the past two decades to create havoc through civilian bombings and attacks on police.
“This is the challenge we face in the world,” said Bilal Saab, a researcher in Middle East security at the University of Maryland in College Park. “We are getting better at dealing with insurgencies, though Afghanistan is proving to be an exception. It is much more difficult to combat the constant threat of underground urban terrorism.”
Armed Salafis are challenging the authority of Hamas, the Islamic party that rules the Gaza Strip and has fought Israel for two decades. Gaza Salafis say Hamas surrendered its credentials as an Islamic resistance group when it declared a unilateral cease-fire after a 22-day war with the Jewish state that ended Jan. 18. Hamas’s Health Ministry said 1,450 Palestinians were killed in the conflict. The Israeli Army put the toll at 1,166 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
“They believe Hamas has been neutralized and has given up the fight,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
Hamas, on the U.S. State Department list of terror organizations, is holding dozens of Salafis in jail, trying to persuade them to end their opposition, said Hamas police spokesman Rafik Abu Hani. “They want to implement their own ideas through weapons, and we can’t allow that.”
Arrests began after an Aug. 14 Hamas raid on a mosque in Rafah where armed Salafis belonging to a group called Warriors of God had gathered. Its leader, Abdel-Latif Musa, proclaimed an Islamic emirate in Gaza directly challenging Hamas rule, according to a transcript published by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based translation and analysis organization. Musa and 21 other people, including six civilians, died in the battle.
‘Crossing a Line’
“The emirate idea was crossing a line of Hamas tolerance,” Abusada said. “Hamas basically said, ‘Don’t mess with us.’” Since the crackdown, Salafis have been responsible for two bombings that didn’t cause any casualties, he added.
The Warriors of God group is among at least four armed Salafi organizations in Gaza, along with the Army of Islam, Victory of Islam and Lions Den of Supporters, Abu Hani said. Members total no more than 400 to 500, he estimated. Abusada said there are many more: between 4,000 and 5,000, including defectors from Hamas.
The next step would be for these groups to unify and organize, attract more newcomers dissatisfied with Hamas and try to forge ties with al-Qaeda, Samir Ghattas, a Palestinian analyst at Gaza’s Maqdis Center for Political Studies, told a Sept. 30 terror conference.
In 2007, a Salafi group in Lebanon called Fatah Al-Islam held off a three-and-a-half month siege by the country’s army on the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. The combat left about 400 militants and 168 soldiers dead, according to Lebanese press reports.
Salafi remnants have probably taken refuge in other Palestinian camps in Lebanon, Saab wrote in the September issue of CTC Sentinel, a publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Security forces have also foiled Salafi attacks in Jordan, he wrote.
The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat has spearheaded several years of civil war in Algeria. After pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2006, the group changed its name to al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It has bedeviled Algeria with bombings and ambushed security forces, even though membership is only in the hundreds, according to U.S. State Department statistics.
While there’s no indication of any direct relationship between militant Salafis and al-Qaeda, they have become a reference point for radical groups from Morocco to Central Asia. One Salafi in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis who called himself Abu Iyad said he doesn’t belong to any armed organizations but understands people who do.
Hamas adherents “say they resist Israel, but they stopped fighting,” he said. “Why did all the people die? Hamas is acting just like Fatah,” the movement led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who favors peace talks with Israel.
“What the Salafis don’t understand is we need to give the people a break; we need to rebuild and prepare for the next battle,” said Younis Astal, a Hamas member of the disbanded Palestinian parliament. “We can’t have perpetual war. That would be inhuman. Anyway, they want to make Gaza like an al- Qaeda base, and we don’t want that.”