As terrorists struck on three continents in an explosive wave of suicide attacks last week and the United States was put on its second-highest level of alert, Western analysts noted growing signs of coordination between Al Qaeda and regional Islamic groups previously seen as unrelated to it, including Hamas.
The links, some experts suggested, indicate the emergence of a seamless global network of Islamic terrorists that could be far harder to pin down than previously suspected. They warned, too, that Jewish targets would figure with increasing frequency in future attacks, as evidenced by the threats made by a top Qaeda operative, Ayman Al Zawahiri in an audiotape released this week by Al Jazeera.
Fifteen attacks took place during the seven-days from May 12 to May 19 in Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Morocco and Israel, killing a total of 164 persons, 90 of them in the two Chechnya bombings alone. Nine of the 15 attacks — five in Israel and four of the five in Morocco — were aimed at Jewish targets. Intelligence services warned of threats of new strikes in Kenya and the United States.
American and European security officials continued to distinguish between the bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, which are said to be the work of Al Qaeda, and the attacks in Israel and Chechnya, which are seen as stemming from regional disputes.
But new evidence is blurring the distinction, some experts say, and strengthening the argument of Israeli and Russian officials who insist the Islamic terrorism campaigns in their countries are part of a global network linked to Al Qaeda.
“We have been very Western in the way we look at those radical groups,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst and State Department counterterrorism official. “The CIA has always considered that, for example, Shiites don’t work with Sunnis, but this should be reconsidered. The different groups might have shifting alliances, but they all view Israel as an abomination in the midst of the Muslim world.”
Some of the links are not new, but are drawing greater attention as Al Qaeda makes its presence felt again. In the Moroccan case, where investigators have found evidence of a link between a local Islamic group and Al Qaeda, experts pointed to parallels with the bombings last year of nightclubs in Bali, where similar links were found.
There have been reports of high-level contacts between Al Qaeda and Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. More recently, operatives from Hamas, the Palestinian extremist group, are said to have hooked up with Al Qaeda for financing and possibly for operational purposes.
Israel recently arrested three Hamas militants shortly after they returned from an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, according to Boaz Ganor, the director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya.
“They were arrested, but it is likely that many [others] are free,” said Ganor, who was an adviser on terrorism to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the mid-1990s. “So the threat that Al Qaeda is trying to establish cells in Israel and planning attacks here is not science-fiction anymore. It is a real threat.”
The involvement of two British Muslims in the recent attack against a beachside pub in Tel Aviv earlier this month also strengthened suspicions of the internationalization of the terrorist networks operating in Israel.
“There might be a connection with Al Qaeda — it is still unclear,” Ganor said. “But we know Al Qaeda and Hezbollah have been busy creating sleeper cells and maybe operational cells in the Palestinian territories and even in Gaza.”
Evidence of financial links among terrorist groups is growing. The Forward reported several weeks ago that American investigators were looking into the activities of a Paraguayan-Lebanese supporter of Hamas who is suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda and might have been raising funds for both groups.
Additional evidence has surfaced in court records of several cases in Europe, which indicate, terrorism experts say, that traditional notions of strict affiliations are sometimes misleading.
Testifying before Congress last year, Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointed to a Saudi millionaire whose money was ending up in the hands of individuals or foundations linked to both Al Qaeda and Hamas.
In the case of Chechnya, where suicide bombings on May 12 and May 14 killed a total of 90 persons, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the attacks’ “signature was identical” to that of the Al Qaeda bombings in Saudi Arabia on May 12. Russian officials charged that a Saudi militant named Abu Walid had planned the Chechnya attacks, though they did not offer evidence.
Critics claim Putin is using the alleged links as an excuse to crack down on the Chechen nationalists fighting for independence from Russia.
Still, American officials have raised concerns that Chechen radical groups were receiving support from and providing shelter to Al Qaeda or Taliban militants. The concerns prompted the dispatching of American forces to the neighboring Republic of Georgia.
In addition, French authorities have repeatedly warned of an important role played by a Chechen network in terrorist-related activities in France and elsewhere in Europe. Jean-Louis Bruguiere, a veteran antiterrorist judge, has claimed that radical Islamist groups have set up training camps in Chechnya.
Those allegations have considerably hurt the Chechen independence cause in Washington and could provide a stark warning to Hezbollah and Hamas against allying themselves too openly with Al Qaeda or targeting American interests.
Both groups called on their supporters to attack American targets during the war against Iraq, but no such attacks materialized. Most observers say the groups are reluctant to incur Washington’s wrath, especially since they make an easier target than Al Qaeda because of their clear geographical grounding.
One common thread linking the three groups is their tendency to target Jews. While this is inherent to Hamas and Hezbollah’s struggle against Israel, it is also increasingly characteristic of Al Qaeda.
The group has never hidden its willingness to shed Jewish blood, alongside Western and American blood. It has repeatedly stated that it is fighting a war against Jews and “Crusaders,” or Western Christians.
While Al Qaeda has occasionally declared solidarity with the Palestinian cause, experts generally believe that this is essentially a recruiting tool rather than a deep belief.
Still, the events of the last year have shown that the words were not hollow.
From the bombing of an ancient synagogue in Tunisia to the attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya to the explosion at the Jewish center in Casablanca — and with continuing alerts of new attacks — Jews have repeatedly been targets of terrorist attacks attributed to Al Qaeda during the last year. (Please see separate article, below.)
“There is no question that Jews were targeted as part of the more global attack against the West and its allies in the Arab world,” said Gadi Golan, the last Israeli charge d’affaires in Morocco, who left his position after the two countries downgraded their diplomatic relations following the outbreak of the intifada. “In Morocco, they wanted to make sure to target Jews, those who went to restaurants and discotheques.”
In Casablanca, the attacks apparently targeted a Jewish center, a Jewish cemetery, a Jewish-owned restaurant and a hotel frequented by Israeli tourists, as well as a Spanish social club next to a discotheque. Reportedly, however, no Jews were among those killed or injured. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said his organization had written a year ago to Morrocan King Mohammed VI to warn him against the risks of attacks against Jewish targets.
Jewish institutions exemplify what experts call “soft targets,” ones that do not have a level of security comparable to embassies, military installations, nuclear power facilities or airports, and are thus seen by terrorists as easier to strike.
Jewish leaders around the world have been facing the need to put a reassuring face on the rising threat while stepping up their contacts with law-enforcement authorities to exchange information and improve security.
On Tuesday, Jewish groups were notified in advance that the level of alert would be raised from “elevated” to “high,” according to both Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Still, unlike last February, when the heightened alert was partly caused by intelligence indicating that Jewish institutions were possible targets, the current warning was not specific to Jews or to any time or place, they added.
Nonetheless, sources said additional police and National Guard forces would be on hand at synagogues in key Jewish neighborhoods in several cities over the weekend.