WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda operatives are establishing a base in Gaza for launching attacks against Israel and neighboring pro-American Arab regimes, current and former Israeli security officials say.
Officials in Jerusalem and Washington are following this development with concern, Israeli and American sources said. They see the move as part of Al Qaeda’s long-term plan to attack U.S. interests in the region. Using Gaza as a base of operations, Al Qaeda would be able to launch attacks against Israel, as well as against Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Israeli and American terrorism experts say.
Although Israeli and American observers attribute this week’s violence in Gaza to Palestinian groups, they fear that in the future, Al Qaeda operatives might instigate Palestinian violence if local militant groups, such as Hamas, pursue a political path and suspend terrorism.
In the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, “what we are recently identifying is the entrance of various so-called vanguard, precursor elements — Al Qaeda operatives without a doubt — who are coming with a long-term plan to establish an infrastructure there,” said Israel’s former military chief of staff, retired Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, in an interview with the Forward. “They are already there to take advantage of the negative potential in Gaza: the instability, the chaos, the lack of Palestinian Authority control. They will use it to establish an operational base or to control, from there, Al Qaeda cells in the West Bank.”
Al Qaeda’s decision to move into Palestinian territory appears to have come in response to America’s invasion of Iraq and to Israel’s pullout from Gaza, counter-terrorism and Middle East specialists said. Until now, according to these sources, Al Qaeda has been only marginally active in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, instead emphasizing causes and eyeing targets in other parts of the world. Moreover, for years, Hamas discouraged foreign groups from intervening in the Palestinian struggle against Israel.
Following the invasion of Iraq, however, Al Qaeda began focusing greater attention on pro-Western Arab regimes and began taking a greater interest in Israeli targets, according to several experts and government officials. After Israel began its pullout from Gaza in August, Al Qaeda began to see the area as a safe haven, said Ya’alon, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Israeli officials believe that Al Qaeda operatives sneaked into Gaza across the Egyptian border. About 10 Al Qaeda activists moved into Gaza during the chaos along the Egyptian-Gazan border that ensued after Israel completed its withdrawal in September, according to the outgoing chief of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash. These operatives were expected to link up with Palestinian militants in the area, Ze’evi-Farkash told Israeli reporters recently.
In recent months Al Qaeda has established a significant presence in the Sinai Desert, despite efforts of Egyptian security forces to counter the group, according to Israeli officials and terrorism experts. Ze’evi-Farkash said in a recent interview in the daily Ma’ariv that Al Qaeda has built a “weapons base” in northeast Sinai near Halal Mountain. According to Ze’evi-Farkash, the Al Qaeda activists who crossed into Gaza belong to the cell that found refuge in the Halal Mountain area following the July 23 triple-suicide attacks against resorts in the Egyptian port city of Sharm el Sheikh, which killed 67 people.
Ze’evi-Farkash has said repeatedly in recent months that Al Qaeda’s “interest in Israel is growing.” Before Al Qaeda-linked forces bombed three hotels in Jordan on November 9, he told Ma’ariv: “Look at the circle that is tightening around us — attacks [by Al Qaeda] in Turkey, Taba, Sharm el Sheikh, Katyusha rockets in Jordan.”
Israeli officials are concerned that Al Qaeda operatives could smuggle in missiles with longer ranges than the homemade Qassam rockets that Palestinian militants currently use or bring in stronger explosives for suicide bombs, Ya’alon said.
American officials, for their part, are concerned about the regional political impact of an Al Qaeda base in Gaza, said Bruce Hoffman, a counter-terrorism expert with the Rand Corporation.
Israeli security officials assume that Al Qaeda is seeking to launch terrorist attacks against Israelis from Gaza, similar to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which now has an active operations base in Gaza, Ya’alon told the Forward. “Even before the disengagement from Gaza, we arrested several Palestinian activists [in the West Bank] who told us that they were receiving instructions from the Hezbollah headquarters in Gaza,” Ya’alon said. “All the terrorist groups want to have influence here. Israel is a preferred target, whether on its own merits or as a symbol of the West.”
Israel has become a more attractive target for Al Qaeda with the growing influence of the organization’s leader in Iraq, Abu-Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, who places a higher priority than Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden did on attacking Israeli and Jewish targets, as the Forward first reported last year.
“Zarqawi has been saying for some time that after the battle in Iraq is won, the next phase will be the liberation of the Al Aqsa,” the mosque in Jerusalem that is Islam’s third holiest site, said Yoram Kahati, a former Israeli intelligence officer.
“The battle for Palestine, as Zarqawi sees it, is the ultimate one,” said Kahati, now a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism of the Israel Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
In April 2003, two British nationals of Pakistani origin collaborated with Hamas activists in Gaza to carry out a suicide attack at a Tel Aviv nightclub. The two were believed by Israeli intelligence to have been Al Qaeda members, but the affiliation has never been officially confirmed.
“I don’t think that such attacks are going to become frequent any time soon, but Al Qaeda has a long-term strategy and Israel is very central to this strategy,” Kahati said.