Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya: An extension of Hamas in Lebanon?

According to a political expert, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya is positioned as Hezbollah’s political surrogate. On the military front, it remains subservient to Hamas.

Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya: An extension of Hamas in Lebanon?

Funeral for Mohammad Ibrahim, one of the three al-Jamaa al-Islamiya's "commanders" killed by an Israeli drone strike, Sunday, Mar. 11, 2024, in Hebbarieh, south Lebanon. (Credit: Mohammad Yassine/L'Orient-Le Jour)

Normally keeping a low profile, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya appears to have heightened its activity since the onset of hostilities in southern Lebanon on Oct. 8, in the aftermath of Hamas’ attack on Israel the day before.

This Sunni Lebanese party is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. It has thus far claimed responsibility for five strikes conducted by its armed wing, the al-Fajr Brigades (Dawn Forces), against Israel.

The visible armed presence of several of its members in Beirut last Monday serves as a reminder that other groups operate in Hezbollah’s shadow. The members fired into the air during the funeral of one of their fighters, who was slain a day earlier in southern Lebanon alongside two other militiamen.

According to a party official, these groups have been “on the front line since the beginning.”

However, this occurrence has also reignited the debate surrounding the resurgence of armed factions amidst the Lebanese state’s deterioration.

Three Sunni MPs from Beirut — Waddah Sadeq, Fouad Makhzoumi and Ibrahim Mneimneh — condemned the group’s armed presence in the capital, which does not witness funeral processions of this kind.

These occurrences are usually limited to Beirut’s southern suburbs, areas in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley — all of which are Hezbollah strongholds.

The MPs’ stance sparked intense criticism from the Islamist group and ignited controversy on social media platforms.

In defense of his colleagues, MP Mark Daou stated on X on Mar. 16 that “Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya is now assuming the role of Hezbollah’s Sunni cover, akin to how others have served as a Christian cover for the Shiite party.”

He criticized “a discourse from the group that derives its strength from the illegitimate weapons of Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Back to the 1980s

The pertinent question is, what role does al-Jamaa al-Islamiya play in Lebanon today?

Mohannad Hage Ali, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, explained that the group revived its Islamist vision during the party’s last elections in August 2023.

“Those elections were won by people close to Hamas,” Hage Ali said. “It was a U-turn on the positions previously taken by the group, which had previously accepted, for example, the presence of a secular state.”

“Today, the group has returned to the 80s, when it operated through its armed wing,” he added.

Established in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Dawn Forces fought alongside other “resistance” groups and later aligned with Hezbollah. They possessed heavy weaponry of various calibers.

Since the Taif Agreement in 1989, which mandated the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, the armed wing of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya has maintained a low profile.

However, it notably engaged in combat, including during the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, in the Sunni areas of Arkoub.

“Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya is evolving into an extension of Hamas in Lebanon,” Hage Ali said. “This marks a first since the end of the civil war, and it’s deeply concerning.”

He stressed the ideological alignment of the two groups under the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya exemplifies the shifting dynamics in southern Lebanon,” Hage Ali added. “It has become a Hamas offshoot, demonstrating closer coordination with the Palestinian faction than with Hezbollah.”

“Certain Sunni areas, such as Shebaa and Hebbarieh in southern Lebanon, also provide fertile ground for Hamas,” he explained.

The group officially acknowledged the loss of five of its members since the start of hostilities: Three were killed in south Lebanon in March, and two were killed in the attack on Saleh al-Arouri (Hamas’ number two in Lebanon) on Jan. 2 in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

However, according to Hage Ali, the group has suffered additional casualties, notably in an attack on south Lebanon last November that claimed the life of Khalil al-Kharaz, the number two of Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades in Lebanon.

“Every time an attack targets a member of Hamas, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya militants are among the victims, indicating the close association between Hamas and the group,” he added.

‘A fully-fledged resistance organization’

When questioned about his party’s proximity to Hamas, Ali Abou Yasin, head of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya’s politburo, said that the party primarily identifies as “a Lebanese group.”

“Our goal is to establish a state and institutions,” Abu Yasin told L’Orient-Le Jour. “While we share the same ideological roots with Hamas, advocating for an inclusive Islam, we are distinct organizations.”

“We maintain positive relations with all political parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah,” he added. “We view them not as adversaries, but as partners. While we align with Hezbollah in confronting the Israeli enemy, we may differ on other issues.”

But Bassam Hammoud, the number two man of the group’s politburo, struck a less conciliatory tone.

“Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya is an independent resistance organization,” Hammoud said. “We do not coordinate with any other group.”

This implies that his organization conducts its operations in southern Lebanon without Hezbollah’s involvement.

“We have been at the forefront from the outset, even though we do not publicize our operations through press releases,” Hammoud added. “In contrast, Hezbollah has been regularly sharing updates about its activities in southern Lebanon since the conflict began.”

When pressed for specifics regarding the number of deployed fighters or their methods, Hammoud declined to comment.

Journalist Ahmad al-Ayoubi, who specializes in Islamist movements, suggested that the group’s active involvement on the front lines serves as a countermeasure against Hezbollah’s influence in Sunni villages of southern Lebanon.

“When the conflict erupted, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya had two choices. It could have remained passive, allowing Hezbollah to extend its influence into Sunni areas and assume near-total control,” Ayoubi explained. “Alternatively, it opted to engage in the fighting to safeguard Sunni presence in border villages.”

He added, “Although the group may not openly admit it, there’s a concern that Hezbollah might recruit young Sunnis into the Resistance Brigades,” a Sunni movement affiliated with Hezbollah and established in 1997.

To Hage Ali, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya continues to play “a secondary role” in Sunni leadership in Lebanon despite its actions on the ground.

“The group’s [Islamist] model is of little interest to Lebanese Sunnis,” he explained. “There are several traditional Sunni leaderships in the country’s major cities, from which several Lebanese prime ministers have emerged. Therefore, the group finds itself playing the role of Hezbollah’s political surrogate, because it needs its protection.”

“As far as the military aspect is concerned, it will continue to be subservient to Hamas,” he added.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Normally keeping a low profile, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya appears to have heightened its activity since the onset of hostilities in southern Lebanon on Oct. 8, in the aftermath of Hamas’ attack on Israel the day before.This Sunni Lebanese party is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. It has thus far claimed responsibility for five strikes conducted by its armed wing, the al-Fajr Brigades (Dawn...