The following are excerpts from Israeli Intelligence and al-Qaeda by Shlomo Shpiro.
Analysis of all al-Qaeda cells arrested in Israel so far shows four common characteristics which made them vulnerable to Israeli intelligence detection and interception: their young age; the influence of Internet propaganda and their reliance on Internet communication; their financial and technical limitations; and their separation from mainstream secular Palestinian terror groups. Almost all members of the various cells were young men in their twenties, who had become increasingly religious, and were known as extremists within their communities. Most were very influenced by al-Qaeda’s online Internet propaganda and spent much time online, reading the preachings of radical clerics, and accumulating knowledge about bombmaking. But their enthusiasm for terrorism was not matched by technical or financial abilities. Most cells did not possess the financial means of acquiring arms or explosives on the black market, and thus expended much of their energies improvising weapons and primitive bombs. They received no support, whether money or weapons, from the secular Palestinian terror groups, which reject al-Qaeda’s ideology and the independence of its cells. These vulnerabilities gave the Israeli intelligence community powerful tools to use in preventing al-Qaeda attacks inside Israel. Through the use of human sources within Arab communities and extensive monitoring of Internet activities, some cells were discovered and their members arrested. Faced with Israeli intelligence successes, and unable to carry out effective attacks inside Israel, al-Qaeda operatives increasingly turned to launching cross-border attacks into Israel from the neighboring Arab states, where they enjoyed a wider operational freedom.And
Three lessons can be learned from a decade of confrontation between Israeli intelligence and al-Qaeda, lessons which are applicable to many other countries as well. The first is the vulnerability of local al-Qaeda cells due to their reliance on the Internet and other forms of digital communication. Extensive intelligence monitoring of radical jihadist Websites and communications is a powerful tool in the counterterrorism arsenal against al-Qaeda. The second lesson is the crucial importance of ‘‘tactical’’ intelligence cooperation between countries, not only in sharing information but also in ensuring that such an exchange of information is rapid enough to be relevant. The al-Qaeda threats can be managed only by constant and effective intelligence exchange, which must be adapted to fit the changes in threat levels and types. Rapid information exchange enables the prevention of terror attacks, while slower exchange often brings only outdated information of little operational value. The third lesson is the growing danger of home-grown al-Qaeda cells, young people who are attracted by al-Qaeda’s online propaganda to such an extent that they form small, independent cells and are willing to commit terror attacks. While effective intelligence work can often intercept and prevent large attacks, preventing the formation of such small cells with little or no active footprint until they actually begin violent action is almost impossible. But, over time, increased Internet monitoring and human sources inside Muslim religious communities do provide effective, though imperfect, solutions to this threat.
Political changes in Egypt and the ousting of the Mubarak regime in early 2011 resulted in a general weakening of the Egyptian government’s authority in the Sinai Peninsula. Bedouin tribes in this lawless region, already making millions of dollars from smuggling weapons across the border into Gaza, have now become arms suppliers of the whole region. In the Sinai, the black market in arms is expanding rapidly and the weapons offered for sale include not only assault rifles and ammunition but also heavy rockets, explosives, anti-tank weapons, mortars, and even ground-to-air missiles which disappeared from Libya during the anti-Gaddafi revolution. In July 2011, the former Head of the Shabak, Avi Dichter, warned that the Sinai had turned from a region of arms smuggling to a region of arms transfers, since the lack of any effective Egyptian police presence makes it unnecessary for the Bedouins to even bother hiding the shipments of heavy weapons being sold to any terror group with enough cash and a truck to carry them out. Israeli intelligence has been able to monitor some of the arms smuggled out of Libya and warn the Egyptians. In late August 2011, Egyptian border guards intercepted a large shipment of heavy weapons near the border with Libya, which may have included SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles. In the hands of an al-Qaeda cell, such missiles would create a severe threat to Israeli civilian and military aircraft flying over the entire region. This threat prompted the Israeli government to speed up the construction of a border fence with Egypt along the entire Israeli–Egyptian border. That border remains the most vulnerable region for future al-Qaeda attacks against Israel. How the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and the uprising in Syria, will impact the presence and activities of al-Qaeda in the Middle East and on the level of support they gain within the populations of the region remains to be seen.