The deaths of three Palestinian terror suspects who had opened fire on Israeli troops sent to arrest them near Hebron on Tuesday was unfortunately not an altogether rare occurrence.
The decline in successful terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank in recent years has been widely attributed to the effectiveness of Israel’s intelligence and security forces in capturing terrorists before they have a chance of executing deadly attacks. Occasionally, the suspects choose to attempt to kill the soldiers who come to arrest them, with unfortunate but predictable results.
However, the details of these suspects and several of their associates who had been arrested earlier without incident, was very unusual, as analysts noted this marked the first time Salafist Palestinians in the West Bank, allied ideologically with al-Qaeda, have been caught red-handed planning terror attacks.
According to the Times of Israel‘s Avi Issacharoff, West Bank Salafists number in the tens of thousands – the vast majority of them law-abiding and non-militant.
Even so, concern that terrorist cells will emerge from this community had been growing, in light of the preponderance of Salafist militants in places like Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Gaza.
(In Gaza, the tension between Hamas and Salafist militant groups in has led to bloodshed and crackdowns in the past – see here and here – although recently, Hamas has reportedly reconciled with these groups, perhaps in light of Hamas’ troubles with Egypt’s new government.)
While the politically active Salafist group Hizb ut-Tahrir has seen growing influence in the West Bank recently, Israeli officials quoted in reports said that the group has not been connected to any terror attacks and was not involved in this terror cell.
Issacharoff said that, while this was the first Salafist terror cell uncovered in the West Bank, it probably won’t be the last.
It is hard to know which way the members of the Salafist stream will go following Tuesday’s incident. It is possible that they will maintain their civilian character. It is more likely that at least some of them will try to establish a military infrastructure in one form or another in order to carry out attacks.
Meanwhile, although officially the Palestinian Authority reacted with outrage at the IDF’s operation, privately a senior Palestinian official told Israel Hayom that the operation had been coordinated with Palestinian security forces.
Indeed, another Palestinian official confided to the paper that the Salafist cell had been planning to attack Palestinian Authority targets as well as Israeli ones.
Palestinian Authority is reportedly taking the threat of Salafist militarism seriously. Palestinian police have arrested 22 suspected jihadi Salafis in Hebron and the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin in the last three weeks, a Palestinian security official told the Associated Press.
Israel Hayom‘s columnist Dr. Reuven Berko noted that Salafist terrorist cells are considered to be particularly difficult to infiltrate and identify, because Salafis insulate themselves from the greater Palestinian Islamist community that other groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad participate in. Indeed, these other groups are considered “infidels” no less worthy of death than other sectarian targets.
Intercepting a terror cell of this kind must have been doubly challenging: these groups are infamous for zealously compartmentalizing information and employing a complex and rigid personal hierarchy, as well as encrypted communication methods.
Infiltrating the personal network and communication infrastructure of this group’s leadership is a professional feat for the Shin Bet and one deserving praise.
Ha’aretz‘s military analyst Amos Harel confirmed (subscription required) that not a single member of the terror cell had been previously associated with any terror group, or had an arrest record.
The [jailed accomplices], like the… men killed on Tuesday, are in their late twenties and have no previous record of security offenses or membership in a terror organization; nor had they done any time in Israeli prisons.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post‘s Yaakov Lappin reported that it is unclear whether there may be other Salafist cells elsewhere in the West Bank that Israeli intelligence has not detected.
“We don’t know if this is the first among others. It does lead to concerns about the future of this movement in the sector,” Lappin’s source said.