Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism
A political tool with an edge
Last month, the United States Government added
the Palestinian militant group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to its list of Foreign
Terrorist Organizations. The designation makes it illegal under U.S. law to
provide material support to the organization and requires banks to freeze its
assets. The move marked the first time the Bush administration has taken active
steps against an organization directly linked to Palestinian Chairman Yasser
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades first emerged on
the scene shortly after the outbreak of what has come to be known as the al-Aqsa
conflict, in late September 2000. In a very real sense, the Martyrs Brigades was
a response to the need to suit actions to words.
At the close of the Camp David talks,
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had been offered a Palestinian state
alongside of—but not instead of—Israel, declared that the Oslo Peace Process
was at a dead end. At the time, the Fatah militias, consisting of the Fatah
Tanzim, Force-17, and the various Palestinian security services, were still
viewed, both by Israel and by the Palestinians themselves, as moderate forces.
Ideologically, they supported what had been, up until then, the Palestinian
leader's stated goal of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Over the past year and a half, these stated
goals have undergone a change, and the nature of the Fatah-linked groups has
altered accordingly. Since the outbreak of hostilities, Arafat has
consistently preached "Jihad" against Israel. However, at first it was mostly
the Islamist groups, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, that carried out
the mass-casualty attacks inside Israel. The Tanzim, which lacked the
resources for carrying out the kind of "professional" bombings typical of
Hamas, confined itself to shooting attacks on Israelis on roads in the
All of this began to change towards the end
of 2000, when Arafat ordered his security services to release the majority of
the imprisoned Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants—many of them convicted
terrorists who had been jailed under the terms of the Oslo agreements with
Israel. Hamas was invited to join the Palestinian Authority's governing body;
and while the invitation was not accepted, a new level of cooperation between
Fatah and Hamas began to take shape. The first joint attacks against Israeli
civilians were not long in coming.
To date, the Fatah Tanzim and the Martyrs of
al-Aqsa have taken responsibility for more than 300 terror attacks in which
Israeli civilians were killed. Israeli authorities say that since September
2000 the Fatah-linked groups have carried out more than 1,500 attacks and
attempted attacks, including car bombings, shootings, kidnappings, and knife
Arafat's private militia
Military sources said that among the documents seized in a raid on Arafat's
headquarters was an
from the al-Aqsa Martyrs asking for reimbursement for, among other things,
explosives used in bombings in Israeli cities. The document was addressed to
Brig. Gen. Fouad Shoubaki, the Palestinian Authority's chief financial officer
for military operations, and contained numerous handwritten notes and
calculations, apparently added by Shoubaki's staff. (See
Appendix, for translation.)
The document was the first direct proof of
what the Israeli intelligence establishment has claimed for some time: the al-Aqsa
Martyrs Brigades are not a "rogue militia" as Arafat claims. Rather its
members are on the Palestinian Authority's payroll, it activities are financed
out of Palestinian Authority coffers, and its attacks are carried out with the
knowledge and backing of Yasser Arafat's inner circle.
The invoice was sent by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs
Brigades to Shoubaki's office, located in the Palestinian Authority's
headquarters in Ramallah. Dated 16 September, it outlines expenses through
September 6 and asks Shoubaki's office for money to build additional bombs,
and to finance propaganda posters promoting suicide bombers.
The seven-point financial report lists the
projected cost of various attack-related activities, including "electrical
components and chemical supplies to produce charges and bombs." The cost of
each bomb was listed as $150. "We require on a weekly basis 5-9 explosives
charges for squads in various areas," the document read.
Also cited were the costs for printing
posters of al-Aqsa members killed in conflict with Israelis, for printed
announcements, invitations and mourners' tents, for mounting "martyrs'
portraits" on boards, and for funerals. Another item asked for the transfer of
$17,930 to cover purchases of AK-47 assault rifles.
Colonel Miri Eisen, a senior intelligence
officer who presented the document, said that she did not have information on
whether the transfer of funds was carried out. However, she pointed out the in
the time since the letter was sent, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade had carried
out eight suicide bombings in Israel. In addition, the group has carried out
about 300 attacks in which Israeli civilians were killed or wounded, including
roadside ambushes, driveby shootings, and car bombings. "You could probably
call this a terror invoice. How much does terrorism cost?" Eisen told
Nor is the involvement of Fouad Shoubaki in
all of this particularly surprising. Shoubaki, a close associate of Arafat for
more than 30 years, first rose to public prominence in the wake of the "Karin
A Affair," when it emerged that he had paid out some $200,000 for the purchase
of a ship to haul weapons from Iran to the Palestinian Autonomous territories.
The ship was seized by Israeli commandos on the Red Sea in January, and was
found to be carrying some fifty tons of weapons in violation of Arafat's
agreements with Israel.
In a bid to deflate international criticism
and distance himself from the affair, Yasser Arafat announced that Shoubaki
would be fired from his post and tried for his role in arranging the arms
deal. However, the arrest and proposed trial were widely considered to be
public relations gestures.
Israeli military sources say that the many
documents seized in Shoubaki's office showed that he continued with "business
as usual" after the Karin A affair. Shoubaki, also known as abu Hazm, is
currently trapped with the Fatah leader in his Ramallah headquarters, which
was surrounded by Israeli forces last week.
According to the Israeli military
establishment, Shoubaki was also responsible for financing the activity of the
al-Aksa Brigades in the Bethlehem region, transferring monthly salaries to the
organization's activists in the area. In addition, he was involved in
purchasing a cache of weapons stolen towards the end of the year 2000 from an
IDF base in the area. These weapons were later used to carry out attacks
against Israeli civilians in the area of Jerusalem.
Dore Gold, an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon, said Tuesday that Shoubaki had visited Baghdad in August 2001 in order
to coordinate positions with the Iraqi government, and that in May 2001 he was
present at a meeting in Moscow during which the draft for joint activities
between Iran and the PA was agreed upon.
Both Iraq and Iran have become increasingly
involved in providing financial and military support to Palestinian groups
since Arafat first declared the peace process at a dead end and returned to
armed conflict. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein announced last week that he is
increasing the sum offered the families of suicide bombings from $10,000 to
$25,000, in order to encourage more young men to "choose the path of
The emergence of the Islamic nationalists
Unlike the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad—the groups usually associated with
mass-casualty attacks against Israel—the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was at first
thought of as a secular, nationalist group, rather than an Islamic one. Thus
it came as something of a surprise when the group began carrying out suicide
bombings. On hindsight, however, this appears as a natural step. Islamic
motifs had been part of the "al-Aqsa" conflict from the beginning—the very
name of the conflict was derived from the notion that Israel had plans to
destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque. Religious motifs have been used extensively by
Arafat in his diatribes against "Israeli occupation of Muslim holy places."
Thus, having made Islam-vs.-Judaism a central tenet of the war, it was natural
for Fatah to alter its own character to suit the rhetoric that had launched
the conflict and kept it going.
The Fatah movement, which controls the
Palestinian government—and more importantly, the media and the schools—has
generally enjoyed wider popularity than either of the more insular Islamist
groups. The movement had lost ground during the earlier stages of the
conflict, when the Palestinian leader's rhetoric outstripped Fatah's actions
in confronting Israel. The popularity of the Islamic groups was given a boost
when it appeared that only Hamas and the PIJ were acting to implement Arafat's
calls for "rivers of blood in the streets of Tel-Aviv." However, in the past
few months, the al-Aqsa group has almost completely eclipsed the Hamas and the
Islamic Jihad, both in the number and in the deadliness of its attacks. The
current predominance of the Martyrs of al-Aqsa in carrying out terrorist
attacks in Israel has done much to restore Fatah's popularity on the
The question of Arafat's control
The role of the Martyrs of al-Aqsa Brigades in rebuilding Fatah's popularity
has raised questions about Arafat's power to restrain it. Many argue that any
attempt by the Palestinian leader to rein in the militants now, when they are
the key to his popularity, would only lead to a mutiny against his rule or to
At the heart of Arafat's dilemma is the need
to continue to mobilize his society for conflict with Israel, despite the fact
that he can present his people with no real achievements after eighteen months
of the "intifada." The ultimate victims of Palestinian terrorism have been the
Palestinians themselves, due in large part to the failure of the Palestinian
Authority to develop a self-sufficient economy. The livelihood of most
Palestinians has always depended—directly or indirectly—on the earnings of
Palestinians working in Israel. Since the outbreak of hostilities, Israel,
fearful of terrorist attacks, has virtually closed its borders to Palestinian
laborers. At the same time, tourism, a mainstay of both the Palestinian and
the Israeli economies, has dropped to a trickle. Thus, Arafat is forced to
continue to justify a war that, while saving him the need to address domestic
concerns, has brought the Palestinian people nothing but grief.
His true dilemma is that only by continuing
with his war can he maintain his popularity among his own people. His
propaganda machine has done its work too well; at this point the Palestinians
have been fed the story of the supposed Israeli plan to take over the Muslim
world to the point where the majority actually seem to believe it. Any attempt
by Arafat to put out the fire at this point would only erode his popularity
and credibility. He cannot suddenly turn around and say to his own people,
"Sorry, but most of what I've been telling you for the last two years was
untrue! Now, after more than 1,000 of us have been martyred, we're going to
accept the Palestinian state that we were offered in 2000."
Arafat's problem is thus the need to justify
an investment that has so far failed to deliver any profit at all. The same
dilemma faces Arafat with respect to the activities of his own terrorist
apparatus. Taken together, the Fatah groups enjoy the overwhelming support of
Arafat's constituency, and he has invested a great deal in keeping them armed
and active, even while his civilian infrastructure languishes for lack of
funds and attention. Meanwhile, the leaders of the al-Aqsa Martyrs insist
that, while they hold Arafat in high esteem, they do not take their orders
regarding individual attacks from him.
However, Israeli security officials maintain
that Arafat exerts a large measure of control over all the Fatah-affiliated
organizations, paying the salaries of their members and supplying them with
weapons. And while he may not determine the target and timing of each
individual attack, he definitely sets the overall agenda. In fact, this was
true to a great extent even with regard to the "opposition" Islamist groups
prior to the outbreak of hostilities. These organizations, while not directly
controlled by Arafat, were still dependent upon his willingness to leave their
military capabilities intact. Had he chosen to disarm and outlaw the Islamic
Jihad and the armed wing of Hamas, the Islamists would have been largely
Moreover, Arafat remains in control of the
media. This means that while Arafat's credibility with his own people may
suffer some erosion, his position as a symbol is unassailable. His popularity
may be expected to weather the storm, if only because by controlling the
media, Arafat controls the standards of popularity. From the outset, it was
the official messages, disseminated through the radio, television and the
PA-salaried preachers, that most strongly influenced the thinking of the
Palestinian street. Terrorist attacks, formerly portrayed as a politically
counter-productive tool to be used only as a last resort, are now hailed as
the pinnacle of glory in the Palestinian cause. Having sold martyrdom as the
highest goal for which every Palestinian child should strive, Arafat has been
forced to match his actions (or at least the actions of those who take his
orders) to his words.
However, just as the media was used to fuel
the hatred of the Palestinian in the street, it could also be used to sell
coexistence and the benefits of peace. While it may be argued that, for the
younger generation raised on a steady diet of hatred, the damage is
irreversible, this probably does not apply to the generation currently most
active in the violence.
While the degree to which Arafat controls the
Tanzim—and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades—is still subject to debate, most
analysts are in agreement that his control is much greater than he makes it
out to be. And while restoring calm may be a daunting task, it is nevertheless
one within reach. However, it now appears unlikely that Yasser Arafat will
choose to put out a fire that he has so carefully fed with the bodies of his
own people. Rather than being recorded in history as the leader who agreeed to
a state on only part of historic Palestine, Arafat is likely to choose to
prolong the conflict indefinitely. It will be left to his successors to undo
the damage that he has done.
Source: Council on Foreign Relations
Al-Aqsa Martyrs BrigadesWhat are
the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades?
The brigades are a group of West Bank militias
affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's al-Fatah faction and have been one of the driving forces
behind the current Palestinian intifada (uprising). While the group
initially vowed to target only Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank
and Gaza Strip, in early 2002 it began a spree of terrorist attacks against
civilians in Israeli cities. In March 2002, after a deadly al-Aqsa Brigades
suicide bombing in Jerusalem, the State Department added the group to the U.S.
list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Are the brigades an Islamist
No. The brigades began in 2000 as
an offshoot of Fatah, the secular Palestinian nationalist movement led by
Arafat. Fatah is the largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
(When Israel and the PLO signed a peace deal in 1993, Arafat renounced terrorism
and founded a new, Palestinian-led administration in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip.) The al-Aqsa Brigades commit the same sort of suicide bombings widely
associated with such Muslim fundamentalist groups as Hamas and Palestinian
Islamic Jihad, but the group's ideology is rooted in Palestinian nationalism,
not political Islam. In early 2002, the al-Aqsa Brigades' attacks killed more
Israelis than those of Hamas.
What sort of attacks do the brigades launch?
shootings and suicide bombings, experts say, including
attacks by female suicide bombers. Brigade members say
they draw inspiration from Hezbollah, the Shiite Lebanese
militia whose attacks drove Israel out of its self-declared
security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000. Similarly,
the brigades hope to drive Israel out of the West Bank
and Gaza Strip by force. The group began by targeting
Israeli roadblocks and settlers in the West Bank, but
since shifting its tactics in early 2002, the brigades
have claimed responsibility for some of the conflict's
most significant attacks, including:
the group begin to target civilians inside Israel?
- A pair of January 2003 suicide bombings in downtown
Tel Aviv that killed 23 people and injured about 100
more, in one of the bloodiest attacks of the current
- A November 2002 shooting spree at a kibbutz in northern
Israel that killed five Israelis, including two children,
and wounded seven more;
- A March 2002 suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed
three Israelis, prompting Israel to call off ceasefire
talks with Arafat's Palestinian Authority;
- Another March 2002 suicide bombing in a Jerusalem
café that killed 11 Israelis and wounded more than
- A March 2002 sniper attack on an Israeli army checkpoint
in the West Bank in which the gunman methodically
killed 10Israelis, including seven Israeli soldiers,
- A January 2002 suicide attack in Jerusalem by a
female terrorist that killed an elderly man and wounded
about 40 oother people.
Experts say the shift began in early 2002, when
the Palestinian death toll in the current uprising was nearing 1,000 and the
popularity of Arafat's secular Fatah faction was waning in comparison to the
Islamist militants of Hamas. (Polls say that most Palestinians support suicide
bombings.) The al-Aqsa Brigades' attacks became more deadly after January 2002,
when the group's West Bank leader, Raed Karmi, was killed in an explosion—widely
believed in the region to have been a "targeted killing" by Israeli forces. The
al-Aqsa Brigades claim that deaths of women and children in their attacks are
Arafat control the brigades?
Arafat's advisers say he does not; Israeli
officials say he does; and different leaders of the group tell different stories
about whether they take their orders from Arafat. "Our group is an integral part
of Fatah," Maslama Thabet, one of the group's leaders in the West Bank town of
Tulkarm, told USA Today in March 2002. "We receive our instructions from
Fatah. Our commander is Yasir Arafat himself." But another of the group's
leaders, Naser Badawi, told the New York Times days later that while "we
respect our leader," the decision "to carry out attacks remains with the Aqsa
Brigades leadership." Badawi added that Arafat has never approached the group to
ask it to stop its suicide bombings, which Arafat has publicly condemned.
Palestinian officials have said that most of the group's members are on the
payroll of the Palestinian Authority, often because they serve in both the
brigades and in one of Arafat's 14 formal security services. In April 2002,
Israel captured Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank leader of Arafat's Fatah and a
leading figure in the brigades. In June 2002, President Bush decided to call for
Arafat's removal after receiving Israeli intelligence reports showing that
Arafat had approved a $20,000 payment to the brigades.
does the name al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades mean?
The group's name refers to the al-Aqsa
Mosque, located atop the contested Jerusalem holy site known by Muslims as the
Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Palestinians killed in
the current intifada. Arabs refer to the uprising, which began in
September 2000 after a controversial walk atop that holy site by Likud Party
leader Ariel Sharon, as the al-Aqsa intifada. Muslim tradition holds that
the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven from the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque,
whose name is Arabic for "the farthest place." The individual militias that make
up the group are often named after recently killed Palestinian militants.
Source: Center for Defense Information
Since early 2002, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have carried
out more attacks on Israelis than its Islamist counterparts, Hamas and Islamic
Jihad. As a result, the U.S. State Department designated the organization as a
Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) on March 27, 2002, marking a strategic
shift in U.S. policy toward Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.
Western security agencies, led by the Israeli and American
governments, claim that the group is supported and supervised by Arafat's Fatah-Tanzim,
an extremist youth military wing of the Fatah movement, and one of Arafat's
numerous security forces in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has long been
pointing toward Arafat's alleged involvement in terrorism since he had signed
several treaties outlying non-use of terrorism in the mid-1990s. The ongoing
allegations by Israeli politicians emphasize the increasing number and magnitude
of attacks carried out by the organization, which may be the missing link
between tying high officials in the Palestinian Authority, and perhaps Arafat
himself, directly to terror attacks.
History and Foundation
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades emerged on the scene soon after
the break of the current intifada (uprising) on Sept. 30, 2000. Like the
uprising, usually referred to as the al-Aqsa intifada, the organization derives
its name from the al-Aqsa mosque, located on top of the disputed holy site in
Jerusalem called by Jews the Temple Mount and by Muslims the Holy Sanctuary. A
visit by then Likud Party leader and current Israeli Prime-Minister Ariel Sharon
to the site sparked the ongoing violence in the area.
The group consists of young, radical Fatah-Tanzim activists.
In general, the Tanzim sect has enjoyed an increased support from the
Palestinian street. Palestinians see it as a grass-root, popular movement,
unlike the Palestinian Authority, which is constructed of officials that were in
exile until the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. Many of the Tanzim members
are graduates of the 1987 intifada, and are popular among the socio-economically
devastated Palestinian people.
Goals and Doctrine
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades strive to drive Israeli forces out of
Palestinian territories, i.e. the West Bank and Gaza strip, and establish a
Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Its affiliation with Arafat's
Fatah movement appears to dictate the Brigades' non-religious nature. However,
the Palestinian street, followed by Palestinian officials, has turned to use of
Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric since the recent outbreak. Answering Arafat's
calls in Arabic for martyrdom and as part of the massive radicalization of the
Palestinian side since the latest outbreak, the organization emerged as the
secular counterpart of the fundamentalist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad for
carrying out terror attacks against Israelis.
The Brigades operate mainly in the West Bank, the stronghold
of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Nonetheless, it has claimed
responsibility for attacks inside Israel as well as in Gaza, where Hamas and the
Islamic Jihad have traditionally enjoyed undisputed popular support. In addition
to shootings, ambushes, and car bombs, the past six months saw the group
engaging in an increasing number of suicide bombings inside Israel, literally
outnumbering Hamas and the Islamic Jihad's suicide operations. The group was the
first to use a female suicide bomber in a Jan. 27, 2002 operation. Some experts
tie the group's increasing expertise to its Palestinian Authority-based funding
According to Israeli authorities, Fatah-linked groups have
committed more than 1,500 attacks and attempted attacks since the outbreak of
the al-Aqsa intifada. The Fatah-Tanzim and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have
claimed responsibility for more than 300 attacks in which Israeli civilians were
killed. Among the recent, most severe attacks carried out by the Brigades were:
||May 27, 2000 —
a suicide bomber detonated himself outside a mall in Petah Tikva; two
Israeli civilians were killed, and 37 injured.
||April 12, 2002
— a woman suicide bomber detonated herself in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda
market; six people were killed and 104 wounded.
||March 30, 2002
— a suicide bomber detonated himself in a Tel-Aviv café; one was killed and
about 30 others injured.
||March 29, 2002
— a woman suicide bomber detonated herself inside a supermarket in
Jerusalem; two people were killed and 28 injured.
||March 21, 2002
— a suicide bomber detonated himself in the middle of King George Street in
Jerusalem; three people were killed and 86 injured.
||March 2, 2002
— a suicide bomber detonated himself near a bar-mitzvah celebration in Beit
Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem; ten people were killed and more than 50
||Jan. 27, 2002
— a woman suicide bomber detonated herself in Jerusalem; one person was
killed and more than 150 wounded.
Israeli forces arrested Marwan Barghouti on April 15, 2002,
believing him to be directly involved with the operation of the al-Aqsa Martyrs
Brigades. Barghouti possesses a somewhat unique political status; he is a
prominent Palestinian political leader who is the leader of Arafat's Fatah in
the West Bank, but has also criticized the chairman and his Palestinian
Authority for corruption and human rights violations. Barghouti is popular
amongst Palestinians, and is affiliated with the grass-roots echelon. In 1996 he
was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council.
In addition, Raed Karmi, the group's leader in the West Bank,
was killed in January, and Mahmoud Titi, the group's leader in the Balata
refugee camp was killed last month. Other local leaders found the same fate as
Israel increased its operations in the territories.
The Arafat Connection?
There is a disagreement among the sides about the control that
Arafat has over the Brigades. Palestinian officials and spokesmen have
repeatedly denied any connection between the chairman and any terrorist
organization. Members of the group were inconsistent in describing their
leadership and their relation to the Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, and to
Arafat. Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Fatah leader, acknowledged Fatah's control
over the terrorist group. In an interview with USA Today on March 14, 2002,
Maslama Thabet, one of the group's leaders, described the group as "an integral
part of Fatah," and that the organization's "commander is Yasser Arafat
himself." But Arafat's chief spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, denied the
allegations in the same article, while another of Arafat's spokesmen confirmed
the brigades' loyalty to the chairman.
Israel, on its part, is convinced that Arafat is directly
involved. In a recent file, "The involvement of Arafat, PA senior Officials and
Apparatus in Terrorism against Israel, Corruption, and Crime," the Israeli
government argues that "Arafat was personally involved in the planning and
execution of terror attacks. He encouraged them ideologically, authorized them
financially and personally headed the Fatah Al Aqsa Brigades organization." As
evidence, Israeli intelligence presented several documents found in Arafat's
headquarters in Ramallah. The documents include a request for financial aid
outlying operations, propaganda, and arms purchases, as well as other documents
signed by the group and addressed to Arafat and other high Palestinian
officials. All the documents were signed by al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and
referred to themselves as part of Fatah.
In an interview with CNN, Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian
representative to the United States, rejected the Israeli allegations, claiming
the documents were a sham.
In any case, it appears that the organization consists of
individual small cells spread throughout Palestinian towns. It is well funded
and achieved high proficiency at carrying out its missions, wherever they come
As if the threats of suicide attacks by Hamas and the Islamic
Jihad were not enough, it appears that the Brigades are the new, strong, rich
kid in town. Their attacks are well funded, well executed, and innovative when
needed. The group is a new threat that Israeli forces must deal with, and
represents a new secular front of Palestinian terrorism. While its possible
connection to the Palestinian Authority command and funding is tactically
alarming, the strategic implications remain simple: The Palestinian
nationalistic movement sees terrorism as a legitimate method to achieve
independence. And thus the Palestinian political question and Palestinian terror
are coupled. If Israel and the United States want to eliminate Palestinian
terrorism, they must address the secular political issues at hand.