A new Iranian-backed terror group is making inroads in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, where it operates underground with the potential capacity to deliver devastating attacks to Israel, according to regional experts who have been investigating the organization’s rise.
The group, which goes by the name Harakat al-Sabireen, was established around May 2014 but has begun in recent months to boost its public profile on social media and brag about its plots to wage jihad against Israel, according to information gathered by regional analysts and provided to the Washington Free Beacon.
Recent Stories in National Security
Al-Sabireen is believed to receive $10 million a year from Iran via funds that are smuggled through a large network of tunnels built by terrorists to facilitate illicit travel beneath the Gaza Strip, according to estimates disseminated in the Arab language press.
Like Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded terror group that controls territory along Israel’s northern border, al-Sabireen is being used by the Islamic Republic to indirectly wage war on the Jewish state and foster unrest in the Palestinian territories, according to experts, who view the group’s rise as a sign that Iran is not interested in scaling down its global terror network following the recent implementation of the nuclear agreement.
A State Department official who was not authorized to speak on record said that officials are aware of al-Sabireen and its activities. However, the group has not been officially designated as a foreign terrorist organization, though it is possible this could occur in the future.
Al-Sabireen says it has established an armed wing with militants in Jerusalem and the West Bank, according to a recent interview with the Palestinian news agency Ma’an.
"Given the tense relationship between Tehran and Hamas the past few years, it makes sense that Iran would look to form another proxy in Gaza," Grant Rumley, a Middle East analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. "However, Sabireen’s entire model of expansion hinges on its ability to present itself as a Palestinian, non-sectarian movement."
Like Hezbollah, al-Sabireen’s official logo closely resembles that of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is responsible for giving orders to these types of terror groups.
The group’s charter condones violent jihad and promotes attacks on "the racist Zionist body" and "America the great Satan," according to a copy published by the group on its official Arabic-language website.
Al-Sabireen has taken to its website and Facebook page in recent months to praise operatives who have been killed while conducting reconnaissance missions on the group’s behalf.
In one posting from late October, the group celebrated the death of one operative who was killed "after direct targeting from the Zionist forces while he was leading a monitoring and reconnaissance team."
Mourners raised flags during a funeral ceremony for this individual from a variety of Palestinian political groups, including Fatah, which is largely viewed by Western governments as a moderate voice, according to photographs posted by al-Sabireen on its Facebook page.
It also has been plucking recruits from rival terrorist groups, according to Rumley.
"It’s unclear exactly what Sabireen’s operational capabilities are right now, but we know that they’ve pulled recruits from a more established terror group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and that they’ve lost at least two fighters in two separate Israeli strikes, so they’re on Israel’s radar," Rumley said.
Al-Sabireen has been present at pro-Hezbollah rallies in Gaza that were also attended by leading Hamas officials.
While not much is known about the group’s composition, it appears to have two main leaders, one an operational leader and another who provides intellectual guidance.
Hisham Salem, the terror group’s top leader, formerly served as a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a State Department-designated terror organization, according to information provided by regional analysts. Salem, who is in his early 50s, was raised in the Gaza Strip and began referring to himself as al-Sabireen’s leader in 2014.
Salem claimed in a recent interview with the Palestinian press that armed members of the group are currently in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
"We have an armed branch whose goal it is to wage war on the Israeli occupation everywhere," Salem was quoted as saying. "Within this framework we have members in the West Bank and Jerusalem who will soon receive financial and military support from us."
A recent propaganda video produced by the organization and posted to YouTube shows soldiers marching through Gaza with AK-47s.
Al-Sabireen’s second in command, Mohammad Abu Nadi, frequently writes on al-Sabireen’s official website and praises Palestine as integral to the Arab world.
Al-Sabireen has taken a hardline stance against the United States, claiming in September on its Facebook page that the United States is responsible for "producing terrorists."
The group’s Facebook page remains active with near-daily postings despite attempts by Facebook to shut it down.
While al-Sabireen has faced difficulty in expanding its base in Gaza, where the Hamas-controlled government cracks down on rival terror groups, it has been able to gain a foothold in the West Bank, where it can directly challenge both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.