*** Extremism only breeds more extreme versions of the same. Secondly, at the end of the day, these so-called Muslims calling themselves Salafi-Jihadi's are responsible for killing more Muslims than anyone else. All in the Name of Allah. Could there be a greater perversion? I think not. MS ***
RAFAH, GAZA STRIP–They preach global jihad, or holy war, adhere to an ultraconservative form of Islam and are becoming a headache even for Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza.
Jihadi Salafis, as they are known, have organized into small, armed groups that have clashed with Hamas and fired rockets at Israel in defiance of Hamas' informal truce.
Perhaps even more worrisome for Hamas, they claim a growing appeal among Gazans in the territory's pressure cooker of isolation and poverty, raising fears they could serve as a bridgehead for their ideological twin, Al Qaeda.
Hamas insists it dismantled the groups after a mosque shootout last summer that left 26 dead. But Jihadi Salafis have been firing rockets at Israel and blew up the car of a Hamas chief. He was not inside it.
"We will not stop targeting the figures of this perverted, crooked government (Hamas), breaking their bones and cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations," said the group, the Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades. "What will come next will be harder and more horrible."
Going by names like "Rolling Thunder" and "Army of God," they oppose Hamas for refraining from imposing Islamic law since seizing power in Gaza in 2007 and largely sticking to a tactical truce with Israel since the latter's devastating offensive last year.
Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, acknowledges some in Gaza have been swept up by Jihadi Salafi ideologies.
"If this is a phenomenon among some young men in Gaza, they will be treated with discussions and meetings," said Haniyeh in a sermon to mosque worshippers. However, he rejected any suggestion of an Al Qaeda presence in Gaza and repudiated the call to global jihad.
Still, Hamas may inadvertently have helped create a climate for Salafi growth with its own gradual push to make Gaza more Islamic, including a "virtue campaign" that urges women to cover up, but stopping short of a Taliban-style assault on secularism.
The Salafi movement has grown across the Middle East, preaching an ultraconservative Islam that strictly segregating the sexes and interpreting religious texts literally.
Salafis tend to be non-political, but a minority jihadist stream embraces the Al Qaeda call for holy war against the West and the moderate Arab leaders in its camp.
Hamas, on the other hand, confines itself to pushing for a Palestinian state, says the sole target of its suicide bombings and missile attacks is Israel, and makes compromises with other movements, even participating in Palestinian elections in 2006. Those stances are reviled as un-Islamic by the Salafis.
Their groups began to emerge in Gaza after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. A study co-authored by a former deputy chief of Israel's Shin Bet security service estimates their membership in the low hundreds, including disgruntled followers of established Palestinian militant groups.
The violent Salafi groups are inspired by Al Qaeda but are not formally affiliated with it, according to a January study by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S. think tank, co-authored by Yoram Cohen, the former Shin Bet official.
It said Al Qaeda has not established an affiliate in the region nor accepted any of its "locally radicalized, globally inclined jihadists."
The U.S. think tank estimates 30 to 50 fighters from Yemen, Egypt, France and elsewhere have slipped into Gaza, either to train Salafi fighters or to wage holy war.