Al Qaeda is working to build up its presence in countries bordering Israel, fueling fears that the international terrorist network eventually will find a way to strike inside the Jewish state.
The group is blamed for the October 8 bombings of hotels in Sinai, a stone’s throw from Israel. American and Israeli officials say it has been building up a presence in Lebanon, as well.
Further fueling alarm was an announcement, posted on an Islamic Web site last week by the Iraq-based terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, that he was formalizing his previously informal alliance with Al Qaeda. That could provide new impetus to Zarqawi’s long-documented efforts to infiltrate Israel from his native Jordan, effectively closing a ring around Israel.
While Al Qaeda and Zarqawi are believed to be behind numerous attacks on Jewish targets in Morocco, Turkey and other regional targets, terrorism experts say the radical groups are eager to strike the Jewish state directly. The growing presence on Israel’s borders seems to be aimed at fulfilling that goal.
On Wednesday, Israeli TV reported that the Al Qaeda-affiliated group that claimed responsibility for the Sinai bombings vowed to continue attacks against Israel and Israeli interests.
The day before, Israel’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, told the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee that the army recently had foiled an Al Qaeda attempt to establish a stronghold in the Palestinian territories.
The statement echoed remarks in late 2002, when Israeli officials first confirmed Al Qaeda’s presence in the Palestinian territories.
One known instance of Al Qaeda trying to infiltrate Israel took place in June 2000, when an alleged agent, Nabil Ukal, was arrested at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Israel. Ukal, who underwent training at Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, reportedly was sent to Gaza to set up the organization’s military wing.
Palestinian officials have denied such a presence, seeing the allegation as an Israeli ploy to discredit the Palestinian cause by associating it with bin Laden’s international terrorist campaign.
The bombings of the Taba Hilton and two other hotels in Sinai provided lethal evidence of the long-suspected presence of Al Qaeda and its sympathizers in Egypt despite a decade-long crackdown by the Cairo authorities. By contrast, the group’s implantation in Lebanon, long considered limited, appears to be growing.
Late last month, the Lebanese government announced the arrest of an Al Qaeda cell planning to strike the Italian embassy in Beirut, as well as Ukrainian and Lebanese targets, presumably to protest Italian and Ukrainian military presence in Iraq alongside American forces.
Even though a statement attributed to Al Qaeda denied that it was linked to those arrested in Lebanon, Israeli and American intelligence have been keeping an eye on several radical Sunni Islamic groups that have sprung up in Lebanon over the past few years.
The main focus has been the Ein Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, located near the seaside town of Sidon. The camp, a traditional stronghold of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah party, has seen running battles between Fatah operatives and groups allegedly linked to Al Qaeda over the past two years.
The main Islamist group is Asbat al Ansar, which has a radical Sunni ideology close to Al Qaeda’s and reportedly has been receiving money and training from the bin Laden group since the mid-1990s. Asbat al-Ansar was one of the first terrorist organizations to have its assets frozen by President Bush in his executive order of September 23, 2001.
In March 2003, a car bomb killed Abd al-Sattar al-Masri, a reputed senior Al Qaeda operative in south Lebanon, at the camp. Some observers say the strike was likely conducted by Israel, which has denied any involvement.
Israeli officials have named this new influx of Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Lebanon as especially dangerous because of reported collusion with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia.
While Hezbollah officials have dismissed such claims and some terrorism experts downplay such an alliance, the Israeli charges have taken added weight in recent months as evidence has mounted of Hezbollah involvement in fostering violence in the Palestinian territories.
In his recent book, “Imperial Hubris,” senior CIA analyst Michael Scheuer contends that al Qaeda’s presence in Lebanon is not aimed at coordinating with Hezbollah, but rather at establishing operational bases close to Israel in order to attack it.
In addition, Lebanon seems to have piqued the interest of another major terrorist player, Zarqawi, the man held responsible by the Bush administration for much of the violence in Iraq.
On October 16, he reportedly swore allegiance to Al Qaeda according to an Islamic Web site. He was indicted last week alongside 12 other militants by Jordan’s military prosecutor for an Al Qaeda-linked plot to attack targets in Jordan with chemical and conventional weapons.
According to declassified information released by the U.S. Treasury Department in September 2003, when Zarqawi and five of his associates in Germany were designated as terrorists and their assets were frozen, Zarqawi had been “involved in smuggling terrorists into Israel.”
The Treasury said plans were made for Zarqawi operatives to meet with both Hezbollah and Asbat al-Ansar, and with others “that would enable them to smuggle mujaheddin into Palestine” and “provide training on explosives, poisons and remote-controlled devices.”
By mid-2001, Zarqawi had received more than $35,000 “for work in Palestine,” which he intended to use to train Jordanians and Palestinians in Afghanistan and send them to Lebanon, the Treasury statement said. He reportedly received guarantees that further financing would come for attacks against Israel and in early 2002 “was reported to have found a way into Palestine.”