Al Qaeda Comes to Gaza?

Terrorism analysts say al Qaeda may have conducted their first operation in Gaza. This after a video was released today of the two Fox News journalists held hostage since August 14 along with an accompanying written statement issued by a previously unknown group calling itself the "Holy Jihad Brigades."

The language in the statement, which denounces the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is similar in style and content to the kind of dispatches issued by Abu Musab al Zarqawi when he was leading al Qaeda in Iraq.

One sentence states, "You infidels and masters of oppression: Convert to Islam and you will be safe…We came to you with the intention of slaughtering or beheading." The statement goes on to denounce "democracy" and the regimes that seek secular goals, such as "democracy and freedom."

"The rhetoric is vintage al Qaeda," said Fawaz Gerges, an ABC News Consultant and professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. "This is consistent with what we have seen in Iraq and other places."

Also unusual for Palestinian militants was the extraordinary demand issued in the statement that "Muslim prisoners in U.S. jails be released within three days" in exchange for the two Fox journalists. Targeting journalists from an American news organization and making demands on the United States rather than Israel is not typical for Palestinian groups.

The kidnapping of the two journalists may represent the fulfillment of a warning issued by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last March. "We have indications about a presence of al Qaeda in Gaza and the West Bank. This is intelligence information,"  Abbas said in an interview with the Arabic daily newspaper Al Hayat.

If it is confirmed that a branch of al Qaeda is behind the hostage taking, it would represent a major new front for the terrorist organization, which has in the past deferred to Palestinian groups such as Hamas to conduct the "resistance" against Israel.

Analysts believe that al Qaeda has expressed an increasing interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict for a number of reasons, one of which is their major setbacks in Iraq. Their tactics of beheading and mass murder of innocent civilians have not been popular with the majority of Iraqis, and their leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. air attack two months ago.

Al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan have been dismantled after their allies, the Taliban, were overthrown by the U.S.-led war in October 2001, and their leadership has been forced to seek refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Many of their top operatives have been arrested in the past four years.

By contrast, the increasing chaos of Gaza represents an opportunity for al Qaeda to tap into the growing rage of young Palestinians, frustrated with the corruption of their leaders and the lack of any real progress towards a viable state. The impoverished camps of Gaza represent a "fertile ground" for al Qaeda, according to Palestinian observers.

Finally, the huge political boost achieved by Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite organization, during the last engagement with Israel represents a major challenge for al Qaeda. "Al Qaeda has been overshadowed by Hezbollah. The only way to regain the limelight is to focus its attention on the Palestinian issue," said Gerges.

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