Established in 2000 as an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (AAMB) derive their name from the Al-Aqsa Mosque—located atop the contested Jerusalem holy site known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount. Arabs refer to the violent uprising that began in September 2000 after a controversial visit to that site by Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon, as the Al-Aqsa Intifada. AAMB played a major role in leading that uprising.
From its inception, AAMB committed itself to the task of helping to establish a Palestinian state through armed force. Though the Brigades initially said they would target only Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as Israeli soldiers, in early 2002 they launched a spate of attacks against civilians inside Israel. This caused the U.S. State Department to add AAMB to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, AAMB adheres to an ideology rooted in secular Palestinian nationalism, not political Islam. But its tactics—which include shootings, suicide operations, rocket and mortar attacks, and the execution of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel—mirror those of the other organizations. In 2002, AAMB became the first Palestinian terror group to use a female suicide bomber for one of its operations. To view a list of some of AAMB's more noteworthy acts of terrorism in recent years, click here.
AAMB is a decentralized organization consisting of numerous localized, autonomous militias that generally act independently of one another, though all are united by a common allegiance to Fatah. Many of these militias are named in honor of recently killed Palestinian terrorists.
In the Brigades' earliest days, Palestinian Authority (PA) president Yasser Arafat characterized them as branches of a “rogue militia” over which he had no control. His claim was proven false, however, when IDF soldiers, in a 2002 raid on Arafat's headquarters, seized documents showing that AAMB members were actually on the PA payroll—their activities underwritten and fully countenanced by Arafat. The documents showed, for example, that in one instance alone Arafat had given the group $20,000. A November 2003 BBC investigation revealed that Fatah was sending as much as $50,000 per month directly to AAMB.
In moments of candor, AAMB members have occasionally ackowledged their ties to Fatah. In March 2002, the Brigades' leader in Tulkarm toldUSA Today: “The truth is, we are Fatah.... We are the armed wing of the organization. We receive our instructions from Fatah. Our commander is Yasser Arafat himself.” On another occasion, PA minister Abd al-Fattah al-Hamayel conceded that Fatah supported the Brigades financially. Arafat, for his part, referred to AAMB's cadres as his “children.”
Arafat often used the Brigades to undermine Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. For instance, after the Jenin-based AAMB commander Zakaraya al-Zubaydi had flagrantly violated a cease-fire with Israel in June 2003, Arafat publicly issued an order calling for the arrest of Zubaydi and his accomplices. But in private, the Palestinian leader authorized a $10,000 payment to them. Arafat's collaboration with AAMB was further evidenced when he dispatched a cadre of masked AAMB gunmen to riddle with bullets the home of Palestinian reformer Nabil Amr, after the latter had openly criticized the widespread corruption of Palestinian ministries.
Over the years, AAMB members have often clashed with Hamas operatives in Gaza. In 2004 the two groups agreed to a unilateral ceasefire, but the Brigades, resentful of Hamas's political influence, resumed their attacks on Hamas after the latter emerged victorious in the 2006 parliamentary elections. These attacks escalated into a full-blown civil war that left Hamas firmly in control of Gaza, and Fatah pre-eminent in the West Bank.
In November 2005, AAMB published a leaflet endorsing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call “to wipe Israel off [the] world map.” Expressing its hope that “the fictitious Zionist state” would soon “disappear with the help of Allah,” the leaflet asserted that any “acknowledgement of the State of Israel, the state that was established on Palestinian land, constitutes contempt [for] the Palestinian people, who sacrifice their blood every day for the sake of freeing Palestine and Jerusalem.”
In June 2006, AAMB announced that it had succeeded in manufacturing “over 20 different types of biological and chemical weapons,” and that it would not hesitate to use them against Israel in “open warfare without limits.”
In April 2007, Abu Ahmed, the northern Gaza leader of AAMB, proudly acknowledged his organization's “warm relations with Hezbollah,” which he said was providing the Brigades with vital “training and information.”
Three months later, the Israeli government and the PA reached an agreement that included amnesty for 178 AAMB members on the condition that they discontinue all attacks against Israel and join the Jewish State in its effort to neutralize Hamas in the Gaza Strip. A number of the newly released brigadiers failed to comply with those terms.
In May 2011, shortly after it was announced that U.S. Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, AAMB released a statement calling bin Laden's death a “catastrophe” that had been carried out “in a treacherous manner” by “gangs of the heretics.” Moreover, the Brigades called for a continuation of the Islamic jihad by “supplying an abundance of new blood into the arteries of the resistance”—for the purpose of “restoring the glory of Islam and the flag of Allah's oneness.”
One of AAMB's most influential leaders is Marwan Barghouti, a convicted terrorist and multiple murderer who is currently serving five consecutive life terms in an Israel prison.