Two Nablus residents suspected of heading an Al-Qaida terror cell yesterday became the first West Bank Palestinians to be indicted on charges of belonging to Osama bin Laden's worldwide terror network.
The case, in which the suspects are also accused of planning a double bombing in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem, is the most recent sign that Al-Qaida has been attempting to establish a Palestinian terror cell in the territories, security officials said.
The officials said that there have been several incidents over the past year that raised suspicions of ties between Palestinian factions and Al-Qaida, but the alleged Nablus cell is the most serious such case. In addition to the two main suspects - Azzam Abu Aladas and Balal Hafnawi, both 20-year-old residents of the Balata refugee camp - four additional people suspected of belonging to the Nablus cell have also been indicted.
In a separate incident, police and the Shin Bet security service foiled a suicide bombing yesterday that was planned for the Tel Aviv region. After a dramatic chase, police stopped a commercial vehicle carrying the suspected suicide bomber and eight other Palestinians near Kibbutz Sha'alvim, on Route 1, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Police said that the suspect, an Islamic Jihad activist from the Jenin area, was carrying a bag containing between five and seven kilograms of explosives.
The Islamic Jihad network in the northern West Bank claimed responsibility for the planned attack. That network has been responsible for the last seven suicide bombings, which killed 26 Israelis.
In the Nablus case, the Islamic activists who allegedly recruited the defendants are also suspected of responsibility for sending Al-Qaida suicide bombers to attack three Amman hotels on November 9. Those attacks killed more than 60 people.
One of these men is being held in a Jordanian prison on suspicion of carrying out a major role in the hotel attacks. But while Israeli and Jordanian authorities are both investigating the possibility that the alleged recruiters of the Nablus cell were involved in the Jordanian hotel bombings, Amman has apparently refused an Israeli request that it be allowed to participate in the Jordanian inquiry. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al-Qaida leader in Iraq, reportedly directed the hotel bombings.
Security sources said that the two suspected Al-Qaida members from Nablus were arrested on December 10 as they returned from Jordan, where Al-Qaida activists had allegedly recruited them. They were indicted yesterday in a West Bank military tribunal.
According to the sources, Aladas and Hafnawi told their interrogators that they had spoken to their handlers about the possibility of undergoing training in military camps run by extremist Islamic organizations in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. Another possibility raised in the meetings, the sources said, was that Al-Qaida would send a Gazan operative who specializes in preparing sophisticated car bombs to Nablus.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said recently that there is evidence indicating that Al-Qaida has infiltrated the Gaza Strip. In 2000, a Hamas operative from Gaza, Nabil Ukal, was accused of attempting to establish an Al-Qaida cell in the Strip and undergoing training at extremist Islamic camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Aladas allegedly met with three Al-Qaida activists in May, while he was studying in Jordan. The three are suspected of recruiting him and directing him to establish an Al-Qaida cell in the West Bank. He was allegedly instructed in covert terror operations and told to attack targets that would damage the Israeli economy.
When Aladas returned to Nablus, he allegedly recruited Hafnawi, a former Fatah member, and the two are accused of establishing the Nablus cell, along with the four other defendants. Aladas and Hafnawi are suspected of maintaining contact with Al-Qaida officials in Jordan and receiving a total of about 2,000 Jordanian dinars from them.
The idea of the Jerusalem terror attack was allegedly raised at the most recent meeting between Hafnawi, Aladas and the Al-Qaida operatives, in November. The cell is suspected of planning to send a suicide bomber to a French Hill pizzeria and then detonate a nearby car bomb remotely. The cell had allegedly already located a suicide bomber and prepared a bomb belt.
About two months ago, Channel 2 television reported that Israeli intelligence had identified the "fingerprints" of the global jihad network, of which Al-Qaida is part, in Nablus and Jenin. Military Intelligence officials have been saying for about a year that the global jihad network is gradually turning its attention to Israel and nearby countries. This assessment was based on messages between top Al-Qaida officials and on an analysis of recent terror attacks in the region: the attacks in Amman, two attacks in Sinai, and Katyusha rocket fire that targeted an American ship in the Red Sea (one Katyusha hit Eilat instead). In December, a Palestinian organization linked to Zarqawi fired Katyushas on the Galilee from Lebanon. In addition, the Shin Bet has previously arrested Palestinians suspected of having loose ties with Al-Qaida.
Meanwhile, an initial investigation of yesterday's attempted suicide bombing in the Tel Aviv area indicated that the vehicle in which the suspect was traveling never entered Jerusalem with the suspect aboard. Instead, it reached the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway via dirt roads.
After receiving a warning from the Shin Bet, police went on high alert around 11 A.M. yesterday and set up dozens of roadblocks in Jerusalem, bolstering its forces in public areas and examining all cars entering and leaving the capital. But it was policemen stationed at a roadblock on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway, near the Harel overpass, who identified the vehicle that turned out to be carrying the bomber. They identified it as suspicious after noting that it had 10 passengers and attempted to escape when it approached the roadblock. Police forces on the scene, later joined by reinforcements from Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, chased the van for several kilometers until it had to slow down at a roadblock near Sha'alvim.
The driver of the vehicle, an East Jerusalem resident, is suspected of regularly transporting Palestinians from the territories into Israel, primarily for work purposes.
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