Israel May Be Next al Qaeda Battleground

AP’s Steve Gutman reports that there is mounting evidence that Israel and the Palestinian territory are becoming an al Qaeda target.

Signs are mounting that al-Qaida terrorists are setting their sights on Israel and the Palestinian territories as their next jihad battleground. Israel has indicted two West Bank militants for al-Qaida membership, Egypt arrested operatives trying to cross into Israel and a Palestinian security official has acknowledged al-Qaida is “organizing cells and gathering supporters.” Al-Qaida’s inroads are still preliminary, but officials fear a doomsday scenario if it takes root.

Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon have established contacts with al-Qaida followers linked to Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, according to two Israeli officials. Al-Zarqawi has established footholds in the countries neighboring Israel _ Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan _ and is interested in bringing his fight to Israel, too, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because Israel does not want to identify those involved in the issue.

The good news is that the political climate in the Palestinian territory is not all that hospitable to al Qaeda. Gutman notes that, “By all accounts, Hamas, set to form the next Palestinian government, is not likely to further harm its international standing by joining forces with al-Qaida.” Anecdotally, public sentiment is also against the group: “Assem Rashed, a former teacher at a Gaza university, said he doubts al-Qaida could find many backers in Gaza. “People here are against the attacks in Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. I don’t think they will survive, or find much support from the public,’ he said.”

That might not be enough to thwart the group, which has branches and allies all around the region.

But al-Qaida itself is making an effort “to operate both in the Palestinian territories and inside Israel proper,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. A Palestinian security official in Gaza agreed that al-Qaida “is in the process of organizing cells and gathering supporters.” If the group succeeds in establishing a full-blown presence, predicted the Israeli military intelligence official, Israel can expect far larger terror attacks than it has seen in the past.

Another Israeli official said a major concern is al-Qaida’s activities in Israel’s neighbors, especially Jordan, where al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the November 2005 bombings of three hotels that killed 60 people. Al-Zarqawi also claimed responsibility for a Dec. 27 barrage of rockets from Lebanon into northern Israel, provoking Israeli airstrikes on a Palestinian base in central Lebanon.

The Israeli official praised Egyptian security forces for their performance following two bombing sprees in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula _ one in October 2004 and another in July 2005 _ that some have blamed on al-Qaida. He said Egyptian forces arrested two sets of suspected al-Qaida operatives _ one a month ago and another three months ago _ who were trying to enter Israel through Sinai “most probably carrying explosives.” An Egyptian police official at the Egypt-Gaza border would not confirm or deny the Israeli’s account, saying, “It’s our job to halt any security violations, that’s what we’ve been always doing, nothing less or more.” Some Israeli officials have expressed concern that al-Qaida operatives from Egypt may have entered Gaza after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip last summer.

Al Qaeda’s contempt for most of the region’s political leaders and actions such as the attacks in Jordan should ensure that they do not have state cooperation. But there are friendly and associated groups in all those countries.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.