The takedown of an Al Qaeda cell that officials say planned to attack the American Embassy in Tel Aviv has laid bare the threat Israel faces from the world's most infamous terrorist network as it becomes more dominant in the Sinai Peninsula and the Palestinian territories, say security experts.
Never before has Al Qaeda specifically sought to carry out a terrorist attack on Israeli soil, but in a sign that confidence is high amongst the international network and its affiliates after notable successes of late in Iraq and neighboring Syria, the foiling of a potentially horrific multiple attack inside Israel suggests the Al Qaeda hierarchy has now set itself a new goal.
Three radicalized, locally-grown terrorists, whose chain of command stretched all the way up to Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, planned to stage simultaneous suicide bombings of both the International Conference Center in Jerusalem and the U.S. Embassy. The terrorists planned to strike the Jerusalem target again once emergency services arrived. Israeli security agency Shin Bet said there were additional plans for bus attacks, shootings and kidnappings in the pipeline.
Israel has long dealt with enemy jihadists from Hamas, in the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, in the West Bank. But the aggressive emergence of Al Qaeda attempting to strike within the Jewish state is seen as an extremely troubling development.
It is not clear how close the terror cell was to carrying out the plot, but Shin Bet sources said the men had been recruited online by a notorious Gaza-based operative, Arib a-Shaham, who answers directly to al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born successor to Usama Bin Laden. Demonstrating Al Qaeda’s links between the two Palestinian territories, a-Shaham in Gaza recruited the three would-be West Bank terrorists, unaware that the Shin Bet was monitoring their traffic on both Facebook and Skype.
Of particular concern to Israel security services is the fact that the three key members of the plot had joined Al Qaeda soon after becoming radicalized online, choosing to fight for that cause rather than support either Hamas and Fatah. Last week, Israel’s Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center revealed that some 20 Arab Israelis and 30 Palestinians have been fighting for Al Qaeda-linked militias in Syria.
In recent months there has been growing evidence of Al Qaeda and other Sunni Jihadists gaining a foothold in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In November, three Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists, whose car was loaded with explosives, were killed in a gun battle with members of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Unit near Hebron. The apparent increasing radicalization of elements in the West Bank isn’t just worrying for Israel, it’s bad news for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose half-hearted attempts at reaching a peace deal with Israel appears to have driven some disaffected young Palestinians toward the more violent promises of Al Qaeda.
Ironically, Al Qaeda's move into the Palestinian territories may have been caused in part by the Egyptian government's recent clampdown on the smuggling tunnels leading into the Gaza Strip that flourished during former President Mohammad Morsi’s brief tenure, say experts.
Without a flow of money and goods through the tunnels, the cash-strapped Hamas regime has reportedly allowed Al Qaeda -- and Islamic Jihad -- to have a fairly free hand in return for financial support from a number of sources, including Qatar. The recent upsurge of rocket attacks from Gaza and Sinai into Israel – there were 13 last week alone which Hamas claimed they had tried to stop – strongly suggests that Gaza is being used as a launch pad by a number of terror groups.
“Clearly Hamas has the capacity to enforce its will over all the groups,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told FoxNews.com. “So many [rocket] shootings over such a short time could reflect in theory a loosening of Hamas control, or they could simply reflect a cynical game by Hamas, instrumentalizing these organizations in the same way [Yasser] Arafat did with Hamas in his time.”
With Al Qaeda apparently encroaching on both Hamas and Palestinian Authority territory, and gaining a growing foothold on four of Israel’s borders -- Gaza, Sinai, the West Bank and the northern border with Syria and Lebanon – regional experts suggest the foiled U.S. Embassy bomb plot clearly reveals the necessity for Israel’s military and intelligence services to remain vigilant, and on a heightened state of alert.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com