By all accounts, the once vaunted terrorist organization known as al-Qaida now finds itself largely on the run.
In places as far afield as Iraq, Somalia and Yemen, the Islamist terror network has suffered painful setbacks in its deadly campaign for world hegemony. Its redoubts are under attack, its ideology is increasingly discredited and it has little to show for its efforts beyond a gruesome trail of murder and mayhem.
But here in the heart of the Middle East, right under Israel's nose, Osama Bin Laden's henchmen are busy setting up shop in Gaza virtually unmolested.
Indeed, the growing presence of al-Qaida offshoots along Israel's southern border is quite possibly one of the most ominous, yet least discussed threats, currently facing the Jewish state, and it is time we started taking this danger more seriously.
Earlier this month, on October 6, a shadowy group calling itself the "Hizbullah Brigades in Palestine" attempted to fire a rocket at Sderot which failed to reach its target. The previously unknown faction is reported to be one of at least a dozen al-Qaida-inspired radical Islamic terror cells that have sprouted up in Gaza in the past two years (Yediot Aharonot, October 17).
THESE GROUPS, with names such as "the Sword of Islam," "the Army of Islam" and "Soldiers of Allah," reject Hamas's occasional tactical decisions to forge cease-fire agreements with Israel and instead call for uncompromising confrontation with the Zionists.
In the past four months alone, these al-Qaida affiliates have fired 21 rockets and 18 mortar shells from Gaza at Israel, and they have planted explosive devices near the security fence in an attempt to kill and maim Israeli soldiers.
They have not shied away from trying to hit Western targets, too.
In January, during US President George W. Bush's visit to Israel, "the Army of Believers - al-Qaida in Palestine" attacked the American International School in Gaza twice in a three-day period (Reuters, January 12).
And in July, the police announced that they had arrested six people, including two Israeli Arabs, with links to al-Qaida who had plotted earlier this year to assassinate Bush during his return visit to take part in Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations (Associated Press, July 18).
Clearly, Osama's minions in Gaza are stepping up their activity as part of their ambitious plan to rid the Middle East of any Western or Jewish presence.
BUT JUST how exactly did they manage to take root in the area and plant a new network of terror?
The growing al-Qaida presence in Gaza is a direct consequence of Israel's August 2005 withdrawal and the security vacuum that it created. Just a few weeks after the IDF retreat was complete, Maj.-Gen. Aharon (Zeevi) Farkash, head of IDF Military Intelligence, told a Tel Aviv University audience that al-Qaida had exploited the chaos along the Egyptian-Gaza border to move operatives into the area. "Al-Qaida is in Gaza," Farkash said (Yediot Aharonot, Sept. 29, 2005).
In an interview several months later, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas concurred, telling the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that, "We have signs about the presence of al-Qaida in Gaza and the West Bank."
In the intervening three years, al-Qaida sympathizers in Gaza have been able to establish a foothold, forge alliances with local radicals and begin to spread their poisonous ideology of hate throughout the region even as they build an infrastructure with which to attack Israel.
Nonetheless, Israel has inexplicably done little to impede this dangerous development, despite the growing threat that it poses.
And while at least one of the Gaza-based al-Qaida groups has recently run afoul of the Hamas regime, it would be a mistake to think that Hamas will take care of the problem for us.
Last month, even after armed clashes between Hamas and the "Army of Islam" in Gaza left nine Palestinians dead, Hamas leaders made clear that they had no intention of preventing the group from targeting the Jewish state.
"The Army of Islam is allowed to act against the Israeli occupation but it must stay away from internal affairs which is the job of the Hamas security services," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told reporters (Reuters, September 26).
Hence, if anyone is going to stamp out the al-Qaida presence in Gaza, it will have to be Israel, which needs to move expeditiously to confront this menace.
THE FACT that al-Qaida is actively working to establish forward bases with which to attack us underlines just how much Israel is on the front lines of the global war on terror - and how essential it is that we stand firm and confront them.
Likewise, we need to start making it abundantly clear to friends and allies in the West that they can not expect Israel to carry out additional retreats when the threat posed by Islamist fundamentalism along our borders continues to mount.
Pulling out of territory only creates a void that radical groups such as Hamas and al-Qaida will gladly, and rapidly, fill.
Most importantly, though, Israel must start taking the danger of a possible al-Qaida attack more seriously, and adopt an aggressive pre-emptive posture to eliminate their infrastructure in places such as Gaza.
Failure to do so in a timely fashion will only allow this looming threat to continue to grow. And if past experience is any guide, such inaction will inevitably come back to haunt us in the months and years that lie ahead.