Hamas’ Global footprint
Jul 4, 2019 | Oved Lobel
While Hamas is often discussed solely in the context of its rule over the Gaza strip, it retains a wider regional and even global presence. This is especially pronounced in countries ruled by regimes affiliated with or sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood – of which Hamas remains a component despite occasional claims to the contrary – such as Turkey, Malaysia, Tunisia, Qatar and until recently Sudan. However, it also reportedly maintains operatives in South America and Lebanon, where its Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) allies facilitate funding, arming, training, and recruitment for the organisation.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Hamas’ international fundraising presence was far more expansive, but reports suggest this has been substantially if not entirely curtailed in North America and Europe. In the last decade. Hamas has also lost its allies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates due to sea changes in regional politics.
Hamas in the Middle East and Africa
Sudan was the nerve centre of Hamas activity in Africa until late 2014, when Israeli airstrikes and international isolation caused then-ruler Omar al-Bashir to abandon his alliance with Iran and instead join the Saudi-led alliance against Iran in Yemen. As AIJAC wrote recently:
The Sudan pipeline for Iranian weapons shipments to Gaza led to an Israeli strike on a shipment in Khartoum in 2012 and the 2014 interception in the Red Sea of the KLOS-C, an Iranian ship bound for Sudan, and carrying long-range missiles due to be shipped to Gaza via Port Sudan. However, by 2014, Sudan’s isolation and catastrophic economic situation forced it to turn to Iran’s enemies and the United States. It joined the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, providing a considerable portion of the ground troops fighting the IRGC-backed Houthis, and in early 2016, Bashir formally severed ties with Iran. To further sweeten the deal, the Obama administration temporarily lifted some of the sanctions on Sudan in 2017, after which the Trump Administration made the Obama move permanent, forcing the Sudanese away from Iran and, allegedly, North Korea.
Bashir’s removal from power, reportedly supported by Saudi Arabia and especially the United Arab Emirates who remained concerned about his Islamist leanings and friendly relations with Turkey and Qatar, has likely shut Hamas out of the country for good barring a collapse of the new regime.
But Hamas reportedly has headquarters in Algeria, as well, at least since 2016. How extensive their operations are in Algeria is unclear, although it was reported that they were attempting to expand their presence in the country following their alleged expulsion from Qatar in 2017, under pressure from Washington. In July 2018, two Palestinian scientists were found dead in Algeria, potentially part of a spate of assassinations of Hamas engineers, allegedly by Mossad, across the globe.
In December 2016, aviation engineer and former Tunisair pilot Mohammed Zawahri was assassinated in Tunisia, ostensibly due to his work on drones for Hamas. Some reports indicated he was only visiting from Lebanon, while others claimed he had returned from Syria in 2011 after the previous regime was overthrown and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. While any conclusions must remain speculative, it seems very unlikely that Zawahri was the only high-level Hamas operative in Tunisia. Given the presence in the Tunis government of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Ennahda party over recent years, it seems likely the organisation has a significant presence in the country, as it does under other Islamist governments.
South Africa has also grown very close to the terrorist group, and although there have yet to be reports of Hamas recruiting or training in the country, there is certainly fertile ground to do so. Hamas has also been working to establish closer ties with Mauritania and Morocco, though there’s no evidence yet it has operatives based in either country.
Hamas’ most significant base of operations in the region outside of Gaza is Turkey, whose Islamist leadership has been sympathetic to the terrorist group since the early 2000s. According to the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, Hamas runs military operations in the West Bank as well as international operatives out of its offices in Istanbul, which also facilitates fundraising directly and indirectly for the group. During a massive increase in rocket attacks from Gaza in May, Israel bombed a building housing Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, from which they claimed Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were running operations. It is possible the news agency functioned as a communications conduit for Hamas in Gaza and the Turkish government, and it’s certainly no coincidence that the Turkish state had a presence in a building used by Hamas to coordinate attacks.
Syria was once the primary base of operations for Hamas, although they were expelled after they refused to support Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on protests against him, which in turn damaged their relations with Iran and Hezbollah. These have been restored, but the current relationship between the Assad regime and Hamas is unclear. Iran has been working to reconcile the two parties and restore Syria’s support for the group, although efforts to date have reportedly been unsuccessful. Hamas also supported the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthis.
Other senior officials are reportedly based in Lebanon, where they liaise with Hezbollah and the IRGC, who are allegedly helping them set up a potential second front against Israel in Lebanon in the event of another war. The most senior player in Hamas’ connection to Iran is Saleh al-Arouri, who was based in Turkey until recently and who allegedly continues to oversee Hamas’ Istanbul office.
In April 2018, Hamas engineer Fadi al-Batash was assassinated in Malaysia. He was reportedly working on Hamas’ drone project like Zawahri, as well as on improving the accuracy of Hamas rockets.
Since at least 2012, Malaysia has been a centre for Hamas recruitment and military training. According to Shin Bet, Hamas recruits primarily from the scores of West Bank Palestinian students studying abroad in the country. Al-Batash, who was allegedly being run by the Istanbul office, was also coordinating efforts to recruit Palestinian scientists and academics in Indonesia, a program ultimately overseen by Hamas’ senior official abroad, Maher Salah. This is not surprising, as Western intelligence officials claim that Malaysia has become the base of Iranian activity in Southeast Asia.
Hamas also allegedly has a base of operations in South America, particularly Venezuela, having been part of the newly reinstated “Aeroterror” scheme between Venezuela and Iran to bring IRGC operatives and their proxies into the country for training, recruitment and criminal activity to help fund their activities in the Middle East. Although rarely mentioned in this context, it’s likely Hamas sees some profit from these criminal enterprises, just as Hezbollah does.
The organisation also has at the very least a fundraising presence in Europe, particularly Germany, where its hundreds of supporters and front organisations are kept under watch.
To date, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency seems to have dealt effectively with Hamas’ efforts abroad. Hamas has been focused solely on attacking Israel, using its transnational presence to improve these efforts. This week, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen announced that Hamas has been trying to develop and acquire more advanced weapons via research departments all over the world under the auspices of what Hamas calls “The Construction Department”. However, with its links to broader IRGC and Hezbollah networks across the world, Hamas could very well decide to attack Israeli or Jewish targets outside Israel as well, given that it has the necessary international infrastructure to do so.