The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades is a Palestinian militant group which splintered from the Fatah political party and is still considered closely linked to it. The Brigades are named after one of Islam's holiest sites – the al-Aqsa Mosque. The mosque's location in Jerusalem is known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. It is also known as Temple Mount.
Established in 2000, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades is made up of numerous West Bank militias affiliated with late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's nationalist, secular Fatah. Fatah is considered the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Brigades constitute the party's military wing.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade consists of localized, autonomous units which act independently of each other and are often named after recently-killed Palestinian militants and terrorists. The group's decentralized structure works to its advantage, making operatives and leaders harder to track by the intelligence community.
The Brigades' professed goal is to annihilate Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The group began its activity during the Second Intifada, initiating a series of bloody attacks against Israeli civilians. Attacking Israeli settlements and military outposts first, the Brigades joined forces with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad a short while after beginning their insurgence, escalating their actions and targeting Israeli cities. The uprising was soon dubbed the al-Aqsa Intifada.
A doctrine rooted in Palestinian nationalism (Photo: AP)
Contrary to popular belief, and though they practice the same lethal method of suicide bombing synonymous with the fundamentalist Hamas and Jihad, the Brigades are not an Islamist group; it's doctrine is rooted in Palestinian nationalism rather than in political Islam.
Among the Brigades' most notorious attacks are the March 2004 suicide bombing at the Port of Ashdod, which killed 10 people; a January 2004 attack on a bus in Jerusalem, which slew 11; a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on January 2003, which left 23 dead and some 100 wounded; the November 2002 shooting spree at a northern Israeli kibbutz in which five Israelis were killed and seven were wounded; a March 2002 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem café which killed 11 and wounded 50; and the March 2002 sniper attack on a military checkpoint in the West Bank, which claimed the lives of 10 soldiers. The Brigades have been using female suicide bombers since 2006.
In 2002, the US State Department added the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade to its list of foreign terror organizations.
In April 2002, Israel arrested the Brigades' headman, Marwan Barghouti. He was charged with multiple counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and membership in a terrorist organization and was sentences to five consecutive life terms and an additional 40 years – a total of 165 years.
In 2004, the Brigades agreed to a ceasefire with Israel, but resumed their attacks when Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006. In October 2005, the then-Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia announced the Palestinian Authority will disarm the Brigades and embed its operatives into the Palestinian security forces. In July 2007, the Israeli government and the PA reached an amnesty deal for 178 Brigades operatives held in Israeli prisons. The men were freed on condition they will cease all anti-Israeli activities.
On the PA's payroll? (Photo: Reuters)
According to numerous reports, many of the Brigades' operatives are in fact on the PA's payroll, serving both the Brigades and one of the PA's dozen security services; but whether the groups are directly linked to Fatah leadership today is still under debate: The Brigades may have been formed as an armed derivative of Fatah, but security and intelligence experts say it is unlikely that they operate on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' say-so.
In January 2008, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades joined forces with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad and began firing rockets at the Israeli communities in the Gaza vicinity and western Negev.
Senior al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades' operatives, past and present, include: Naif Abu-Sharah – the Brigades' commander in Nablus – killed by IDF forces; Fadi Kafisha – former Tanzim head in Nablus; Zakaria Zubeidi – Local Commander of the group's Jenin forces, known for his relationship with Israeli extreme-left activist Tali Fahima; and Sirhan Sirhan – who murdered 5 Israelis in an attack on Kibbutz Metzer – Killed by IDF forces.
The groups is now headed by Kamal Ranam, chief of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Ramallah.