Shiite Iran has long backed Hamas, the Sunni-Muslim terrorist group ruling the Gaza Strip. But the much smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), another U.S.-designated terrorist organization, may be closer to Tehran’s heart. PIJ’s capabilities and impact exceed the group’s size. For example, as detailed below, Islamic Jihad reportedly paid the expense of many of Fatah’s terrorist activities during the Second Intifada (2000-2005). Like Hamas, PIJ rejects the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. And both have had too-little-reported American connections.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (Al-Jihad Al-Islami fi Filastin) has its origins in the 1970s when Palestinian students studying in Cairo, Egypt were inspired by Iran’s 1979 revolution which saw Islamists take power. PIJ has conducted operations under aliases such as Islamic Vanguard, Revolutionary Islamic Current and Independents Movement (Hamas vs. Fatah, Jonathan Schanzer, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pg. 22). The founder of PIJ was Fathi Shiqaqi. Shiqaqi, born in 1951 in what was then the Egyptian-ruled Gaza Strip, studied Mathematics at Birzeit University before moving to Egypt to study medicine. In Egypt, Shiqaqi was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood (“Fathi Shiqaqi,” Jewish Virtual Library).
According to terror analyst Matthew Levitt, Shiqaqi was a “former leftist who grew disillusioned with the secular Palestinian movements and joined the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. By the mid-1970s, he had rejected the teachings of the Brotherhood, which held that the destruction of Israel must await an ‘internal jihad’ to reform and unify the Islamic world, and embraced the 1979 revolution in Iran as a model of action” (Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, Yale University Press, 2006, pg. 25).
Shiqaqi was expelled from Egypt following the assassination of that country’s president, Anwar Sadat, by Islamist terrorists in 1981. Shortly thereafter, Shiqaqi arrived in the Gaza Strip and—along with Abd Al Aziz Awda (also known as Sheikh Odeh)—formed Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Like Shiqaqi, Awda was born in the Egyptian-ruled Gaza Strip and educated in Cairo. According to the FBI—which lists him under its “Most Wanted Terrorists”—Awda worked as a university lecturer and an imam at a mosque in the Strip.
The Iran-Iraq War may have provided an incentive for Iranian support for PIJ: with rivalry between the two countries increasing and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Iran may have supported PIJ to counterbalance Iraq (Hamas, pg. 26). Shiqaqi—flush with money from the mullahs—created PIJ’s “military wing,” the Jerusalem Brigades (Saraya al-Quds) in the early 1980s.
By the mid-1980s, the Jerusalem Brigades were carrying out terror attacks in Israel. In one example, in October 1986, PIJ members threw hand grenades at an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) induction ceremony near the Western Wall in Jerusalem—wounding 70 and murdering the father of a solider.
In 1986, Shiqaqi was imprisoned by Israeli authorities for smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip. After his release in 1988, Shiqaqi was deported to Lebanon. While he was in Lebanon, PIJ began a relationship with Hezbollah (the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God”) and received training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In 1989, PIJ established its headquarters in Damascus, Syria. Although the terror group maintains this base of operations in Syria, a small contingent of PIJ operatives have remained in Lebanon (“Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Council on Foreign Relations).
Jonathan Schanzer, a terror analyst and vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, noted:
“Heading into the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, later that year, many Palestinians viewed PIJ as the most prominent Islamist guerilla movement in the territories. Indeed, when the Palestinian intifada erupted in December 1987, PIJ was given credit for infusing it with a distinct Islamist character. For this very reason, IDF operations systematically weakened PIJ within several months. The intifada’s Islamist overtones had thoroughly alarmed the Israelis, prompting them to deport several PIJ leaders and to assassinate others. Additionally, Israel made sweeping arrests of suspected lower-ranking members throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Hamas vs. Fatah, pg. 22).”
After the 1993 Oslo accords, PIJ joined Hamas and other factions opposed to any talks with Israeli officials. Together they formed the Alliance of Palestinian Forces (APF). Levitt noted that from their Damascus headquarters, APF “at the behest of Iran and facilitation of Hezbollah…coordinated…terrorist activities” against Israel (Hamas, pg. 26).
In October 1995, Fathi Shiqaqi was assassinated in Malta—reportedly by Israeli agents. Although PIJ continued to commit terror attacks in early 1996, assaults and PIJ activity dropped off noticeably until the second intifada during which PIJ reappeared reinvigorated. Levitt pointed out:
“A critical factor in the group’s revival was a dramatic increase in Iranian funding. According to American officials, Tehran began paying Islamic Jihad millions of dollars in cash bonuses for each attack against Israel. This was necessary in large part because Islamic Jihad lacked the kind of grassroots institutions established by Hamas through which it could launder and transfer significant amounts of funds raised abroad to operatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Hamas, pg. 28).”
Shiqaqi was succeeded by Ramadan Abdallah Shallah, who currently heads the organization. His official title is secretary-general. Shallah was born in 1958 in the Egyptian-ruled Gaza Strip. He received a PhD in economics from the University of Durham, England in 1990.
According to the Countering Extremism Project (CEP), a non-profit organization that focuses on terror networks:
“In the early 1990s Shallah taught at the University of South Florida (USF), but returned to Gaza in 1995. He became PIJ’s secretary-general later that year after the death of his predecessor, Fathi Shaqaqi. In 2003, a U.S. federal grand jury accused Shallah of providing material support to PIJ, conspiracy to kill and maim persons abroad, racketeering, immigration fraud, perjury, extortion and obstruction of justice (“Ramadan Abdullah Shallah”).”
The U.S. Department of Treasury termed Shallah a Specially Designated Terrorist on Nov. 2, 1995. On Feb. 24, 2006, the FBI listed him as one of its most wanted terrorists and offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his capture or conviction.
PIJ attacks since the end of the second intifada in 2005 have largely consisted of rocket strikes aimed at southern Israeli cities. PIJ also has targeted IDF military patrols along the Israel-Gaza boundary with explosive devices (“Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Jewish Virtual Library).
Although PIJ is a Sunni Muslim terror group, it takes much of its inspiration from the Islamic Republic of Iran—a totalitarian Shiite theocracy.
PIJ opposes the existence of the state of Israel and seeks to create an Islamic regime in “all of historic Palestine” according to a 2008 U.S. State Department report. Indeed, PIJ chief Shallah stated in October 2009: “We do not recognize Israel as a legitimate entity within this region and see it as an invading body that was cultivated in this area as a representative of Western interests and colonial powers.”
Unlike Hamas and Fatah, two fellow Palestinian Arab political movements, PIJ does not participate in politics. According to Jihad Intel, a project of Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum, PIJ sees “violence as the only means of attaining a Palestinian state (“Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Jihad Intel).”
A 2006 U.S. State Department report noted that PIJ targets civilian and military personnel, including through the use of suicide bombings.
Like Hamas and Fatah, PIJ indoctrinates Palestinian Arab youth in a culture of Jew-hatred and glorification of anti-Jewish violence (see for example, “Kindergarten party held by a PIJ-affiliated NGO demonstrates the indoctrination of Gazan children with violence and hatred for Israel,” June, 5, 2016, Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center).
Ramadan Abdullah Shallah has praised terror attacks and defended the group’s use of suicide bombings. For example, he has exhorted, “No one has the right to object to us giving away our souls and turning them into human bombs for a cause we consider more important and sacred than our lives.”
Like other Islamist terror groups, PIJ is also anti-Western and propagates conspiracy theories. Shallah has claimed that “the U.S. and Israel heighten Iranophobia to gain the support of Arab regimes, which fear Iran.” PIJ has threatened to attack the U.S. embassy in Israel if it is relocated to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv
Although PIJ does not have a social and political network to rival Hamas, the terror group does have some organizations that help build grassroots and financial support. Among these are the al-Ansar Charity Association and the al-Ihsan Society (also known as the Birr Elehssan Society) in Gaza (Hamas, pg. 27).
On Oct. 8 1997, the U.S. State Department designated PIJ a terrorist organization.
PIJ’s symbol features the dome of the al-Aqsa mosque in the center with two rifles extending behind it. Between the rifles, in Arabic is the phrase “God is the greatest.” Two red fists lie beneath the mosque. A map of Israel and the Gaza Strip and West Bank—in green, a common color in Islam—is superimposed over the fists and the mosque. On the perimeter of the symbol, in Arabic, is the Koranic verse: “And those who strive in Our (cause)—We will certainly guide them to our Paths, For verify Allah is with those who do right.”
Headbands, posters and other PIJ paraphernalia are often in the colors of black and gold.
Area of Operations
In addition to its base in Damascus, PIJ has offices in Beirut, Tehran and Khartoum. PIJ maintains a presence in the Gaza Strip, mainly in the Islamic University. However, due to its lack of a political and social infrastructure, PIJ has been unable to compete with Hamas in terms of size or influence (“Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Jewish Virtual Library).
In contrast to its sometime rival Hamas, the “Islamic Jihad presence abroad has always been concentrated in Syria and Syrian-occupied Lebanon.”
This is not to say, however, that PIJ doesn’t have a terror network that extends beyond the Middle East.
PIJ’s Network in the United States
PIJ’s network in the United States has included at times, in addition to its current leader, several financiers and supporters and even a think tank.
Khalil Shiqaqi, the brother of Fathi Shiqaqi, studied for his PhD at Columbia University in New York from 1980-1985. According to a profile by the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), a non-profit organization that researches terrorist groups, Shiqaqi subsequently taught at Columbia (1985-1986) and at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 1990, he became the director of the newly-created World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), a think tank established by University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian. In 1991, Shiqaqi became a professor at the University of South Florida, where, as noted above, PIJ’s current leader, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, also taught. In 1992, Shiqaqi sought to teach at the An-Najjah University in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) but was denied entry by Israeli authorities who alleged that he had maintained a relationship with his brother.
IPT reports that following pressure from the U.S. State Department and “strong editorial support by New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis,” Israel granted Shiqaqi entrance into the West Bank. Shiqaqi subsequently set up the Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus. However, a future investigation and indictment would contradict Khalil Shiqaqi’s objections that he was not involved in supporting PIJ.
In February 2003, University of South Florida professor Sami al-Arian was indicted for fundraising for PIJ. WISE was named by federal authorities as one of several organizations connected to al-Arian’s efforts to promote PIJ and its ideology in the United States. On Dec. 6, 2005, Sami al-Arian was acquitted of 8 of the 17 charges against him. Although the jury deadlocked on the remaining charges, the Department of Justice stated that it stood by its evidence against al-Arian and decided that instead of retrying him it would ask the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to commence deportation proceedings.
An editorial by the St. Petersburg Times agreed with decision to deport al-Arian, noting:
“He is not just an innocent academic with unpopular views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as he has so often claimed, or a ‘prisoner of conscience.’ The trial demonstrated that Al-Arian was deeply connected to the PIJ, which is believed responsible for more than 100 deaths in the Middle East. He was described by his own lawyers as a fundraiser for the ‘charitable arm of the PIJ [emphasis added].’ And Al-Arian was not blind to the group’s monstrous tactics, as he was the regular recipient of faxes announcing the group’s suicide bombings. As a legal resident, Al-Arian has abused this nation’s hospitality and engaged in conduct that may warrant his deportation. The trial has laid bare Al-Arian’s involvement in one of the most violent groups in the Middle East. He may now claim an acquittal, but he can never again claim moral innocence.”
Evidence entered into the trial showed that al-Arian provided Khalil Shiqaqi with an invitation to speak at the 1989 Islamic Committee for Palestine Conference (ICP). According a Nov. 17, 1995 affidavit by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) requesting a search of al-Arian’s house and office, there is “probable cause to believe that ICP and WISE were utilized by Sami al-Arian and Ra
madan Abdullah Shallah as ‘fronts’ in order to enable individuals to enter the United States, in an apparent lawful fashion, despite the fact that these individuals were international terrorists.” IPT reports that evidence introduced at al-Arian’s trial “clearly shows that both WISE and ICP served as the command post for the Islamic Jihad within the United States.”
State Support for PIJ
PIJ receives considerable support from Iran. PIJ head Ramadan Abdullah Shallah has praised the Islamic Republic: “In the past two decades, Iran has had an outstanding stance on Palestine, Israel and the resistance.” Shallah seems to have good reason to commend the mullahs. Terror analyst Matthew Levitt noted in a 2002 report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington D.C.-based think tank:
“U.S. officials quoted in The New York Times confirmed that since September 2000, Tehran has employed an incentives system, paying PIJ millions of dollars in cash bonuses for successful attacks. In its West Bank raids, Israel seized a PA General Security report dated June 1, 2000, documenting a meeting at which Iranian ambassador to Syria Sheikh al-Islam demanded of Ramadan Shallah ‘that the PIJ and Hamas carry out terrorist attacks inside Palestine, without assuming responsibility for them.’ In early June 2002, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei met with Shallah on the sidelines of a Tehran conference in support of the Palestinian intifada. According to a June 8 report in al-Sharq al-Awsat (a London-based, Saudi-supported newspaper), Khamenei pledged to fund PIJ directly, separate from its funding of Hizballah, and to increase PIJ funds by 70 percent to cover the expense of recruiting young Palestinians for suicide operations….
“In addition, an August 8, 2002, Middle East Newsline report claimed that Iran has financed terrorist training camps of its own under Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) Gen. Ali Reza Tamzar, the IRGC’s commander in the Beka’a Valley. The IRGC camps instruct Hizballah, Hamas, PIJ, and PFLP-General Command [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a U.S.-designated terror group] terrorists in the use of the short-range Fajr-5 missile and the SA-7 antiaircraft rocket. The IRGC training program (which costs Iran $50 million a year, according to the Daily Star in Beirut) also trains Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists to carry out ‘underwater suicide operations.’ In tandem with their Beka’a Valley training camps, the IRGC and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security also run several terrorist training camps in Iran itself.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York City-based think tank, “Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a small, highly secretive organization that operates underground with less than 1,000 members and limited popular support (“Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” April 10, 2008).” The Jewish Virtual Library, an online database, estimates that PIJ “only enjoys the support of roughly 4-5% of the Palestinian population, mainly because it lacks the institutional network built by Hamas. This fact, however, enables Islamic Jihad to focus on ideological goals and disregard wider political considerations.”
Indeed, despite its small size when compared to other Islamist terror groups, such as Hezbollah or Hamas, PIJ has been able to launch many deadly terror attacks and is capable of force multiplication through working with other terrorist organizations.
Cooperation with other terror groups
PIJ’s cooperation with other Islamist terror groups, including during training, is extensive. As journalists Yaakov Katz and Yoaz Hendel document in their 2012 book Israel vs. Iran, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) holds training camps in Iran in which PIJ terrorists receive instruction alongside members of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban—all U.S. designated terror groups.
PIJ has a history of conducting joint operations with other Palestinian terror groups. Terror analyst Matthew Levitt has noted that among other attacks, PIJ and the Fatah movement’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades cooperated in a joint suicide shooting attack in Afula on Nov. 27, 2001. According to Levitt, “PIJ commander Ali Safuri and al-Abdel Karim Aweis, a senior al-Aqsa commander and former Palestinian General Intelligence officer, planned the attack together.” Other joint PIJ-Fatah terror attacks have occurred, particularly during the second intifada (2000-2005). PIJ and Fatah cooperated on a suicide attack at the central bus station in Tel Aviv on Jan. 25, 2002—wounding 23 people.
Documents seized by Israel during the second intifada revealed that PIJ, Hamas and members of Fatah’s Tanzim faction “had established a joint framework for patrolling the Jenin refugee camp, including a ‘combined force’ and a ‘joint operations room.’” Indeed, cooperation between PIJ and Fatah was particularly extensive during the second intifada: Fatah bombmakers like Mutasen Hasan “prepared explosive vests for PIJ. Israeli-seized Palestinian Authority (PA) General Intelligence documents also indicate that “the Islamic Jihad pays the expense of most of the activities that Fatah” carried out during the second intifada. (“Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Getting By with a Little Help From Its Friends,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Sept. 3, 2002)
Relationship with Hamas
PIJ is both a rival—and a frequent collaborator—with Hamas. As Matthew Levitt has noted:
“Islamic Jihad and Hamas were fierce rivals in the late 1980s and early 1990s, largely a result of ideological differences relating to Islamic Jihad’s affinity for—and Hamas’ rejection of—Iranian Khomeinism and the principle of waliyat al-faqih, that is, rule by the jurisprudent (entrusting governance to clerics). Moreover, while both groups grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad marginalized the role of social activity in favor of militant activity, while Hams gave prominence to social welfare activity and proselytizing (dawa)… (Hamas, pg. 26).”
Tensions between the two groups again emerged in 1994 and 1995 when PIJ briefly attempted to establish a dawa social welfare network to compete with Hamas.
According to Levitt, another source of tension lies with “the intimacy of Islamic Jihad’s relationship with Shi’a Iran—especially during the rare cases when Islamic Jihad members converted to Shi’ism.”
Despite their rivalry, PIJ and Hamas have shown an ability to cooperate. As noted above, both terror groups worked together to coordinate and implement attacks throughout the early 1990s and the second intifada (2000-2005).