Israel Arrests Al-Qaida Recruits Trying to Bomb U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv

Al-Qaida recruited East Jerusalem Arabs for suicide attacks, says Shin Bet.

Shin Bet officials announced on Wednesday that they have arrested three Palestinians, two of them East Jerusalem residents with Israeli identification cards, for alleged involvement in an Al-Qaida plan to carry out terror attacks in Israel. The group had planned two simultaneous suicide attacks, the Shin Bet said, one at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem and the other at the United States embassy in Tel Aviv.

The three men were arrested on December 25, a gag order on the case lifted Wednesday revealed. A high-ranking Shin Bet official told reporters in Tel Aviv that a member of one of the Al-Qaida-linked global jihad groups operating in Gaza had recruited the three men over the Internet. The recruiter, who identified himself only by the religious nickname Arib al-Sham (“the outstanding one from Syria”), told them that he worked for Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over the leadership of Al-Qaida after the Americans killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

Shin Bet officials say that the method of recruitment - through Facebook, Skype and, in one case, encrypted communication software on the Internet - is nothing out of the ordinary. Most global jihad groups operating in the Middle East use the same or similar methods: they scour the Internet to search for candidates, issue orders and learn methods of operation. This is followed by a meeting with the handlers and a brief training period before carrying out the plan. Even though many of these attempts fail, or are prevented by the intelligence agencies of various countries, there have been quite a few instances of success.

The Shin Bet’s announcement shows that jihad groups have not yet prepared themselves for the post-Edward Snowden era, with the large-scale wiretapping and tracking of Internet traffic being done by intelligence agencies in the West (and, indirectly, by the Israeli agencies as well). Nor are they taking sufficient care to avoid being caught having open conversations over the Internet. Still, Al-Qaida’s policies toward Israel have become even more extreme recently: In May 2013, al-Zawahiri himself published a video clip in which he called on Muslims to participate in jihad against Israel and told the radical groups’ operatives on Israel’s borders (mainly in Syria and the Sinai Peninsula) to carry out terror attacks against it. According to Shin Bet officials, the recruiter’s claim that he worked for al-Zawahiri, which is unconfirmed, is based on statements made by the suspects during questioning.

The three suspects are Iyad Abu Sa’ara, 24, of East Jerusalem’s Ras al-Khamis neighborhood, Roubeen al-Najma, 31, of Abu Tor in East Jerusalem and Alaa Ranem, 22,  of Al-Aqaba, a village near Jenin. The stage of contact between the recruiter, al-Sham, and Abu Sa’ara was the most advanced of the three. During conversations with al-Sham over the Internet, they discussed plans for a combined terror attack. Abu Sa’ara, who used to work as a truck driver, was supposed to obtain a truck from one of his friends and equip it with bombs. His handler in Gaza told him that, he would be required to assist five terrorists who would be entering Israel by providing them with forged Russian identity documents before the terror attacks were carried out.

According to the plan Abu Sa’ara and al-Sham discussed, three of the suicide terrorists would detonate themselves during a conference or performance at the International Convention Center, and also attempt to strike at rescue personnel. Then Abu Sa’ara was to arrive in the truck and detonate it. At the same time, the other two terrorists were to blow themselves up at the entrance to the U.S. embassy building in Tel Aviv. Shin Bet officials believe that the plan to strike at the International Convention Center was in a more advanced stage, though the chances of striking at the U.S. embassy were slim.

According to Shin Bet officials, al-Sham sent Abu Sa’ara computer files containing instructions for assembling explosive devices, and also planned to send Abu Sa’ara to a global jihad training camp in Syria. For that purpose, he looked into buying a flight ticket to Turkey, where he was supposed to meet with group operatives who would help him cross into Syria, as many volunteers of Islamist groups do in their fight against Bashar Assad’s regime.

Abu Sa’ara had already donated money to jihadist struggle in Gaza. His father, who knew that his son was active on forums linked to radical Islamist groups, warned him against being involved with them. Shin Bet officials say that since the plan was making rapid progress, they had to intervene and arrest Abu Sa’ara before it could be carried out. “The short distance that exists today between recruiting an operative over the Internet and using him to carry out a plan does not allow us to wait patiently,” a Shin Bet official said.

Abu Sa’ara and al-Sham also discussed the possibility of other terror attacks, including a “sacrifice attack” (in which the terrorist attacks with gunfire and then engages in a gun battle with security forces) that Abu Sa’ara thought of perpetrating against a bus on the Jerusalem–Ma’aleh Adumim highway. Roubeen Abu Najma and al-Sham discussed plans for various terror attacks, including kidnapping a soldier from a bus stop in Jerusalem and planting explosives in a residential building in Abu Tor where Jews live. He, too, learned how to assemble explosive devices from instructions he received over the Internet.

The third suspect, Ranem, spoke with al-Sham about establishing a global jihad cell in the northern West Bank, but the plans did not come to fruition. Al-Sham spoke with each suspect separately, and the suspects did not know each other, even though they were arrested at the same time.

Also, last November members of the Police Special Anti-Terror Unit and the Shin Bet killed three Palestinians in the town of Yatta in the southern Hebron hills. According to Shin Bet officials, the three Palestinians, who were armed, established a Salafist jihadist infrastructure in the southern West Bank and planned terror attacks against Israelis.

That incident is considered the first real proof of the existence of groups linked to Al-Qaida in the West Bank, even though various signs of that had accumulated in recent years. Shin Bet officials say that Al-Qaida’s activity in the West Bank is still in the first stages, and can still be stopped.

A high-ranking Shin Bet official said that in recent years, the global jihad movement has shown increased interest in perpetrating terror attacks against Israeli targets. Their interest in doing so combines with the flow of jihadist operatives to the region, mainly as part of the fight against Assad’s regime in Syria and the generals’ regime in Egypt. He said that the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip has taken a complex stance regarding these groups. Hamas is disturbed by activity against it, and in some cases it intervenes to prevent Gaza-based terror attacks against Israeli targets for fear of the trouble that such attacks would cause to it. Hundreds of members of global jihad groups are active in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas does not oppose militants planning terror attacks to be carried out from the West Bank, however, and makes no effort to stop them. To a certain extent, the global jihad groups run cells in the West Bank from Gaza, as Hamas itself does. In December, Haaretz reported that Hamas’ military headquarters, which comprises mainly murderers of Israelis who were released in the prisoner-exchange deal for Gilad Shalit and expelled to Gaza from the West Bank, has attempted to perpetrate many terror attacks in the West Bank and in Israel.

Meanwhile, no arrests in Gaza

Shin Bet officials are not as impressed as other high-ranking security and army officials with the measures Hamas is taking to rein in the rocket fire from Gaza over the past few days. According to a Shin Bet official, a distinction should be made between a limited action taken by the Hamas regime — such as deploying security troops to prevent rocket fire close to the border with Israel and summoning members of the smaller splinter groups for warnings — and arrest operations, which Hamas is not implementing at this stage.

Still, even Shin Bet officials say that Hamas has no interest in a military confrontation with Israel and that it is trying to maneuver among various considerations and pressures, including its shaky relationship with the generals’ regime in Cairo.

Ariel Schalit