Al-Sabireen first appeared in the late spring of 2014 as a splinter from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorist group. The reasons for al-Sabireen’s founding are unclear. Some analysts, such as Jonathan Schanzer and Grant Rumley of the Washington DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, wrote in June 2014 that a Hamas-Fatah unity deal for Palestinian governance may have provided the impetus. In an interview with Al-Monitor, a self-identified member of al-Sabireen named Mohammad Harb explained the group’s origins. Harb claimed al-Sabireen was formed by some PIJ members when their demands for a return to the pro-Khomenei ideology of Islamic Jihad’s founder, Fathi Shakaki, were spurned.
Much like other terrorist groups, including its rival Hamas, the terror organization that rules the Gaza Strip, al-Sabireen also had close ties with a charity calling itself al-Baqiyat as-Salihat (“the enduring good deeds”). Perhaps concerned with a potential rival to power in Gaza, Hamas closed al-Baqiyat as-Salihat in March 2016 due to “the organization’s engagement in political activities.”
Since its appearance, al-Sabireen has used money to successfully recruit disenchanted members of PIJ and Fatah. The latter comprises much of the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank. Al-Sabireen also has recruited from smaller terrorist groups.
While its origins are murky, al-Sabireen’s objective and patron are clear.
Employing language that closely mirrors that of Iranian officials such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, al-Sabireen’s charter encourages violent jihad against the “racist Zionist body” Israel and against what it calls “America the great Satan.” The group, including its leader and founder, Hisham Salem, a former mid-level PIJ operative, can be found on social media platforms, such as YouTube, promoting their proto-Khamenei, anti-Western, anti-Israeli, and Islamist ideology.
Matching words with deeds, al-Sabireen has drawn attention from the Israel Defense Forces after perpetrating several terrorist attacks against the Jewish state. Flush with Iranian funds—an estimated $10 million a year for what is thought to be 400 or so members—al-Sabireen has armed itself with Grad and Fajr missiles that can reach Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip, a distance of about 35 miles.
Al-Sabireen also is armed with new Steyr .50 long-range sniper rifles—the same weapon that some Iranian-backed militias are using to expand Tehran’s regional influence in the formerly sovereign nations of Syria and Iraq.
Much like other terrorist groups, including Hamas, PIJ, and the Iranian-backed and Lebanese-based Hezbollah, al-Saibreen benefits from Tehran’s largesse. But while Hamas and PIJ refused to agree with Iran’s demands to publicly support dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s bloody civil war, al-Sabireen has shown no such compunction.
Al-Sabireen has gone on record backing Iran’s Syrian ally and has adopted other positions in line with the mullahs, such as criticizing Iran’s nemesis and regional rival Saudi Arabia. By contrast, Hamas, which receives funds from the Persian Gulf states and Turkey, has been careful not to take sides overtly in the Saudi-Iranian “cold war” that is going hot in the Yemeni civil war and elsewhere. Al-Sabireen even closely mimics its fellow Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, in the design of its logo, which features an outstretched arm gripping a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Al-Sabireen has been richly rewarded with funds and assistance for its strict adherence to Tehran’s wishes. But the group’s undisguised support from the Shiite-majority country has raised eyebrows among the largely Sunni-Muslim Palestinian Arabs. Rumors suggest that al-Sabireen is a Shiite group, which—like its benefactor—believes in spreading the Iranian brand of Islam. When speaking to Arab press, al-Sabireen head Salem has publicly denied these claims, made by Hamas as well as al-Sabireen members themselves.
But al-Sabireen has reportedly adopted Shiite rituals such as the Day of Ashura, and the group is known to distribute Shiite literature and hold seminars on Shiite theology. Salem is also known to have declared that “the road to liberation of Palestine (the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state) goes through Karbala”—referring to the Shiite holy city in a manner that echoes Tehran’s rhetoric.
The group’s emergence has been entirely ignored by major U.S print news outlets. A Lexis-Nexis search that includes USA Today, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, among others, shows only one single mention, by Washington Post online blogger Jennifer Rubin (“The effect of the nuclear deal is clear,” Jan. 20, 2016). Rubin appropriately noted that al-Sabireen is a sign of Iran’s expanding regional influence—including, even overtly, in areas not traditionally dominated by Shiite groups.
If al-Sabireen and Iran have their wish, it may be increasingly difficult for the press to ignore this example of Iran’s growing reach and funding of terror.
Sean Durns is the media assistant for the Washington, DC office of CAMERA, the 65,000-member,
Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. This op-ed is excerpted from CAMERA’s backgrounder on al-Sabireen, which can be found here.