What are the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades?

This “Explainer” is drawn from “Terrorism: Questions and Answers,” the Council on Foreign Relations’ online encyclopedia of terrorism. Click here for the full site.

A female suicide bomber killed herself and two others in a Jerusalem supermarket Friday. In a phone call to the Associated Press, a group called the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack. What are the brigades and how do they differ from other Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas?

The brigades are a group of West Bank militias affiliated with al-Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist movement led by Yasser Arafat. The group’s name refers to 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. The individual militias that make up the group are often named after recently killed Palestinian militants.

The Al Aqsa Brigades commit the same sorts of suicide bombings widely associated with such Muslim fundamentalist groups as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but the group’s ideology is rooted in Palestinian nationalism, not political Islam.

The brigades hope to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by force. Two years ago, the brigades began targeting Israeli roadblocks and settlers in the West Bank with shootings and suicide attacks. But earlier this year, after the group’s West Bank leader was killed in an explosion, the brigades began attacking civilians inside Israel. Earlier this month, after a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, the State Department added the Al-Aqsa Brigades to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. So far this year, brigades’ attacks have killed more Israelis than those of Hamas.

Does Arafat control the brigades? Arafat’s advisers say he does not; Israeli officials say he does; and different leaders of the group tell different stories. “Our group is an integral part of Fatah,” Maslama Thabet, one of the group’s leaders in the West Bank town of Tulkarm, told USA Today in March 2002. “We receive our instructions from Fatah. Our commander is Yasser Arafat himself.” But another of the group’s leaders, Naser Badawi, told the New York Times days later that while “we respect our leader,” the decision “to carry out attacks remains with the Aqsa Brigades leadership.” Badawi added that Arafat has never approached the group to ask it to stop its suicide bombings, which Arafat has publicly condemned.

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