JERUSALEM, Aug. 22 (JTA) — Israeli and Palestinian security forces say they have uncovered a terrorist group linked to millionaire terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Israel arrested some 23 individuals over the last few months who allegedly planned a range of attacks in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The uncovering of the cell prompted word of caution from the State Department to Americans living and traveling in Israel.
The U.S. government issued a public announcement last week that there is “an increased possibility for terrorist attacks in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza,” and urged Americans to “increase their vigilance with respect to their personal security.”
In addition, a U.S. congressional report released Monday said bin Laden supporters may be planning attacks in Israel to try to thwart the Middle East peace process.
According to security sources, the group planned a variety of attacks using missiles, remote controlled bombs and suicide bombers — all designed to inflict massive casualties similar to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which have been blamed on bin Laden.
The arrests prevented plans to detonate a roadside bomb on an Israeli army patrol near Netzarim in the Gaza Strip, the firing of a missile at a settlement and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, authorities said.
The man in charge of the ring is said to be Nabil Okal, 27, from the Jebaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Okal was arrested in June.
According to security sources, Okal received help from Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin. It is not clear whether Yassin knew of Okal’s links to bin Laden.
Okal reportedly recruited the terrorists, among them a number of Israeli Arabs. Security services arrested at least three of them while they were trying to move weapons from a hiding place near the Egyptian border in the Negev Desert to the West Bank.
Palestinian security services arrested 12 Palestinian suspects.
Okal is said to have spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He reportedly received extensive training in the manufacturing of bombs and the use of remote controlled devices from bin Ladin’s organization.
Senior Israeli security sources said the terror ring reveals a dangerous network of a new nature, which involves different groupings and cuts across borders. The network included links with terrorist headquarters in Damascus, as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which so far was unable to act inside Israel proper.
Despite news of the thwarted attacks, Israeli officials were upset with the U.S. travel advisory.
“There aren’t any warnings that require such an announcement as I heard put out by the U.S. State Department,” said Danny Yatom, a top security adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Traveling in Israel is safe and Israeli authorities make every effort to ensure the safety of tourists, said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
There is an ongoing terrorist threat to Israel as there is to other countries, Regev added. Israel is very active in counterterrorism and there is no reason why tourists shouldn’t come, he said.
A State Department spokesman said there are terrorist risks and threats in the region. The announcement is “simply a way of reminding people of those threats and that they need to take appropriate steps to watch out for their security,” said Philip Reeker.
(JTA correspondent Sharon Samber in Washington contributed to this report.)