Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Keyes, who assisted a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. and specialized on terrorism at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He recently returned from the Middle East where he co-authored academic papers with the former U.N. ambassador and the former head of Israeli military intelligence research and assessment. His latest paper, entitled “Al-Qaeda Infiltration of Gaza: A Post-Disengagement Assessment” was published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
FP: David Keyes, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Keyes: Thank you for inviting me.
FP: There have been some disturbing reports that after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, al-Qaeda has crossed into that territory from Egypt. Can you tell us what you know about this disturbing possibility?
Keyes: The Israeli Ministry of Defense recently reported that in the wake of disengagement from Gaza, al-Qaeda members infiltrated the evacuated areas from Egypt. This is not the first time al-Qaeda has been spotted in Gaza. There is, in fact, increasing evidence of al-Qaeda influence and infiltration in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Back in 2003, Israeli forces arrested Hamas terrorists after they returned from al-Qaeda training facilities in Afghanistan. That same year, two al-Qaeda operatives were recruited into Hamas in order to execute the Mike’s Place suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. More recently, according to the Palestinian Authority, a new al-Qaeda group called “Jundallah” (Allah’s Brigades) has formed in Gaza. In May 2005, this group executed its first attack against Israelis. Al-Qaeda’s presence in Gaza has also been confirmed by one of Hamas” leading spokesmen, Mahmoud az-Zahar. Lastly, leaflets in Khan Yunis have been distributed by al-Qaeda’s “Palestine Branch.”
These are just a few of the recent developments regarding al-Qaeda in Gaza. As you can imagine, this does not portend well for the future of global counter-terrorism efforts. It is important to emphasize that this is not a danger to Israel alone. Rather, America and the entire free world are also threatened by the growing al-Qaeda presence in Gaza. Due to their global ambitions and uncompromising ideology, there is no safe place to hide from groups such as al-Qaeda. Nor is there a reasonable policy that will satisfy these fascists. Appeasement will only invite more terror and carnage. It is””quite literally””a fight to the death. New York, London, Madrid, Casablanca, Amman, Bali”¦ this is only the beginning.
FP: What are Islamists up to in trying to infiltrate Gaza? What are their objectives?
Keyes: Naturally, they are attempting to destroy Israel. But that is certainly not all they seek. Radical Islamists, like al-Qaeda, hope to topple all Western governments, overthrow moderate Arab regimes, and impose the most severe restraints on all who disagree with their perverted world-view. They wish to replicate the Islamic conquests of the seventh century and restore the Caliphate. Wahhabism, specifically, typifies the most intolerant strain of Islam and actively seeks to subjugate Shiites, homosexuals, Jews, women, Christians, and anyone who even remotely resembles a non-Wahhabi. They make no distinction between civilians and the military. Those who struck America on September 11th were not all that different from the Wahhabis who put 5000 Shiites to the sword in Karbala in 1802. An infidel is an infidel. We must not kid ourselves about the true nature of this threat. Nor can we delude ourselves into thinking that the problem will dissolve of its own accord, if only left alone.
FP: Tell us the consequences if al-Qaeda achieves a foothold in Gaza.
Keyes: The existence of al-Qaeda anywhere, poses a grave threat to nations everywhere. Before September 11th, the presence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, sheltered by the Taliban, raised little concern throughout the world. This was true on the security, as well as the human rights, level. Think: How many anti-Taliban rallies were held world-wide to protest the brutal oppression of women in Afghanistan before 2001? No, it took Operation Enduring Freedom to find something to protest. Those who sat silent as an entire population was enslaved by the Taliban somehow found time to protest the war it took to destroy that dastardly regime. Incidentally, the same was true of Saddam’s Iraq. The liberation of Iraq from the clutches of one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century, elicited more opposition than the Butcher of Baghdad’s own fascistic 30-year rule. Strange times we live in.
On September 11th, however, the world witnessed that the delusions of a relatively small number of fanatics could have the deadliest of consequences. Though the message had been sent countless times prior, from the seizing of American hostages in 1979 through the 1993 World Trade Center bombing up to the 1998 attacks on our embassies in Africa, few choose to take the threat seriously. The world””America included””was asleep at the wheel. Terrorism had been treated as a criminal problem and people like Mullah Omar, Abdul Rahman Yasin, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had little more to fear than the wrath of an American prosecutor armed with an arrest warrant. Unfortunately, these types of people don’t fear that type of response. What they have rightly come to fear is the U.S. 101st Airborne. Though bin Laden declared war on America in the mid-1990s, it was not until years later, after 3000 men, women and children had been slaughtered in a single morning that America decided to respond in kind. In short, we were not on war-footing against the forces of radical Islam and totalitarianism in the Middle East until it was far too late.
It would serve us well to remember that the deadly machinations of 9/11 were hatched largely in remote regions of Afghanistan, a far distance from America or Western civilization. It is in this context that the threat of al-Qaeda in Gaza should be viewed. Al-Qaeda has always sought security vacuums from which to operate, from Afghanistan in the 1980s to Somalia in the 1990s to the Waziristan provinces near the Pakistani border today. After the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda dispersed, in large part toward the Kurdish regions of Iraq. Many al-Qaeda members fled to Iran as well. Since Operation Enduring Freedom, two-thirds of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership have been killed or captured.
It is likely that al-Qaeda now believes it can capitalize on the disarray in Gaza. At a time when it needs all the help it can get, assistance from groups like Hamas, would be welcomed with open arms. Even a small number of al-Qaeda operatives in chaos-ridden Gaza posses a serious threat””especially if it continues unchecked and is allowed to metastasize. A former Chief of Staff of the I.D.F. recently remarked to me that the precise number of al-Qaeda members in Gaza is largely unimportant. Rather, their infectious ideology coupled with the dogged persistence of a few dedicated terrorists can wreak havoc upon the world.
FP: When the Israelis disengaged, they left supervision of the area in the hands of Egyptian and Palestinian security personnel. Isn’t this a joke? Egyptian security might be more credible than Palestinian “security” — if that is what we can even call it — but this is really a tragic situation, no?
Keyes: Absolutely. Leaving oversight of sensitive entry-exit points in Gaza to the Egyptians and Palestinians was one of the worst upshots of Israel’s disengagement. In effect, it allowed for massive amounts of arms and terrorists to enter Gaza and approach Israel’s doorstep, with little or no interference. In the past few years, literally hundreds of smuggling tunnels have been discovered and destroyed by the I.D.F. Without the tireless efforts of the Israeli security forces, what awaits Gaza is all likelihood a mini “Hamas-stan,” “Hezbollah-stan” or “al-Qaeda-stan,” armed to the teeth, with the belief that enough violence can force Israel into retreat. Kassam rockets continue to reign down on Israel from Gaza with disturbing regularity. Though these rockets do not have the lethality of suicide-bombers, entire cities are held hostage by the frightful prospect of rockets randomly falling from the sky. Surely this is an untenable situation from Israel’s point of view.
As a result of disengagement, Israel has lost control over territory, which has proven to be a most vital asset in stopping terror attacks. As Israel withdrew from more and more territory during Olso, and allowed the Palestinians to build up a terrorist infrastructure, violence and suicide bombings flourished. Doron Almog, the General who was in charge of Gaza from 2000-2003, estimates that 70% of hostile action in Gaza was prevented inside the territory through offensive Israeli action. Additionally, Israel has lost much of its intelligence gathering capability which, for the past many years, has helped stop countless suicide bombings. It is possible that the true effects of disengagement will not be seen for some time to come. The second intifada, for example, began several months after Barak’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. Many believe that the former was encouraged by the latter. Sheikh Nasrallah called on his Palestinian brethren to rise up and follow Hezbollah’s example of forcing Israel into retreat through armed struggle. Just a few days ago, Israel’s Defense Minister pointed to a number of attempted suicide-bombings and predicted a major outbreak in Palestinian violence. Disengagement was an enormous security risk for Israel. Though there is little reason for optimism here, let us hope that the Palestinians will do more than they have done historically in cracking down on terrorism.
FP: What can the U.S., Israel and other allied nations do to counter act this terrible threat?
Keyes: First and foremost, Egypt must be pressured to a far greater degree to siphon off smuggling routes and underground tunnels. It is no secret that al-Qaeda has built up forces in the Sinai and are likely moving toward Gaza to escape the heavy-handed tactics of Egyptian security forces. Egypt has done a terrible job cracking down on these tunnels, and has likely been complicit to a degree as well. Former I.D.F. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yaalon stated not long ago that smoke was seen rising from Egyptian army posts after smuggling tunnels were blown up. Egypt receives about $2 billion of aid from the U.S. yearly. Despite the fact that it is a dictatorship, holds only sham elections, intimidates candidates, assaults voters in the streets, restricts basic freedoms of speech and press, the money still flows. The absolute bare minimum Egypt should be expected to do is effectively patrol its border, much as Jordan has done to counter its al-Qaeda threat. One can only conclude that the U.S. is not putting nearly enough pressure on Mubarak””not only in the way of Gaza smuggling””but regarding democratic reform as well.
The Palestinian Authority is, unfortunately, also a part of the problem. Though some believe Abbas is completely different from Arafat, his recent actions suggest otherwise. First, he has continually stated that he will not disarm or confront radical groups like Hamas. This is undeniably a recipe for continued bloodshed in the region. America should cease funding this madness in the PA””especially if Hamas (which has killed many Americans as well) is allowed to run in Palestinian elections. Abbas also recently enacted a law to send money from the PA to families of suicide bombers. That is exactly what Arafat and Saddam Hussein once did. Actions such as these directly encourage suicide bombing, period. Though many have pinned their hopes for Middle East peace on Abbas, the question remains as to how he can provide direct financial support to encourage suicide bombing and simultaneously be considered a moderate leader who is an ally in the war on terror?
The PA continues to refuse to take any serious measures against terrorist groups emanating from the territory they control. Israel stands alone in shouldering this heavy burden. The I.D.F. should further pursue its policy of targeted assassination against terror leaders. Periodically, Israel stops this policy for an extended period of time, but this only allows terrorists to reconstitute their infrastructure and rejuvenate their ability to fight. It is my belief that the I.D.F should continue in the vein of when it eliminated Hamas leaders Rantisi and Yassin in rapid succession, without apology. When radical Palestinian groups attempt to negotiate a cease-fire, often their first demand is an end to Israeli targeted assassinations. This is a wonderful indicator that the policy is working. Terrorist groups spend the majority of their time avoiding assassination, instead of planning future attacks, and that is the way it should be. Furthermore, immediately after a suicide-bombing, it is not unusual to hear that in response, Israel has destroyed a Hamas or Islamic Jihad weapons making factory. My question is, if Israel knew where the weapons factory was, why didn’t they take it out before the suicide-bombing? Would this not have been a more effective tactic? Where, after all, do terrorists get their weapons if not from weapons factories?!
FP: David Keyes, thank you for joining us today.
Keyes: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you again for inviting me.