On May 7, for the third consecutive year, a renewed bitcoin crowdfunding campaign surfaced on al-Raya foundation’s Telegram channel, the media outlet of the Salafi Army of the Nation in Jerusalem, a pro-al Qaeda jihadist organization operating in the Gaza Strip.[i]
The group was created in 2005 under the name of Jaysh al-Ummah (Army of the Nation)[ii] and, once merged in 2012 with the Salafi Youth Coalition – Palestine, it was renamed in Salafi Army of the Nation in Jerusalem. The terrorist organization received media attention for the first time on June 9, 2007, when it took responsibility for firing three locally produced rockets on Sderot (South Israel)[iii] and, according to one of its leaders, Abu Hafs al-Maqdisi, it secretly operated for several years before its establishment.[iv] Over the years it has been held responsible for many attacks against Israel and it has also spread operational videos online as, for example, a guide on how to manufacture a 107mm rocket, providing detailed recommendations about substitute materials and quantities depending on the size of the rocket[v].
The Group’s ideology
On September 1, 2008, when a Reuters video crew was given access to record the group’s training, Abu Hafs al-Maqdisi, one of its leaders, claimed that the organization is not part of al-Qaeda and that there is only an ideological bond with the international terrorist organization.
The group equally clearly also described Salafi Army of the Nation’s relationship with Hamas, the most prominent actor in the Gaza Strip. In that same interview Abu Hafs, referring to Hamas’ political role in the area said: “we believe that Hamas applies neither Sharia law nor any other Islamic rule or order.” In fact, the relationship between the two groups has been strained since Hamas took control over the Gaza Strip in 2007.
By highlighting this territorial clash with Hamas, the jihadist group stresses its accordance with al-Qaeda’s ideology by considering all Muslims as part of the greater nation of Islam, defining the Salafi Army of the Nation as a purely Islamic organization and not a political territorial entity.[vi]
From this angle, even though the group is allegedly located in the towns of Rafah and Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, and is prevalently active in Palestine, by following al-Qaeda’s idea of establishing an Islamic global caliphate, it has always ideologically attacked, through the Salafi Jihadi exploitation of the Islamic conception of tawhid,[vii] either near (e.g. Israel and Iran) or far (e.g. the US) enemies. This global perspective is applied by the organization also through its media arms’ online presence, al-Raya foundation, which is internationally publishing initiatives and statements through websites, jihadist forums, social media, end-to-end chat services, and online fundraising campaigns.
Salafi Army of the Nation in Jerusalem Bitcoin Crowdfunding Campaign Over the Years
The group’s most recent call for bitcoin appears on Telegram as a banner that asks to “Equip a fighter”. Then goes on with a quote from al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calling on “the nation of Islam to support the jihad in Palestine in every possible way”.
The poster displays al-Raya foundation’s emblem, with the minaret of a mosque and a flag with the shahada[viii] “there is no Allah but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”, a photo of al-Qaeda’s leader and one of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem). The notice also explains that the campaign is meant to “devote money for the sake of Allah to equip Salafi Army jihad fighters”, a clear reference to the jihad-bil-maal[ix] which is the common denominator to all the bitcoin crowdfunding campaigns appeared over the last three years. On the bottom it is displayed the address of the virtual wallet for Bitcoin donations along with the organization’s Telegram and e-mail contacts.
The campaign, since the beginning, has been designed for an explicit militaristic intent. According to the poster published in 2019, equipping a jihad fighter for the battle costs $2,000. Moreover, the 2019 campaign poster, showed a masked fighter instead of al-Zawahiri, and the exploitation of one Hadith,[x] calling on the believers to prepare and equip a fighter going on a raid for the sake of Allah.[xi]
Differently from the previous campaigns, in May 2018 (then shut down and promptly renewed in June 2018) the campaign showed an anti-Semitic statement, with a quote of Sheikh Abd al-Hamid Badis (an Algerian Islamic died in 1940) explicitly against Israel: “So long as Zionists control power and money, and so long as Palestinians control protest and talks, woe to Palestine from those who talk and do nothing.”
These aspects already highlight two strategic aspects of the organization’s operative and ideological communication environment evolution:
- In 2018 the campaign appeared on al-Raya’s website and it was frequently shut down; in 2019 on social media; in 2020 on Telegram. Meaning that the group is constantly easily updating its communication channels to the evolution of the jihadist digital ecosystem and the increasing public online platforms inhospitality recorded in recent years.
- The statements published through the years have more and more relied on a global religious ideology.
In 2018 it was referring to an explicit war in Palestine, thus a territorial control; in 2019 it was not referring to Palestine but still asking for donations for the jihad and by using a jihadist fighter image; in the last poster, in 2020, it was still advertising the jihadist war in Palestine but in a different way: through the image of al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.
A bottom-up approach. From small groups in the Middle East to International Terrorist Organizations
The first and only donation made to the new public bitcoin address advertised on the campaign, on May 15, has received more or less the equivalent of 10$. This only transaction is a multiple one, which means it has been sent to more than one BTC addresses (2, in this case) for a total amount of almost 100$. The BTC address which sent the total amount is a relatively richer one and, going backward, there is a long trail of BTC single-address Wallets related to this campaign with only a single transaction made, between May 12 and May 15. Moreover, the group provides further BTC addresses to potential donors via private chats or email, hiding more and more the potential amount of funds it could have gathered through these days.
Even though these are rough data, in any case, worth to be deeper analyzed, they still don’t allow to make speculations about any money laundering scheme or wealthier donations, it is important to take into account that the Salafi Army of the Nation has renewed for now its bitcoin campaign for three years. This constant approach allegedly indicates this is a convenient way to raise money without oversight from the banking system and law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, its experiments with cryptocurrencies have likely made way for Hamas’ far wealthier call for bitcoin or, given its ideological ties with al-Qaeda, it could also be connected to the global invitation to donate cryptocurrencies made by Hayʼat Tahrir al-Sham’s (i.e. al-Qaeda in Syria) on its magazine, al-Haqiqa, in 2018.
Indeed, some aspects connect the two campaigns at both operative and strategic communication level:
- Even though Hamas has always considered other jihadist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip as a source of unmanageable terrorist activity against Israel and Egypt, keeping them under strict oversight by arresting or killing their members,[xii] when it comes to terrorism financing, they still all share the same issues.
From this angle, as analyzed by Joe Truzman in 2013, “the integration of Bitcoin by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups may be a symptom of sanctions placed on their chief backer, Iran” thus, in the firs place, “ their appeal for donations was due to the lack of resources and rejection from Iran for support”[xiii]. As in 2013 these groups still share the same financial situation and bitcoin donations is just an updated method to ask for funds.
- As previously explained, the Salafi Army of the Nation never claimed an operative allegiance with al-Qaeda but only a sort of ideological bond. Indeed, even though the organization is affiliated with Al-Qaeda, it never swore allegiance to its leader.
It is with these premises that the image and the quote of Ayman al-Zawahiri published in the most recent call for bitcoin could represent a switch in a twofold way: the creation of a new operative and hierarchical consolidate link between Salafi Army of the Nation and al-Qaeda or only the mere exploitation of a well-known figure to self-legitimate at an international level and widen the public of potential donors.
The Salafi Army of the Nation call for bitcoin, which appeared a year before these invitations from two prominent jihadist international actors as Hamas or al-Qaeda, could confirm the fact that smallest groups, given their necessity to raise funds, have been the first to experiment faster methods to ask and receive bitcoin donations and circumvent detection. Besides the money raised through their online crowdfunding campaigns, it is very important to take into account how this approach is already bringing to light an operative method able to call for donations while explicitly radicalizing followers across the globe through the online environment. These crowdfunding campaigns are still representing a short term tactical approach to raise funds but, in the meantime, through the years and the growing interest shown by global terrorist actors, are likely to evolve as a long-lasting consolidated strategic financing method.
[i] The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center (14 maggio 2020) FUNDING TERRORISM: THE AL-QAEDA-AFFILIATED SALAFI ARMY OF THE NATION IN JERUSALEM, WHICH OPERATES IN THE GAZA STRIP, RECENTLY RENEWED ITS BITCOIN FUND-RAISING CAMPAIGN. https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/funding-terrorism-al-qaeda-affiliated-salafi-army-nation-jerusalem-operates-gaza-strip-recently-renewed-bitcoin-fund-raising-campaign/
[ii] The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center (23 maggio 2019) FUNDING TERRORISM: CAMPAIGN OF A JIHADI ORGANIZATION OPERATING IN THE GAZA STRIP TO RAISE FUNDS IN BITCOIN. https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/funding-terrorism-campaign-jihadi-organization-operating-gaza-strip-raise-funds-bitcoin/
[iii] Y. Cohen, M. Levitt, B. Wasser (January 2010) Deterred but Determined Salafi-Jihadi Groups in the Palestinian Arena. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus99.pdf
[iv] Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center (IICC) (11 febbraio 2008) A group called “Army of the Nation, Jerusalem” is yet another global jihad offshoot in the Gaza Strip. Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, there has been an increase in the propaganda and terrorist activities carried out by radical Islamic groups associated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad. https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/pdf/PDF_08_037_2.pdf
[v] D. Barnett (November 2013) Gaza-based Jaish al Ummah praises Hakeemullah Mehsud. Threat Matrix – Long War Journal. https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2013/11/gaza-based_jaish_al_ummah_prai.php
[vi] Rafid Fadhil Ali (24 settembre 2008) Hamas Arrests Pro-al-Qaeda Leader of Jaysh al-Umma in Gaza. The Jamestown Foundation. https://jamestown.org/program/hamas-arrests-pro-al-qaeda-leader-of-jaysh-al-umma-in-gaza/
[vii] I.e. The principle of monotheism in Islam, as manifested by the indivisibility of God and His sovereignty.
[viii] i.e. An obligatory declaration of every Muslim
[ix] i.e. If unable to join armed jihad, then provide financial assistance to the mujahideen.
[x] i.e. a collection of traditions containing sayings of the Prophet Muhammad
[xi] The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center (23 maggio 2019) FUNDING TERRORISM: CAMPAIGN OF A JIHADI ORGANIZATION OPERATING IN THE GAZA STRIP TO RAISE FUNDS IN BITCOIN. https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/funding-terrorism-campaign-jihadi-organization-operating-gaza-strip-raise-funds-bitcoin/
[xii] D. Barnett (October 2012) Masada al Mujahideen says Hamas is responsible for death of top Salafi leader, threatens attacks. Threat Matrix – Long War Journal. https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2012/10/masada_al_mujahideen_says_hama.php
[xiii] J. Truzman (February 2020) Palestinian militant groups appeal for Bitcoin donations to promote jihad. Long War Journal. https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/02/palestinian-militant-groups-appeal-for-bitcoin-donations-to-promote-jihad.php