Ramallah, West Bank Al-Qaida was looming increasingly large Monday in Hamas-ruled Gaza: The al-Qaida-inspired kidnappers of a BBC journalist released their captive's anguished plea, while the terror network's deputy chief urged Muslims everywhere to back Hamas with weapons, money and attacks on Israeli and U.S. targets.
Al-Qaida's clearest overture yet put Hamas in a bind. Hamas is in urgent need of outside help to provide for Gaza's 1.4 million Palestinians, following its mid-June takeover of the territory. Yet Hamas would deepen its international isolation, burn bridges to much of the Arab world and lose more popular support at home if it forms an open alliance with al-Qaida.
Hamas leaders suggested they will steer clear of al-Qaida, in line with the movement's long-standing position to focus on the conflict with Israel and not to join an international jihad, or holy war. Al-Qaida "is not the frame of reference for Hamas," said a senior Hamas official, Ahmed Yousef. "We have our own Muslim scholars, political leaders and military commanders who give us a strategy on how to deal with the (Israeli) occupation."
Al-Qaida's presence in the Palestinian territories has been a subject of intense speculation since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Palestinian intelligence officials believe the group has formed some sleeper cells in Gaza and suspect possible al-Qaida involvement in several spectacular attacks on Palestinian security chiefs since 2004.
Several al-Qaida-inspired groups have sprung up, including the so-called Army of Islam, which seized BBC journalist Alan Johnston in March and was involved in the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit a year ago. Another group, the Sword of Islamic Justice, has bombed dozens of Internet and music shops to halt what it said was the spread of corrupt Western culture.
It appears these local groups, which have adopted al-Qaida jargon and symbols, are angling for support from al-Qaida, rather than being directed by it. "Most of the fighters (in Gaza) are local people who identify with al-Qaida, as opposed to real al-Qaida operatives, like we see in Iraq," said Hillel Frisch, an Israeli counterterrorism expert.
The groups consist largely of former Hamas followers, who broke away when Hamas started trying to transform itself into a political party and was no longer deemed radical enough.
In Johnston's case, the conflicting interests of Hamas and the Army of Islam became apparent this month. Hamas was pressing for Johnston's quick release, to try to reassure the international community after the Gaza takeover that it can rule and restore stability. However, the kidnappers held out for assurances that they won't have to disarm after they free the journalist.
The kidnappers released a video showing Johnston wearing what he described as a harness of explosives strapped to his body, of the type used by suicide bombers.
"Captors tell me that very promising negotiations were ruined when the Hamas movement and the British government decided to press for a military solution to this kidnapping," Johnston says, looking nervous and under stress.
"And the situation is now very serious, as you can see," he said, appealing to Britain and Hamas to resume negotiations.
Several hours later, the captors of Shalit released an audio message to mark the anniversary of his seizure at an army post near Gaza. Shalit appealed to the Israeli government to do more to win his freedom, saying his health is deteriorating. Egyptian-brokered negotiations over Shalit's release have broken down repeatedly.