While most of the world celebrates the U.S. military operation that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the sentiment is not unanimous. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has condemned the United States, accusing Washington of assassinating a “Muslim and Arabic warrior” and the “continuation of the American oppression and shedding of blood of Muslims and Arabs.”
Haniyeh’s reaction underscores the ideological roots Hamas and al Qaeda share: Hamas was founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a prominent Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood figure; al Qaeda was cofounded, along with bin Laden, by Abdullah Azzam, another prominent Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood figure.
But this only partially explains why Haniyeh and his ilk are now mourning the death of the most notorious terrorist in modern history.
While Hamas insists that it has no operational ties to al Qaeda, in the early and mid-1990s Hamas members received paramilitary training and attended Islamist conferences in Sudan, alongside bin Laden and his supporters.
The operational ties were confirmed a decade later, when bin Laden reportedly sent emissaries to Hamas on two separate occasions (September 2000 and January 2001). While most analysts believe Hamas rejected al Qaeda’s offer to coordinate violence against Israel, it appears Hamas never closed the door. In 2002, the Washington Post quoted official U.S. government sources as confirming a loose alliance “between al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hizbullah.”
In 2003, Israel arrested three Hamas fighters returning from al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. That same year, Jordanian security officials confirmed to Time magazine that two Hamas members went on a recruiting mission in Afghanistan hoping to bring al Qaeda fighters back to the Palestinian territories.
Arab media also reported in 2006 that Syria-based Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal had met in Yemen with Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, whom the U.S. Treasury officially designated as a terrorist in 2004 for his ties to al Qaeda. Zindani has openly boasted of providing funds to Hamas.
Thus, over the course of two decades, Hamas has maintained a relationship with the al Qaeda network. This explains Haniyeh’s lamentations after hearing of bin Laden’s death, and further explains, in part, why the United States has designated Hamas a terrorist organization.
But Hamas’s sympathies for bin Laden hold a deeper meaning now than they did a week ago. Last week, Hamas entered into a unity government with the rival Fatah faction, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority. The deal immediately raised questions about whether Washington could recognize such a government.
If the group’s grisly record of suicide bombings and attacks against civilians since its inception in 1988 were not enough, the aforementioned ties between Hamas and al Qaeda should serve as further warning to Washington about the terror group that now appears to have a controlling stake in the Palestinian Authority.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan 2008).