Salafi Jihadists in Gaza: 'Compared to Us, Hamas Is Islamism Lite'

By in the Gaza Strip

Global power is their goal, and they are willing to slaughter innocents to get there. A group of ultra-radical Islamists are training in the Gaza Strip, and SPIEGEL ONLINE met with one of their leaders.

Salafi extremist Abu Mustafa says more and more Hamas militants like these are defecting to his group.
REUTERS

Salafi extremist Abu Mustafa says more and more Hamas militants like these are defecting to his group.

It's not easy to find a place to meet the man who goes by the name of Abu Mustafa. A number of places were agreed on and jettisoned. Finally, after hours of cruising around Gaza City with Abu Mustafa's driver, the call came. The meeting would take place on the beach. There are enough people on the beach that one doesn't attract so much attention, the caller explained. How absurd this notion was would soon become clear.

Most people don't stick out on the beaches of Gaza to the degree that Abu Mustafa does. He picks his way across the sand on crutches, his leg wrapped in a cast up to his thigh. The Pakistani clothes he wears are also foreign -- and the white shirt that hangs to his knees makes walking on crutches even more difficult. Finally he slumps in a plastic chair. "Peace be upon you," he says quietly, welcoming his guest.

Many people would like to speak with Abu Mustafa these days -- he guesses about 10 men call him each day. Abu Mustafa holds the key to an ideology that many are turning to in the Gaza Strip: Salafist jihadism, a belief in the most radical form of Islam. "We meet secretly in mosques and private homes," says Abu Mustafa, who has become an entry point to the movement for many. He says the Salafis now number up to 5,000 people, not counting the women and children.

'A Very Dangerous Man'

"We aren't well enough organized yet, but we are in the process of building networks," says the 33-year-old. Eventually, he hopes, a powerful movement will be born. Members are already receiving weapons training and are schooled in both dogma and strategy. "When the fight begins, they will show no mercy," said a middleman for the interview -- himself a fighter in an armed militia -- prior to the beach meeting. "Abu Mustafa is a very dangerous man."

Salafis -- sometimes referred to as Wahhabis -- dream of a world before Islam became cluttered with new innovations and cultural influences. They seek to live a pious, god-fearing life governed by the laws of religion, a life resembling those of the original Muslims. At first glance, such a belief system doesn't differ much from that of other utopian sects -- were it not for their ideas related to holy war. To make their vision a reality, Abu Mustafa and his men are willing to fight -- and they are willing to slaughter innocent bystanders.

"Look," says Abu Mustafa, whose beard cascades down his chest, "there will be three possibilities. Some will find their way to Islam. Those who don't want to convert will be able to live in peace under the authority of Islam." For those who don't want to accept the hegemony of Islam, however, holy war is the only recipe. "Then we have to fight -- just like our brothers on Sept. 11," Abu Mustafa says.

The attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. seven years ago were a response to the contempt held for Islam by the Western world, he says. "If Muslims are attacked anywhere in the world, one has to hit back, and it doesn't matter where." Salafist Islam is like a cat, he says. "It is very friendly, but if it is attacked, it turns into a tiger."

The True Islam

"We feel just like al-Qaida and we think as they do," Abu Mustafa says. He won't say if he has contact with Osama bin Laden's terror group, but calls it vaguely "a possibility." He also dodges the question of whether foreigners have joined the Salafist movement in the Gaza Strip.

Abu Mustafa is not fond of speaking with journalists. It is still risky for the group to come out of hiding, since Hamas -- the Palestinian Islamist group which controls the Gaza Strip -- views Salafis with suspicion. Both groups claim to represent true Islam, and both compete for the same followers. The fact that Abu Mustafa finally agreed to a meeting with SPIEGEL ONLINE comes out of gratitude, he says. "I owe the Germans a lot," he explains in his slow, careful German.

Abu Mustafa has a degree from the University of Saarbrücken in Germany's far west. For seven years, until 2000, he studied chemical engineering and led a largely normal student existence. He had periodic jobs with a moving company or in construction, and he occasionally cooked up Palestinian specialties for other students living in the dormitory. "I miss Germany," he says. He's even looked on Google Earth for the street where he used to live and the cafeteria where he used to eat.

He explains that he was largely accepted in Germany and found people there to be quite friendly. The only problems came about when he encountered scantily clad women or fellow students who spent much of their time in clubs and bars. He says such experiences rooted him even deeper in his beliefs. "It would be better for such people were they to follow the pure Islam," he says. "We are going to try and bring the faith to them."

The Salafi warns that Germany, by supporting Israel and participating in operations in Afghanistan, is a clear target for his fellow Islamists. He claims he himself would never move against his "second home," but he warns that "Germany should be afraid of being attacked."

Struggle for Global Influence

Salafis from the Gaza Strip first stepped into the global spotlight in March 2007, when jihadis from Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was based in the Gaza Strip. The group is a small faction among Salafis. They held Johnston hostage for four months, threatening to kill him and showing images of him wearing a suicide belt. Abu Mustafa says it was a legitimate tactic in the struggle for Islam. "It was nothing personal. It was a message to the West that they should release imprisoned Muslims." For the moment, he adds reassuringly, foreign journalists are not in danger in the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, Abu Mustafa says, he and his comrades in arms realize they need to be patient. There's a long way to go before they can begin their struggle for global influence. First, they have to take care of an enemy closer to home: Hamas.

So far, Hamas has done what it can to keep the Salafis under control. They know the ultra-radicals are just waiting to take over Hamas' position of leadership. "They are traitors," Abu Mustafa says of Hamas. "Compared to us, they are Islamism lite."

Nevertheless, he's willing to be merciful. "We will give them the chance to turn away from the false path," he says. And what happens if they don't take up the offer? "Then there will be confrontation," Abu Mustafa promises, bringing his fists together. Still, he doesn't think it likely that the Salafis will have to take up arms against Hamas. "It won't be necessary. They will destroy themselves."

Power Struggle

His explanation is clear. "For many people in Gaza, Hamas embodied the promise of a good, Islamic lifestyle," Abu Mustafa says. But once the group seized power in the Gaza Strip over a year ago, many were disappointed. Of the 10 defectors who call him everyday, many of them are Hamas fighters, he claims. "These are tough men and they have insider knowledge. They will be very useful should it come to a power struggle."

The group's greatest sin, says Abu Mustafa, who is also the father of two children, is its effort to bring Islam and democracy together. "Hamas represents an American style of Islam. They have tried to curry favor." Which is not such a bad thing for Abu Mustafa and his Salafis. "Hamas is like a block of ice in the sun," he says. "Every minute they get smaller -- and we get larger."

Abu Mustafa's broken leg and the scars on his right hand are the result of an Israeli rocket attack. In January, he and a few of his comrades fired rockets across the border into Israel. Afterwards, as they were heading home, an Israeli missile hit them.

Four men were injured and one, as Abu Mustafa says, became a martyr. The fact that his leg still hurts six months later is something he bears with stoicism. "It is not important how one feels in this life, rather whether one enters paradise or hell after death," he says.

For his part, Abu Mustafa claims he is not afraid of death. He says he is not fighting for worldly things. And he hopes he will fall in the struggle for his beliefs.

"On the other hand," he says before pushing himself up and limping back to his car, "I would love to see my daughter wed. Maybe she will marry first, and then I will become a martyr."

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