Islamic Jihad (IJ), also known as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (in Arabic, Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami al-Filastini), is a terrorist organization whose objectives include the destruction of Israel (“the full liberation of the Palestinian lands”); the elimination of all Western influences in the Middle East by means of an armed and uncompromising jihad, or holy war; and the convergence of all Arab and Muslim countries into a single great Islamic state. Based in Damascus and supported financially by Syria and Iran, IJ also maintains offices in Beirut, Tehran and Khartoum. It is most influential in the West Bank (especially in Hebron and Jenin) and the Gaza Strip, where it carries out the majority of its activities. It does not, however, possess the political or social importance of Hamas. IJ has also staged terrorist attacks in Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt.
Islamic Jihad’s organizational emblem depicts a map of the land to which it lays claim (i.e., present-day Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip) superimposed on the images of the Dome of the Rock (the seventh-century landmark believed by Muslims to be the spot from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven), two fists, and two rifles.
Islamic Jihad was established in 1979 by three radical Palestinian students, Fathi Shikaki, Abdul Aziz Odeh, and Bashir Moussa, who were studying in Egypt. They formed the group after deciding that the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip was too moderate for their political tastes. In 1981 the Egyptian government expelled Islamic Jihad from the country when it learned that the organization was closely linked to the assassins of President Anwar Sadat. At that point, IJ relocated to the Gaza Strip, where it initiated a new round of terrorist activities.
In 1988, Shikaki and Odeh were banished from Gaza and went to Lebanon. Once there, Shikaki reorganized and strengthened his group’s ties with Hezbollah. IJ continued its terror campaign, attacking a tour bus in Egypt in 1990, killing 11 people, including 9 Israelis.
In 1993, an Islamic Jihad member successfully carried out a major attack on American soil: Ramzi Yousef, along with a cell of Islamic Group terrorists (under the leadership of Omar Abdel Rahman) drove a truck filled with explosives into a parking garage of the World Trade Center and detonated it. Six people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. Yousef was later apprehended in Pakistan and brought back to the United States for prosecution. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Shortly after the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Islamic Jihad formed an alliance of sorts with Hamas, and the two groups, which had previously been rivals, now began coordinating some of their suicide attacks against Israeli targets.
In October 1995, Fathi Shikaki was killed in Malta, allegedly by Israeli agents. He was replaced by Ramadan Abdallah Shallah, a Palestinian who had previously lived in the United States, where he had co-founded — along with Sami Al-Arian, Mazen al Najjar, and Khalil Shikaki — the World Islam Study Enterprise. Though Shallah’s lack of charisma and organizational skills diminished Islamic Jihad’s reputation among other terrorist groups in the region, the change in leadership did not put an end to IJ’s terror campaign. In March 1996, for instance, the organization claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Tel Aviv that killed 20 people and wounded more than 75.
Since September 2000, when the Second Intifada was launched against Israel, Islamic Jihad has staged many suicide attacks inside the Jewish state, including 15 car bombings that killed 25 and wounded close to 400 between the years 2000 and 2006.
Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Islamic Jihad announced that it was backing Saddam Hussein — in reciprocity for Saddam’s support for Palestinian terrorists in Israel (he had given more than $35 million in cash awards to the families of suicide bombers who had attacked Israeli targets — mostly civilians). Islamic Jihad showed Saddam its appreciation by staging a March 30, 2003 suicide bombing at a crowded pedestrian mall in the Israeli costal town of Netanya, and proclaiming the act “a gift to the heroic people of Iraq.”
In 2003 Islamic Jihad announced that it was sending suicide bombers to Iraq to help fight what it called the “American invasion” there. According to Nafez Azzam, the IJ leader in Gaza and the West Bank, “The Islamic Jihad movement is interested in intensifying attacks in this phase to make it clear to Arabs, Muslims, and the whole world that what is going on here in Palestine is the same as what is happening in Iraq.”
After Israel withdrew its military presence and all its settlements from Gaza in 2005, Islamic Jihad promptly initiated a campaign of near-daily rocket barrages sprayed randomly into southern Israeli border communities, in hopes of drawing blood somewhere. The rockets are imprecise and thus are designed only for terrorist purposes; they could, and do, land anywhere — in a field, in a school, in a hospital, in a home. As of late 2007, Islamic Jihad had fired more than 2,000 of these rockets into Israel.
On December 17, 2007, Israeli aircraft killed Islamic Jihad’s top commander and nine of his fellow terrorists in a Gaza attack. In response, all of Gaza City’s mosques played verses from the Koran over loudspeakers, in honor of the fallen jihadists. Thousands of Gazans took part in funeral processions that featured Islamic Jihad members firing long barrages of bullets into the air and vowing that “revenge is coming soon.” Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Hamza said, “The blood of our comrades will be the fuel for the rockets that will bring death and destruction to the Zionists.”
Among the more notable Islamic Jihad members of recent times was Sami Al-Arian, who headed the organization’s North American operations while he worked as a professor at the University of South Florida.
In March 2013, Islamic Jihad announced that it had decided, for the first time, to run its own candidates in the elections of the Palestinian National Council, the PLO’s parliament. “Our participation in the National Council elections is conditioned on repairing the PLO, which has been deformed by the Palestinian Authority’s so-called peace process with Israel,” said Islamic Jihad’s Gaza-based leader, Khader Habib. “We consider Oslo as a catastrophe that harmed Palestinians,” he added. “Consequently, we are boycotting all of what it came up with.” In an analysis of Islamic Jihad’s announcement, Al-Monitor.com wrote:
“The decision introduces a change in the radical movement’s approach towards political life. However, Habib said they are still boycotting the parliament — the Palestinian Legislative Council — and presidential elections as they are related to the PA [Palestinian Authority], which was created by the 1993 Oslo Accords and involved mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.”