The case file on Abdullah Abu Mujahir/Jose Padilla - the man behind the "dirty bomb" plot disclosed by the U.S. yesterday - was on the shelves of the Israeli intelligence community before September 11. But until recently, when information received from the American interrogations of Qaida operatives were sent to Israel, not much special attention was paid to the file.
Israeli intelligence, which was briefed on the Abu Mujahir case shortly after his arrest in Chicago in May, was a passive consumer of the intelligence, not actively involved in uncovering the plot nor capturing the man.
The Israeli angle on the case is quite narrow, but could expand. As an individual, Abu Mujahir is another anonymous soldier in the secret ranks of the Qaida. As part of a phenomenon, he confirms warnings issued last year by officers like Col. P., head of the terror arena department in Military Intelligence's research wing, and head of research for what the IDF refers to as the "world jihad," a euphemism for groups like Qaida around the world.
Israel still ranks high on the list of targets for attacks, right up there with Britain, just after the U.S., and the warnings focused on the multi-cell, transcontinental deployment of the organization, such that the capture of a cell in Afghanistan does not disturb the activities of another cell in Germany and a third in the Philippines. The warnings indicated the organic patience of Islamic terror, which can invest years in a single large attack, and does not feel pressured to prove its existence with frequent attacks that could expose it to danger. And P. warned about the increasing use of people with identification papers and physical attributes not necessarily recognizable as Arab or Muslim.
The series of American and British citizens - John Walker Lind, Richard Reid, and now Padilla - who worked for Qaida makes it difficult to discover the organization's envoys. Focused information, like that which led to Padilla's ambush in O'Hare airport, is rare. Security checks according to profiles did not prevent Lind from going to Afghanistan, or Reid to Israel, France and the U.S.
Like Reid, on his first journeys Padilla was on scouting missions to collect information for an operation. Now, without firm evidence, his situation is similar to that of an administrative detainee in Israel: Intentions and conspiracy are enough for an arrest warrant, but not for an indictment that could get past a clever lawyer.
In the month since his arrest, the FBI apparently has had difficulty grounding in evidence the charges that Padilla belonged to a hostile organization, to the extent that it needed to use the trick of moving him to a military tribunal, as "an enemy combatant." Not even spies condemned to death, like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were given such treatment.
Qaida's spectacular attacks of the past decade, including the sabotage of American embassies in East Africa, and the attack on the American destroyer in Yemen, were spaced out over a year or two, and there was no apparent fear of being foiled, even when the same targets were attacked and the methods used had already been exposed. The organization was not afraid to attack the same target, the World Trade Center, by air, after it attacked it on the ground. They did not refrain from airline attacks in Asia and then in America, nor from sending Abu Mujahir to Chicago barely two weeks after the American press reported that captured Qaida personnel told interrogators about a dirty bomb plot.
If up until September 11, the West sinned by not taking Osama bin Laden seriously, it seems the table's been turned. Now Qaida operatives are scornful of the forces operating against them, whose size and habit of organizational independence prevented them from effective operations.
The Americans are trapped between two seemingly contradictory lessons from all this - the importance of organic forces, as opposed to patchworks of representatives from various agencies, and the critical importance of forming multi-force task forces. Catching as you can from whatever is available leads to disasters like the 1980 failed hostage rescue attempt in Iran, but fighting organized crime, particularly the drug cartels, was proved possible only after federal agencies, local police forces, and prosecutors combined forces.
One of the lessons from these difficulties is that the defenses will always be broken, so an offensive is needed. That is President George W. Bush's policy in most of the statements he has made in the last nine months. Considering what Bush knew about Abu Mujahir, his speech to West Point 10 days ago takes on an added meaning. Bush laid out, not for the first time, an American policy of strikes against terrorism and the states that host it. The writing on the bullet is Qaida, Iraq, Iran, and, under certain circumstances, Syria.
Israel is much further advanced, when it comes to domestic cooperation between various agencies, but the comparison is not entirely fair, considering the sizes involved. Washington moved the Coast Guard from the Defense Department to the Transportation Department in the 1960s and now to the new Homelands Security Department, which has received from the Justice Department a Border Patrol, but there is no security fence along the Mexican and Canadian borders. In Israel, the navy is the Coast Guard and the Border Patrol was given to the police 50 years ago.
The main Israeli accomplishment is the tight coordination between the IDF and Shin Bet, Just this week, in the Defense Ministry's dining hall - though without meals being served - four hours were given by the top echelons of the IDF, and its regional commands to a meeting with the top echelons of the Shin Bet and its regional, departmental, and local agents. Under the batons of Shaul Mofaz and Avi Dichter, the officers from both sides discussed successes and failures, comparing notes on fighting terrorism.
The Shin Bet does not suffer from underemployment, but its people were disappointed when the FBI didn't come to them after September 11. On September 11, nine months ago today, the Shin Bet held a briefing for non-security officer personnel. The subject was one aspect of Palestinian terrorism, and how expertise is needed not only to collect information but also to understand the nuances and its regional and Islamic contexts. Less than half an hour after the briefing, the first plane plunged into the WTC northern tower. When it became evident that it was the work of bin Laden, the Shin Bet expected the FBI to seek help from Israel on its expertise in foiling terrorism and collecting intelligence on Arabs and Muslims, maybe even some translation teams. That didn't happen.
The FBI arrested Abu Mujahir, but the intelligence came from other agencies, and there's nothing in the capture of one operative - others may be on the loose - to make up for the internal flaws in the FBI structure, that have come to light in recent weeks, starting with the memo from Minneapolis and now in the Congressional inquiries. An article in The New York Times spilled salt on the wounds when a Middle East lecturer who volunteered to translate from Arabic was told that he needs to know only literary Arabic, not the spoken Arabic presumably picked up by the wiretaps.
The success in the capture of Abu Mujahir is more worrisome than calming. There are more Abu Mujahirs out there, and not every alert turns into a foiled attack. Former Israeli ambassador to France Asher Ben-Natan writes in his autobiography - "The Hutzpa to Live" - which came out this week, that 30 years ago he warned the French Foreign Ministry about Arab terror plans against Israeli or foreign planes, including French planes. Despite the alert, a terror group managed to reach Lod airport on board an Air France plane. It was the Japanese Red Army and they killed 26 people. Like Reed and Padilla, they were terrorists in the Muslim cause, but weren't Arabs.
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