The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced on Wednesday that it arrested three Palestinians from east Jerusalem recruited online by an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, who were in the midst of preparations to carry out a string of large-scale bombing and shooting attacks on multiple targets in Israel.
The intended targets included the Jerusalem Convention Center, a bus traveling between the capital and Ma'aleh Adumim, the US embassy in Tel Aviv, and emergency responders who would have arrived at the scene of attacks
The Shin Bet said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv Al-Sham, recruited the men separately from one another, and had planned to activate three independent terrorist cells via his recruits. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Al-Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida's central structure, Ayman Al-Zawahri.
Using Sykpe and Facebook, Al-Sham was able to recruit Iyad Khalil Abu-Sara, 23, of Ras Hamis in east Jerusalem, who has an Israeli ID card. During questioning, Abu-Sara, who was arrested on December 25, admitted to volunteering to carry out a "sacrifice attack" on an Israeli bus travelling between Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim. In the planned attack, terrorists would have fired shots at the bus's wheels, causing it to overturn, before gunning down passengers at close range, and firing on emergency responders.
According to the Shin Bet's investigation, Abu-Sara also volunteered to help orchestrate a double suicide bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bomber to the Jerusalem Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, simultaneously. Subsequently, Abu-Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the Convention Center.
To that end, Al-Sham and Abu-Sara plotted to bring a group of foreign terrorists to Israel using fake Russian passports, who would have entered the country by posing as tourists. Abu-Sara was meant to receive the terrorists, and prepare their suicide bomb vests and a truck bomb. Abu-Sara was also supposed to travel to Syria for training in combat and explosives manufacturing, and had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.
Abu-Sara received computer files containing virtual training courses on bomb manufacturing from Al-Sham in Gaza, the Shin Bet added.
Security forces monitored communications between Abu-Sara and Al-Sham, observing how the latter asked his recruit which targets he had access to. After Abu-Sara suggested various targets, Al-Sham would direct the conversation towards operational aspects of attacks.
A second suspect, Rubin Abu-Nagma, confessed to plotting to kidnap a soldier from the Jerusalem Central bus station, as well as a bombing against a residential building housing Israeli Jews in the Abu Tor neighborhood of east Jerusalem. During questioning, he described how he learned to manufacture bombs online.
Ala Anam, a third suspect, also confessed to being in internet communication with Al-Sham, and plotting to set up a Salafi-Jihadi cell in Samaria for the purpose of carrying out terror attacks.
Security sources noted with concern the swift process of recruitment and preparations that occurred online in the space of a few months. They added that Abu-Sara's father was opposed to his son's activities and warned him repeatedly after seeing his son surfing radical Islamist websites.
"Abu-Sara and Al-Sham coordinated a trip to Syria, and money transfers. This all happened very quickly," said a source. "All three terror channels formed at a fast rate," he added.
The investigation underlines the fact that the Internet remains the main means of expansion for global jihadi elements, the source said. Terrorist operatives use the internet to create operational cells, local commanders, and transfer bomb-making know-how.
The relationship between recruits and their handlers online is similar to relations between a cow and a calf, the source said. "The calf wants to suckle, and the cow wants to give it milk," he added.
It is also evidence of the fact that the Gaza Strip is a terrorism base for al-Qaida-affiliated elements, in addition to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the source said.
Hundreds of Salafi-jihadis in Gaza have access to rockets and arms, and travel to Sinai to attack both Egypt and Israel, the source explained.
Hamas has reached an understanding with these elements, according to which, they must not directly harm Hamas by provoking an Israeli response against the Islamist rulers of the Strip, but are otherwise free to act as they please. There have been no recent arrests by Hamas of Salafi jihadis in Gaza. Rather, Hamas engages with these groups by deploying its own forces to rocket launching grounds to prevent attacks on Israel, and through dialogue with the al-Qaida-affiliated elements.
Outside of Gaza, Hamas supports global jihadi activities in Syria and in the Sinai Peninsula, the source continued. Hamas would prefer to avoid a confrontation with smaller terror groups in Gaza, while also avoiding a head-on clash with Egypt and Israel.
The episode also underlines the risk posed by al-Qaida's attempt to recruits east Jerusalem Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians in the West Bank, the source said.
In November, three Salafi-jihadi terrorists who were in the middle of planning a terror attack were killed in a counterterrorism mission in the Palestinian village of Yatta, near Hebron.
The suspects were in a car that had explosives and firearms in it, when they were met by the Israel Police's Counterterrorism Unit, sent to intercept the vehicle.
Israeli forces opened fire at the car’s wheels, and the suspects fired back. Following an exchange of fire, the two suspects were killed, the source said.
A little over an hour after the firefight, security forces engaged a third armed suspect, killing him as well.