Shortly after the release of Alan Johnston from Gaza the website of Conflicts Forum, a group advocating engagement with Islamists and which is run by the former MI6 officer Alastair Crooke, posted a fascinating transcript. Under the title ‘Hamas briefing’, it was a conversation between Michael Ancram, the former Tory Northern Ireland minister, and Osama Hamdan, a senior representative of Hamas, which took place secretly in Beirut in June while Johnston was still in captivity.
Hamdan suggested Fatah was behind the kidnap — in particular, Fatah’s security minister Mohammed Dahlan — and said it had three times thwarted Hamas attempts to rescue Johnston. ‘The most important thing,’ he said, ‘is that our people know him [Johnston] well, they know him well. I’ve talked yesterday to our [person there in Gaza], he saw him dozens of times, not in public, he visited him in his office ...they respect him.’
Mr Ancram, who says this was his third meeting with Hamas since last autumn, claims he was acting purely from his personal belief in talking to them. He had approached the controversial Crooke to facilitate these meetings simply because he had the necessary contacts in Beirut.
Nevertheless, his encounter with Hamdan has been used by Conflicts Forum to promote the cause of Hamas, which has been enormously boosted by its role in getting Johnston freed.
According to Hamas — an account uncritically swallowed by the Western media — Johnston was kidnapped by a criminal Gaza gang, the Dagmoush family, also known as the Army of Islam, which was said to be at odds with Hamas and to have possible links to al-Qa’eda.
Hamas eventually made a deal with the Army of Islam’s principal protagonist Mumtaz Dagmoush and Johnston was escorted out of captivity by jubilant Hamas officials, with the British Foreign Secretary’s praise ringing in their ears and the Western media now falling over itself to promote their cause.
But this account is highly improbable. The claim that Hamas was unconnected with Johnston’s kidnappers is wrong. The evidence points instead to an elaborate piece of manipulation, with Hamas using the kidnap to open a line of communication with Britain (as its Gaza leader, Ismail Haniyeh, boasted last week).
The government not only sanctioned an informal visit to Britain by a senior Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, but the UK Consul-General in Jerusalem, Richard Makepeace, met Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza to ask for his help in freeing Johnston.
In doing so, the Western embargo on contact with Hamas was broken — an important step in Hamas’s strategy of gaining international legitimacy, and integral to its plan to undermine Mahmoud Abbas, take over the West Bank and further its goal of Islamising the region.
The Hamas claim that Dagmoush conspired with Dahlan and Fatah elements to kidnap Johnston is highly implausible. Instead, it is much more likely that Dagmoush operated with the knowledge and at least tacit approval of Hamas.
To understand how this may have worked requires some grasp of the byzantine Palestinian terror networks, of their tactic of operating through front organisations, and of the fact that they may be feuding and allying with each other simultaneously.
Dagmoush is a commander in a Palestinian umbrella terrorist group called the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), at whose core are Gaza’s criminal clans.
Although its early attacks were sponsored by Yasser Arafat and the ‘Fatah Tanzim’, the PRC has traditionally hired itself out to the highest bidder. After Arafat’s death in 2005 it forged a strategic alliance with Hamas which provides it with funding, training, arms and ammunition. The PRC has often served as a front for Hamas, which has outsourced to it numerous terror operations against both Israel and Fatah. As with the kidnapping of Alan Johnston, these operations have afforded Hamas several levels of plausible deniability.
The PRC was established in 2000 by various ideologues including a terrorist called Abu Samhadana. Its armed wing was behind the October 2003 bombing of an American convoy in Gaza. Before the Israelis killed him last year, Hamas offered Samhadana the position of security minister. After he was killed Dagmoush took over the PRC’s armed wing, rebranded it the ‘Army of Islam’ and identified it with Sunni extremist factions. Last year a PRC leader, Abu Yussuf al Qoqa, admitted that his organisation was ‘fully co-ordinated’ with Hamas, aided it in practical and political matters and identified with its Islamic ideology.
Since 2005 the PRC/Army of Islam has been attacking Fatah on behalf of Hamas. On 7 September 2005, under the leadership of Dagmoush — with assistance from senior Hamas operatives — the PRC murdered Moussa Arafat, Fatah’s former commander of military intelligence in Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas’s special adviser.
When al Qoqa was killed last year, the PRC blamed Fatah and Dahlan. Last year, it announced the establishment of a special unit to assassinate Dahlan; and recently Dagmoush claimed that he and Hamas had planned to assassinate Dahlan on at least five occasions.
The PRC, Army of Islam and Hamas also acted together in kidnapping the Fox News television crew last year and the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has now been handed over to the sole keeping of Hamas.
Since the PRC has acted as Hamas’s hit-squad against Fatah and Dahlan, Dagmoush would hardly have kidnapped Johnston at their behest. That event seems instead to be but the most spectacular in the series of co-ordinated PRC/Hamas operations carried out under the aegis of the Army of Islam.
A Hamas spokesman, Ayman Taha, has acknowledged its past co-operation with the Army of Islam, but claims that ended after Shalit’s kidnapping. There are certainly tensions between them — Dagmoush himself has claimed that Hamas failed to deliver on its promises to him.But since Johnston was so close to Hamas it is naive to think that Dagmoush would have kidnapped him without receiving at least tacit approval from his powerful patron. And although Hamas said immediately it knew who was holding him, it did nothing for many weeks — although its closeness to the Army of Islam enabled it to stop them killing him.
Read the rest at the Spectator... or at Melanie Phillips' blog