Melanie Phillips

A major defeat in the war to defend the free world

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.

A major defeat in the war to defend the free world
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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.

It was Hamas which had everything to gain from the ordeal of Alan Johnston, its friend whom the BBC was about to transfer out of Gaza anyway — and its strategy has worked brilliantly. Not only did it open communication with Britain, but the idea of negotiating with Hamas is now gaining traction fast on both sides of the Atlantic.

This agenda is being pushed by organisations such as Conflicts Forum, whose director Alastair Crooke is now a constant media presence. Material posted on the Conflicts Forum website — whose slogan is ‘Listening to Political Islam, Recognising Resistance’ — openly promotes Hamas itself. Thus in June it claimed of the Gaza coup: ‘This is not an Islamic revolution but simply a political party attempting to defend itself against the militia of an unelected warlord backed by foreign powers. Not only is life returning to normal, people are now breathing much easier.’

No mention of the inhuman savagery of Hamas, the way it bound the hands and feet of its opponents and hurled them off the top of tall buildings.

Crooke himself, the former Mid-East adviser to the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Javier Solana, has long been a pivotal figure in the dubious business of treating with Islamic terrorists. The Israelis captured in Gaza a transcript by Hamas of a secret meeting he had in 2002 with its founder, Sheikh Ahme d Yassin. In this transcript — which Crooke has claimed is inaccurate — he drew a distinction between ‘terrorism’ and ‘resistance’, expressed his appreciation of Hamas for its welfare programmes and for being an ‘important political factor’ and said, ‘The main problem is the Israeli occupation.’

Behind Crooke lies in turn a swelling chorus, led by UK and US former intelligence officers, urging the West to ‘engage’ with the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is one branch) on the basis that since they are not all committed to violence they are a potential ally against al-Qa’eda.

This is absurd. While there are undoubt-edly differences between them, the Islamists form an unbroken continuum of fanatical religious war against the West. Their strategy involves both terrorism and non-violent cultural aggression — a fact the establishment, obsessed by its belief in ‘divide and rule’, refuses to grasp.

Moreover, the idea that the West has not ‘engaged’ with Hamas is a fantasy. The International Crisis Group reports that since 1991 there have been repeated unofficial contacts with Hamas by the EU and even the US. Yet these have failed to modify Hamas’s core aims of annihilating Israel and Islamising the region.

The real purpose behind bringing Hamas in from the cold lies in a fundamental shift in global strategy. In the US, gripped by despair over Iraq, ‘realist’ isolationism and appeasement are on the rise.

Secular Arab states, horrified by the collapse of nerve in the one power which might save them from the Islamists, are now looking for deals with radical Sunnis to counter the greater threat of Shiite Iran. The emerging EU/American strategy is to help that process, gambling that the Sunni Islamists will fight the Shiites rather than topple secular Arab governments. The wooing of Sunni Hamas is the West’s opening gambit.

This strategy is lethally ill-judged. It fails to recognise that, despite all the splits between Islamist factions, they are united by a common project of Islamising the world. The most likely outcome of this suicidal Western approach will be the further radicalisation of Arab and Muslim society, the toppling by Islamists of secular Arab regimes and a strengthening of the global jihad. This most dangerous development has been given an enormous boost by the way the Johnston kidnap has been manipulated — no small thanks to the BBC itself.

Since Johnston’s release, the BBC seems to have turned itself into a vehicle for Hamas propaganda. Alastair Crooke has been given airtime granted to no other lobbyist, in interviews and one-off programmes giving him unprecedented opportunity to push his views.

This is the BBC whose other Gaza reporter Fayed abu Shamala reportedly told a Hamas rally in 2001 that the BBC was

‘waging the campaign of resistance/terror against Israel shoulder-to-shoulder together with the Palestinian people’; and whose Middle East bureau editor, Simon Wilson, has acknowledged that he met Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus to discuss Johnston’s fate — meetings about which the Foreign Office was closely consulted.

Now that same BBC, along with a shadowy intelligence establishment and panicky politicians, is promoting ‘engagement’ with Hamas. But this is a terrorist outfit committed to the destruction of Israel and the Islamisation of the West. The Johnston kidnap represents a turning point in the war to defend the free world. It is not a turn in the direction of victory.

Melanie Phillips is a Daily Mail columnist.