Rift in Al Qaeda Raises Specter of Bin Laden Bringing Jihad to Holy Land

By Marc Perelman

Published June 12, 2008, issue of June 20, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A recent flurry of signals from Al Qaeda leaders has fueled concerns among terrorism experts that Al Qaeda could be setting up to launch an attack on Israel.

ZAWAHIRI: Urging militants to escalate attacks on Israel.
ZAWAHIRI: Urging militants to escalate attacks on Israel.

The worries about an impending attack actually grow out of the apparent struggles of the terrorist network, visible in mounting criticism from former members and leading Muslim theologians.

In recent weeks, the CIA chief has claimed that Al Qaeda had suffered setbacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and lengthy exposés in The New Yorker and The New Republic have detailed the inner debates raging within Al Qaeda, especially due to resentment over its indiscriminate killing of Muslims.

This perceived weakening has some experts predicting that Al Qaeda leaders would seek to repair the group’s image — and prove the skeptics wrong — with a spectacular attack on Israel, the one target on which all Muslim extremists seem to be able to agree.

“Regardless of how Al Qaeda is faring at any given time, it would always seize any opportunity to strike at Israel, which it regards as an illegitimate creation of the Crusader enemy,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and member of the National Security Council who is himself dubious about the alleged struggles of Osama bin Laden’s group. “If Al Qaeda has a means to strike Israeli targets, it will do so.”

While Al Qaeda has mentioned the Palestinians’ situation and urged militants to attack Israeli interests in previous years, the intensity of its calls to action have picked up in recent months.

In early April, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s second in command, responded to questions submitted online, many of which asked about the group’s failure to strike Israel. He endorsed “every operation against Jewish interests” and promised to “strive as much as we can to deal blows to the Jews inside Israel and outside it.”

In response to several questions about where Al Qaeda is headed next, Zawahiri responded, “I expect the jihadi influence to spread after the Americans’ exit from Iraq, and to move toward Jerusalem.”

That same month, he reportedly issued a message blasting Hamas over its alleged readiness to consider a peace deal with Israel. The Al Qaeda leaders have chosen symbolic dates to speak out. Bin Laden himself issued an audiotape on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Israel.

“We will continue, God permitting, the fight against the Israelis and their allies…. We will not give up a single inch of Palestine as long as there is one true Muslim on earth,” said the voice, allegedly bin Laden’s, in a May 16 tape.

Earlier this month, in an Internet audio message marking the anniversary of the Six Day War, Zawahiri urged Palestinian militants in Gaza to escalate attacks on Israel.

Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy defense minister, said that while there had been no actual evidence of an Al Qaeda presence per se in the Palestinian territories, the threats of its leaders should be taken seriously and their ideology was gaining ground.

“They do what they say, so no one should discount them,” Sneh told the Forward. “What we see in Gaza are small but active likeminded groups who share their worldview and target Christian institutions or Internet cafés.”

Sneh pointed to Lebanon as a place near Israel where Al Qaeda already has a significant presence. Several small groups have cropped up in recent years in Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon, first and foremost the Fatah al-Islam movement, which was forcibly evicted by the Lebanese army from the Naher al-Bared refugee camp after a prolonged battle last summer.

Fatah al-Islam’s ties to Al Qaeda have been a matter of dispute. Kohlmann, whose work involves tracking and translating statements from Islamist terrorist groups, claims that the movement was endorsed early this year by Al Qaeda’s Iraqi arm when the group decided to open shop in Gaza. Kohlmann says that in January, Fatah al-Islam announced its official presence in Gaza in a statement. A month later, its military commander, Abu Abdelrahman al-Ghazzawi, issued his first audio recording declaring his intention to bring the wrath of Fatah al-Islam to the alleys of Gaza from the streets of Lebanon.

Still, Fatah al-Islam and other Al Qaeda-related groups have much less clout in the Palestinian areas than groups like Hamas, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of which are not affiliated with Al Qaeda.

“The reason that Fatah al-Islam appeals to Al Qaeda leaders is that it is willing to toe the line with Al Qaeda’s ideological platform, whereas Hamas and other groups don’t share those same ambitions,” Kohlmann said. “We’ll have to see whether Fatah al-Islam in Gaza is able to progress beyond a few marginalized squads of militants… into a well organized and deadly bin Laden franchise outfit.”

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, believes that the threat from Al Qaeda is “very serious, and Israel rightfully treats it as such.”

“Any difficulties they may be having today aside, they are still a potentially potent organization and have to be treated as such,” Freilich said. “Also, unlike Hezbollah and Hamas, they really have nothing to lose here, and being fundamentally nihilistic is an especially dangerous threat.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.