TSG IntelBrief: The Specter of the Islamic State in Gaza
The Specter of the Islamic State in Gaza
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The Islamic State might not have an effective operational presence in Gaza but its toxic and disruptive influence appears to be increasing, with fresh confrontations and tensions between the group and Hamas
• Gaza is already a volatile mix of concentrated unemployment, desperation, and a narrow undercurrent of extremism; the Islamic State will work to exploit and inflame this and co-opt existing Salafist groups
• Through its affiliate in the Sinai and its presence in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, the Islamic State is forcing its influence amongst the Palestinians, who heretofore have had little to do with the violent terrorist group
• Hamas, which ostensibly runs Gaza, is strongly opposed to the Islamic State, but conditions on the ground are such that the area is the perfect environment for extremist growth.
The status quo in Gaza, with a high population density and very limited social and economic opportunities, makes it an irresistible expansion target for the Islamic State. Conditions in Gaza, already desperate, will only worsen if the group can gain support among even a fraction of the 1.8 million people living in the small coastal enclave. The consequences of a meaningful and operational presence by the Islamic State in Gaza would present additional challenges for the people of Gaza, as well as serious security challenges for Israel and Egypt.
There is serious tension between Hamas, which runs Gaza, and the Islamic State. Some of this is a long-standing animosity between Hamas and pre-existing Salafist extremist groups such as Jund Ansar Allah, the al-Tawhid and Jihad group, and Jaysh al-Umma. Hamas, while violently opposed to Israel, wants to exert some semblance of stable control over Gaza, and groups that see Hamas as far too moderate are a serious but manageable threat.
Unfortunately, that threat appears to be growing to a degree that is difficult to properly assess, given the nearby presence of an active and dangerous affiliate in Bayt al-Maqdis, now also known as Wilyat Sinai. The group is based in Egypt’s Sinai but has some members and support in Gaza. This capable affiliate, combined with the tendency of the Islamic State to inflate its influence and claim control where there likely is none, makes it easy to simultaneously overestimate its reach in one area while underestimating in another. While Wilyat Sinai does have some presence in Gaza, its base of support and power remains for now in the Sinai, where it is a lethal threat to Egyptian security services. Hamas continues to be the paramount force in Gaza and is more determined than ever to fight the influence of groups like the Islamic State and its supporters.
It was in April, far from Gaza, in the Yarmouk camp outside of Damascus, Syria, when the Islamic State killed dozens of members of Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a Hamas-affiliated group in the camp, and publicly beheaded two senior members. Such over-the-top violence might be a hallmark of the Islamic State but it is virtually foreign to Palestinians. Hamas sees itself as the protector of Palestinians in Yarmouk, primarily against the atrocities of the Assad regime, and the outrages by the Islamic State provoked Hamas to vow revenge.
This has led to increased tensions back in Gaza. On May 3, Hamas bulldozed a mosque that was being used by a subset of Bayt al-Maqdis, whose full name translates into English as Supporters Of Islamic State In Jerusalem (SISJ). This followed the arrest by Hamas of several senior members of Bayt al-Maqdis, including Sheikh Adnan Khader Mayyat, and has precipitated more calls for revenge—this time by supporters of the Islamic State.
It is uncertain how much power the Islamic State can gain in Gaza, given both the opposition of Hamas and the resistance to that virulent brand of extremism among the general population of Gaza. However, the Islamic State is peerless in its ability to exploit bad governance and poor living conditions, both of which are in abundance in Gaza. Gaza is quite different from Iraq and Syria, but the determination and ability of the group’s supporters to expand into new and vulnerable territory shouldn’t be ignored. As seen in Libya and Yemen, the Islamic State’s supporters move quickly to establish a foothold in areas dominated by tension and armed conflict, and once established, are difficult to uproot.
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