Sunday, October 10, 2004

Mossad makes Al-Qaeda its top target

THE ISRAELI government has ordered Mossad, the foreign intelligence service, to make the hunt for Al-Qaeda terrorists its main priority after last week’s Red Sea attacks that killed at least 33 people, most of them Israeli tourists.

Egyptian officials said yesterday they had detained dozens of bedouin tribesmen on suspicion of supplying the explosives for the blasts at the Taba Hilton and at a bungalow beach camp 35 miles down the coast.

As rescuers pulled more bodies from the wreckage of the hotel, Dan Arditi, Israel’s counterterrorism chief, urged tourists still in Egypt to come home, warning that the attacks on Thursday “don’t lessen, even in the slightest, the risk that this will happen again”.

The order to Mossad to turn its attention from Palestinian groups to Al-Qaeda was given by Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, after Israeli intelligence sources said the size of the blasts suggested they were the work of Osama Bin Laden’s network rather than Palestinian suicide bombers.

Confirmation may be provided by fingerprints taken from bomb fragments and DNA obtained from the remains of the suspected bombers.

Arditi had urged Israelis on September 9 to avoid the area because of indications of an imminent terrorist attack. His warning appeared on the front pages of the country’s main newspapers on the eve of the Jewish new year.

“This time Al-Qaeda hit our back yard,” said a security source. “If we don’t focus on them, next time it will be Tel Aviv. After four years of intifada we’ve succeeded in containing the Palestinian terror, but now we’re facing a much more ruthless enemy we can’t ignore any more.”

It is not the first time Al-Qaeda has gone after an Israeli target, or that Sharon’s government has vowed to take it on. The group claimed responsibility for the car bombing in November 2002 of an Israeli-owned hotel in the Kenyan port of Mombasa that killed 14 people, including three Israelis.

After that attack Sharon summoned Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad, and ordered agents living undercover in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to hunt down those responsible. Almost two years later the perpetrators remain at large — a reflection, according to the security source, of the agency’s concentration on combating Palestinian operations.

When Mossad was presented with a list of priorities for the current year, Al-Qaeda was not on it. Its main efforts were instead to be directed at Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the activities of Palestinian terrorist groups in Lebanon and Syria.

Israeli intelligence sources said they believed the Taba attack had been masterminded by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor regarded as Bin Laden’s deputy. In a statement broadcast this month on the Al-Jazeera satellite television channel, al-Zawahiri threatened to focus Al-Qaeda’s efforts more intensely on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Nothing is known about how Mossad will carry out its mission, especially against al-Zawahiri, who is believed to be in hiding near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Intelligence sources said this weekend the organisation — which has no more than 150 agents operating all over the world — would not try to compete with America’s CIA.

It would instead focus on Turkey and Thailand. “We’ll co-ordinate with the local security services, but our main aim will be to protect Israeli tourists in these two locations,” said one intelligence source.

The agency would then work in a more systematic way, by listing top Al-Qaeda activists and trying to kill them in the same way they have done over the past 40 years in operations against various terrorist groups. “To hit an Al-Qaeda leader either in Saudi Arabia, Europe, or even Tehran is less difficult than to act in Damascus,” said one intelligence source. “It’s all a matter of priorities.”