Palestinian militant groups are moving closer to al-Qaeda, but Osama bin Laden's terror network has so far snubbed Hamas and its offshoots for infighting and failure to prove their global jihadist intentions, a study has found.
Al-Qaeda has granted formal ties with insurgent organizations in Yemen and North Africa but does not yet appear to believe that Hamas and its splinter groups are sufficiently focused beyond Israel to the Western world, according to the study by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The study, obtained by The Associated Press, is scheduled for release next week. It suggests al-Qaeda may be waiting patiently for a Gaza-based terror group to establish itself, perhaps by successfully executing an attack on a Western target.
"Al-Qaeda likely remains unconvinced of the ideological commitment of groups like Jaish al-Islam," said Matthew Levitt, co-author of the study, speaking of a Gaza-based terror group. "Al-Qaeda may also have concerns about the survivability of such groups," including their susceptibility to infiltration by Israeli intelligence.
Levitt's co-author is Yoram Cohen, who until recently served as the deputy director of the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet.
US administrations have struggled but so far failed to broker an enduring deal in the six-decade old Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Plotting large-scale attacks
Hamas surged to power in Palestine in 2007 and has fired rockets into Israel regularly. A year ago, Israel struck back with a fierce offensive that left about 1,400 Palestinians dead, including many civilians. The Palestinian rockets have killed 13 Israelis.
Since the December 2008-January 2009 war, Gaza's Hamas rulers have gained strength but also have received sharp criticism from extremist operatives who have denounced the group's temporary cease-fires or truces with Israel and want the immediate implementation of Sharia, Islamic law, in Gaza.
According to the study, the rift between Hamas and its more formidable extremist offshoots – such as Jaish al-Umma, Jaish al-Islam and Jaish Ansar Allah – provides fertile ground for al-Qaeda inspired terror. So far, however, the numbers are low, with about 200-300 militants in each group.
Small numbers of foreign fighters also slip into Gaza, including radicalized Europeans from France and Belgium along with militants from Egypt and Yemen.
Levitt and Cohen warn that the al-Qaeda inspired groups in Gaza "think big" and are regularly plotting large-scale attacks against Israel.
"Their capabilities could be enhanced if larger numbers of foreign fighters enter Gaza or if Palestinians who have fought abroad return there," the report says.
"We are waiting to carry out a big jihadist operation" dedicated to bin Laden, the report quotes one militant leader as saying. "If al-Qaeda asks us to pledge allegiance to it, we are completely ready for it."