Hamas and ISIS: The Ideological Ties That Bind

CEP Research Analyst


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Following the horrific shooting attack at a Tel Aviv restaurant that killed four Israelis and wounded more than a dozen others in June, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said he was “shocked” by Hamas’s statements praising the attack and promising more. There is nothing shocking about Hamas praising violence. What is actually shocking is that the international community continues to enable Hamas financially, thereby allowing the murderous organization to hold the Palestinian people hostage.

Ban obligingly called on Palestinian leaders to condemn violence and incitement. But while Hamas may have the responsibility for governance in Gaza, it is philosophically and operationally incapable of managing anything except terror. Hamas is predicated on an Islamist ideal of violently replacing Israel with an ultra-conservative sharia-based state, much like other Islamist extremist groups, including ISIS. 

Hamas, of course, is a fraction of the size of ISIS. Nevertheless, the groups share interesting similarities. Most notably, they both trace their ideological roots to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas directly grew out of the Brotherhood, while ISIS sprouted from al-Qaeda, whose founders were heavily influenced by the late Brotherhood ideologue Sayid Qutb’s advocacy of violent jihad in pursuit of an Islamic caliphate. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also belonged to the Brotherhood before moving on to al-Qaeda and more violent activities.

Hamas and ISIS may differ on their end goals, but their strategies are the same: accumulate power—physical and otherwise—through violence and intimidation. This is why reconciliation agreements between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority—which would require Hamas to give up some of its power—have failed.

In addition to their shared ideological roots, Hamas and ISIS have also cooperated operationally, albeit quietly. Though ISIS’s leadership in Syria has publicly questioned Hamas’s religious purity and threatened to overthrow the group, Hamas and Sinai Province, ISIS’s affiliate in Egypt, have quietly been working together behind the scenes against Egypt.

Since the 2013 downfall of its Brotherhood-led government, Egypt has restricted Hamas’s activities inside the country and flooded its underground smuggling tunnels. Egypt also accused Hamas and the Brotherhood of coordinating the June 2015 assassination of Egypt’s chief prosecutor. The Sinai Province terror group, formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, has launched increasingly bloody attacks against the Egyptian government and military.

Earlier in the year, Hamas began holding reconciliation talks with Egypt, promising to increase security along the common border—above ground. Though Hamas’s political wing has promised Egypt that it will coordinate against ISIS, Hamas’s military wing has another agenda. According to Israeli intelligence, the Sinai Province has used Hamas’s tunnels to travel to Gaza for medical treatment and weapons training while also smuggling weapons into Gaza. Hamas has also reportedly used its rudimentary drone capabilities in Egypt to collect intelligence for itself and for the Sinai Province.

Despite these developments, somehow there is still “shock” when Hamas’s leaders act like terrorists. Glaringly, since Hamas’s 2014 war with Israel, more than $1 billion in international aid has flowed into Gaza for reconstruction efforts, which, with a few exceptions, have barely crawled forward. One such exception is the reconstruction of Hamas’s tunnels beneath the Israeli border. Hamas leaders have defiantly boasted that construction of the concrete lined tunnels are proceeding apace. Israeli authorities have discovered a handful of the rebuilt tunnels, prompting a halt to cement transfers into Gaza earlier this year. 

Hamas claims to be in dire financial straits, struggling to pay civil servants. And yet it reportedly spends $25 million annually building its underground tunnels. In June, Hamas imposed new taxes and fees in Gaza, such as a $1,000 licensing fee for restaurants and hotels and higher import fees on cigarettes and cars. According to the Times of Israel, the average Gazan makes less than $200 a month, while Hamas’s political chief Khaled Meshaal is reportedly worth at least $2.5 billion—despite being subject to U.S. financial sanctions.

Money buys more than weapons. It buys loyalty and authority, both of which are vital to Hamas’s grip on power. To wrest Hamas from Gaza, the international community should stop stuffing Hamas’s purse. Aid for Gaza’s reconstruction is necessary to relieve Gazans’ suffering, but Hamas should not be allowed to profit so handsomely from the process. Either the Palestinian Authority has to reassert itself or an international administration should manage Gaza to limit Hamas’s ability to continue to divert international donations.

Both options have their challenges, but the alternative is to allow Hamas to continue its repression of Gaza while promoting its relentless brand of violent extremism. One doesn’t need a crystal ball to glimpse the grim future of the Palestinian people if Hamas rules indefinitely, one only needs to look a short distance north to Syria.