By ISRAEL HAYOM—
It could have been one of the worst terror attacks in Israeli history: Two suicide bombers detonating themselves at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, followed by a truck bomb exploding as rescue forces arrived. At the same time, suicide bombers would also attack the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
This al-Qaida plan for a mega-attack in Israel was thwarted by the Shin Bet security agency recently. On Wednesday, the Shin Bet revealed that on Dec. 25 it had arrested three Palestinians who were allegedly planning to take part in the plot. The three men were identified as Iyad Khalid Abu Sara, 24, Rubin Abu-Nagma, 31, both from east Jerusalem, and Ala Anam, 22, from a village in the Jenin area. The two east Jerusalem residents were said to have used their Israeli residents’ cards to scope out and collect intelligence on targets.
The Shin Bet investigation found that the three arrested men had been recruited by “Arib al-Sham” (“the Outstanding One from Syria”), a terror operative in the Gaza Strip who received an order for the attack from al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
The only connection between al-Zawahri and “Arib al-Sham” and the terrorist plot comes from the testimonies given by Abu Sara, Abu-Nagam and Anam during their interrogations.
A Shin Bet official said the plot was in “advanced planning stages,” but gave no further information on how close the men came to carrying it out.
While a number of groups inspired by al-Qaida have carried out attacks against Israel before, this appeared to mark the first time an attack was directly planned by al-Qaida’s leadership.
According to the Shin Bet, the Gaza terror operative communicated with his three recruits via the Internet, using Facebook and Skype. A Shin Bet official said on Wednesday that this method of enlistment was typical of al-Qaida: “This is the modus operandi of global jihad, to exploit the Internet to connect terrorists.”
Five foreign terrorists, whose identities and nationalities were not disclosed, were to fly to Israel using fake Russian passports to participate in the attack. It is not clear where these men are located.
The suspects arrested by the Shin Bet had planned to travel to Syria, via Turkey, to receive military training.
“The plan moved forward very quickly,” said the Shin Bet official. “Within three months they enlisted, coordinated their departures to go abroad, funds were transferred and experts were consulted about preparing explosives. This quick pace did not allow us to wait before arresting them.”
The suspects had also planned to conduct several other “standard” attacks, the Shin Bet said. One included shooting out the tires of a bus traveling from Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim and then gunning down passengers and ambulance workers. Another involved the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier from a Jerusalem bus stop and planting a bomb to kill Jews in Jerusalem’s Abu Tor neighborhood. One of the suspects admitted to seeking to establish a Salafi terror cell in Samaria.
Nevertheless, according to the Shin Bet, in Judea and Samaria “the phenomenon of global jihad is still in its early stages and can be stemmed through the efforts of us and the Palestinian Authority.”
Aviv Oreg, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces intelligence unit that tracks al-Qaida, said the thwarted plot marks the first time al-Qaida has been directly linked to an attempted attack in Israel.
“This is the first time that Ayman al-Zawahri was directly involved,” he said. “For them, it would have been a great achievement.”
Oreg said that many foreign fighters fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime are from Chechnya and predominantly Muslim parts of Russia, and speculated that the terrorists with the phony documents would have been from there.
Al-Zawahri’s location is unknown, but he was last believed to be in Pakistan. He is the subject of an intense manhunt and is not believed to personally go online or pick up the phone to discuss terror plots, experts say.
Last year, a threat that began with a message from the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to al-Zawahri led to the closures of embassies across the Middle East and Africa. The message, according to a U.S. official,essentially sought out al-Zawahri’s blessing to launch attacks.
A number of al-Qaida-inspired groups have carried out rocket attacks from Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, as well as shootings in Judea and Samaria. Israeli intelligence calls these groups part of a “global jihad” movement.
Al-Qaida-inspired groups are on the rise in the Gaza Strip. These groups accuse Hamas of being too lenient because it has observed cease-fires with Israel and has stopped short of imposing Islamic religious law, Shariah, in Gaza.
In Washington on Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said U.S. investigators and intelligence officials were not yet able to corroborate the Israeli information, and were declining to comment on specifics of the case.
“Obviously we’re looking into it as well,” Harf told reporters Wednesday. “I don’t have reason to believe it’s not true. I just don’t have independent verification.”
She said there were no plans to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and was not immediately aware of stepped-up security measures there in light of the arrests.