By Ian Bush
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Israel blames Hamas for more than 60 kidnappings over the past two years, including the abduction of three Israeli teens, whose murders — along with the revenge killing of a Palestinian teen — sparked the current chaos (see related story). The plots are thought to be the brainchild of a senior Hamas official whose rise can be linked, in part, back to a meeting in Philadelphia more than 20 years ago.
In October 1993, the US government hadn’t yet designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.
“This meeting at the Marriott Courtyard on Bartram Avenue near the airport involved Hamas activists and leaders here in the US,” explains Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It was basically the Hamas leadership in the US trying to come to terms with what was for them a tremendous setback — the announcement of the Oslo Accords, the secret negotiations intended to lead within a few short years to a two-state solution. This was anathema to Hamas, of course, and its leadership in North America.”
It’s unclear why Philadelphia was picked as the conference site — perhaps it was simply a convenient location.
“Their goal wasn’t to carry out attacks in the US,” says Levitt, the author of ‘Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad.’ “Instead, it was to create an environment in which there’d be more sympathy for Hamas, and to find ways to support the jihad that Hamas was fighting on the ground in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel at the time.”
What the 20 people in attendance didn’t know was that the FBI had learned about the meeting and had bugged the hotel.
“Back then, operational security wasn’t that great,” Levitt says. “They kept saying, ‘no one should say the word Hamas, lest authorities are listening in,’ so they decided instead to refer to Hamas as ‘Samah’ — Hamas spelled backwards. Not the most advanced cryptology. It became a real goldmine for US intelligence.”
The feds heard Hamas plan to funnel cash from this country to fund attacks against Israel. (More than a decade later, in the late 2000s, two of the men at the meeting — Muhammad Salah of Illinois and Abdelhaleem Ashqar of Virginia — were tried on terror-related charges, but a jury convicted them only on lesser offenses. Levitt explains: “The reason Salah was acquitted on the most serious charges was because the most damning material — involving his trips to West Bank — pre-dated the designation of Hamas as a terrorist group.”)
One of the speakers dispatched by Hamas to the Philadelphia conference was Muin Shabib, who delivered a status report of sorts on the problems faced by the militants in the West Bank and worked to build support among the group at the hotel. Shabib, an early Hamas sympathizer, is the link between that meeting 21 years ago and the current strife — all because he recruited a man by the name of Salah al-Arouri.
“Arouri was among the new young operatives that Hamas was cultivating in the West Bank to replace the more seasoned people who’d been deported to South Lebanon,” Levitt says. “Arouri was recruiting cells, procuring weapons, doling out money — he was a central person, a conduit between the decision-makers and financiers in the US and the cells on the ground in the West Bank, elements that are usually compartmentalized.”
Before and after his 15 years in Israeli jails, Arouri helped rebuild Hamas, coordinating efforts to funnel cash from the US — including from some present at the Philadelphia conference — to organize and boost the militants in the West Bank.
Arouri now lives in Turkey. From there, Levitt says, he oversees Hamas operations in the West Bank and is thought by Israeli officials to have championed, if not directed, the militants’ kidnapping strategy, perhaps including the plot to snatch those teens.