The Shin Bet announced Wednesday that it had arrested three Palestinians from east Jerusalem who were recruited online by an al-Qaida operative in Gaza. It said the three 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 International 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 scenes of attacks.
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv al-Sham, recruited the men separately as three independent terrorist cells. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Using Skype and Facebook, Sham was able to recruit Iyad Khalil Abu-Sara, 23, of Ras Hamis of 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 traveling between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. In the planned attack, terrorists would shoot out the bus’s tires, 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 simultaneous double suicide-bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bombers to the Jerusalem International Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. Subsequently, Abu- Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the convention center.
To that end, Sham and Abu- Sara plotted to bring a group of foreign terrorists to Israel using fake Russian passports and 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. He had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.
Abu-Sara received computer files containing virtual training courses on bomb manufacturing from Sham in Gaza, the Shin Bet added.
Security forces monitored communications between Abu-Sara and Sham, observing how the latter asked his recruit which targets he had access to. After Abu-Sara suggested various targets, Sham would direct the conversation toward the 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 bombing a residential building housing Israeli Jews in the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem. During questioning, he described how he learned to manufacture bombs online.
Al-Anam, a third suspect, from Jenin, also confessed to being in Internet communication with Sham, and plotting to set up a Salafi-jihadi cell in Samaria for the purpose of carrying out terrorist attacks.
Security sources noted with concern the swift process of recruitment and preparations that took place 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 terrorist 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, appoint 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.
The plots were disrupted at a relatively early stage, the source stated. They are evidence of the fact that the Gaza Strip is a terrorism base for al-Qaida-affiliated elements, in addition to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he 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 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 recruit 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 terrorist attack were killed in a counter-terrorism mission in the Palestinian village of Yatta, near Hebron.
The suspects were in a car that contained explosives and firearms, when they were intercepted by the Israel Police’s Counter-terrorism Unit.
The unit opened fire at the car’s tires and the suspects fired back. Following an exchange of fire, the two suspects were killed. A little over an hour after the firefight, security forces engaged a third armed suspect, killing him as well.
Meanwhile, a US State Department official acknowledged Wednesday reports of an al-Qaida plot targeting the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, telling The Jerusalem Post that the US is “closely following the situation” and has been in touch with the Israeli government concerning the matter.
“The US Embassy routinely employs a range of measures to safeguard US citizens and all of our employees and their dependents,” the State Department official said. “We have a high degree of confidence in our own security staff and in the Israeli security forces.”
The official implied that the plot had been a matter of discussion between US and Israeli for some time.
“The US embassy was not just the target, but obviously other targets were involved as well in the threat,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Wednesday.
Harf said that the US has no plans to evacuate the embassy.
“We obviously don’t discuss all of our security measures,” Harf added.
Michael Wilner contributed to this report.