Many Israelis sighed with relief at the news that only one citizen of the Jewish state had been slightly wounded in Saturday’s Sharm el-Sheik terror attack, but the triple bombing at the scenic Red Sea resort reminded Israelis that Al-Qaida is getting closer. How close? Israeli intelligence experts aren’t sure. Some suggest it’s only a matter of time until Al-Qaida hits targets in Israel, while others believe that global Islamic terror groups have other priorities — at least for the time being.
The closest that Al-Qaida has struck was in Taba, located on the Israeli-Egyptian border, and a bit farther down the coast at Ras-a-Satan, when twin bombings last October killed more than 30 people, including 12 Israelis. More than 160 people were wounded.
Islamic radicals long have set their sites on Jewish targets around the world — such as the synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, that was hit by a truck bomb in April 2002; Jewish institutions in Morocco bombed in May 2003; and two synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey, which were hit in November 2003.
But they haven’t ignored Israeli targets either. In June 2000, Israel arrested Nabil Okal, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip who had studied in Pakistan and later trained in an Al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. Upon returning home, Okal tried to set up his own cell in Gaza.
A year later, another cell purportedly linked to Al-Qaida sent the so-called shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, to Israel to scout out targets.
Prior to the decision to launch the Sept. 11, 2001, mega-attacks in the United States, an Al-Qaida branch was working on a plan to strike Eilat, according to local intelligence sources.
Three years ago, an explosion at a hotel in Kenya killed three Israeli tourists and 10 Kenyans. At the same time, a missile fired at an Israeli charter plane barely missed the aircraft, which was carrying some 260 passengers.
A statement issued in Qatar in the name of Al-Qaida said the Kenya attacks aimed to “destroy the dreams of the Judeo-Crusader alliance, which wants to preserve their strategic interests in the region.”
Shortly before the Kenya attacks, Osama bin Laden purportedly released a statement titled “Letter to the American People,” in which he wrote “The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you are the leaders of its criminals.”
Israel’s security services thus historically have regarded Al-Qaida as a potential threat and have spoken of the terror network’s infiltration into Lebanon and the ranks of Hezbollah. The Israeli military’s former chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, mentioned that Israel had foiled Al-Qaida attacks inside Israel and that bin Laden had recruits among the Palestinians.
The July 23 attacks in Sharm el-Sheik — which killed 64 people, according to the Egyptian Health Ministry and as many as 88, according to local hospitals — have increased Israel’s nervousness, as the threat is seen to be getting closer. The working supposition is that for the time being Al-Qaida is preoccupied with Western regimes and allegedly “treacherous” Arab countries such as Egypt rather than with Israel.
Analysts cite several reasons for those Al-Qaida priorities:
It’s easier to plant bombs in London or Madrid than in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, given the quality of Israeli security.
Ideologically, Al-Qaida has launched a “holy war” against Western civilization in general, not just Israel.
Since the days of its late leader, Sheik Ahmad Yassin, Hamas has been hesitant to cooperate with foreign terrorist elements because it doesn’t want to allow foreign players on its territory, while Al-Qaida has seen no reason to step on Hamas’ toes. There are plenty of targets for world terrorism as it is.
“Their approach is, let Hamas deal with the small devil, Israel, we will deal with the big devil, America,” suggested Shalom Harari, senior researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “Compare the worldwide effect of the attacks in London to the almost daily terrorist attacks in Israel and you will understand why Al-Qaida terrorists don’t rush here.”
Analysts here have little doubt that Al-Qaida will strike in Israel if the opportunity arises, given the network’s ideology of spreading Islamic rule around the world.
Still, Israel’s intelligence community is preparing itself for a change. One immediate result of the Sharm el-Sheik attacks is likely to be greater cooperation between Israel and Egypt on the intelligence front.
In recent weeks Egypt has improved the quality of cooperation in reducing arms smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip, but it has been foolishly complacent regarding the growth of terrorism inside the Sinai peninsula — despite repeated Israeli intelligence warnings and the Taba terror attack.
The Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence division recently prepared an operational blueprint for greater involvement in worldwide intelligence efforts against radical Islamists. Surprisingly, the long-range forecast is rather optimistic.
The Israeli military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, said recently that he was convinced Israel’s intelligence vis-a-vis Al-Qaida could reach “similar standards to those reached in preventing Palestinian terrorism.” With this intelligence, Ze’evi was quoted as saying, within three years, 70 percent of international terrorist attacks could be prevented.
This might sound too good to be true, but Ze’evi adds two stipulations: Such success can be achieved only through the cooperation of all the major intelligence agencies in the world, including those from Egypt, Russia and other countries that to this point remain hesitant to join the counteroffensive against terrorism.
Second, in Ze’evi’s view, only the symptoms of terrorism — that is, the attacks — will be curbed, while the real challenge is to eradicate the grass roots of world Islamic terrorism: the religious schools where radical Islamist ideology is taught, the hotbeds of missionary activity that recruit youngsters into the religious system and the political organizations that nurture the next generation of terrorists.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.