Analysis: Al-Qaida's new focus on Israel

Reports that an al-Qaida cell in Lebanon fired Katyusha rockets on northern Israel would not be the first sign that Osama bin Laden's organization is moving into the neighborhood. For some time, Israeli officials have noted that groups identifying with al-Qaida - or the global jihad - are determined to acquire operational footholds close to Israel's borders. Actually, the most dramatic sign of this development was the November 9 suicide bombing of three Jordanian hotels in Amman by "al-Qaida Mesopotamia" - the organization led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian insurgency leader fighting the US in Iraq. Militant Islamic Web sites immediately announced: "After the attack in the heart of Jordan, it will soon be possible to reach Jewish targets in Israel." Dismissing the value of Israel's security fence, al-Zarqawi's Web site declared that the "separation wall... will feel the might of the mujahideen," implying that his insurgent volunteers that had been used in Iraq might also be employed against Israel. In August, an al-Qaida rocket strike in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba also reached Eilat. Al-Zarqawi has been seeking to destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and there is still a state of emergency in Amman until January because of warnings of terrorist attacks. In October 2004, a growing al-Qaida presence in Sinai led to attacks on Israeli tourists in Taba and other coastal resorts, followed by a major bombing at a hotel in Sharm e-Sheikh this July. The al-Qaida presence that was based in Jabal Halal in north-central Sinai served as the rear base for al-Qaida's entry into the Gaza Strip following the disengagement. Until recently, Israel was not a high-priority target for al-Qaida and affiliate organizations that have embraced its goals of worldwide jihad. Al-Qaida was formed in Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat in 1989 by the various mujahideen groups who were emboldened by their victory over a superpower and hence sought to carry their war to other arenas. Given its geographic location, however, the early al-Qaida was more involved in militant Islamic struggles in Chechnya, Kashmir, and against the Taliban's Afghan rivals in the Northern Alliance - but not in the war against Israel. Bin Laden's 1990s obsession with the idea of evicting the US from Saudi Arabia made America his primary target. Israel, according to renowned historian Bernard Lewis, was at best a third priority. Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was in full agreement, according to writings of his from the 1990s that the route to Jerusalem came through the jihad in Algeria and Egypt. The first indication that this prioritization began to shift came as al-Qaida perpetrated a hotel bombing and a missile attack on an Israeli Arkia airliner in Mombassa, Kenya on November 2002. But the greatest factor behind the new focus of the global jihad on Israel has been the war in Iraq led by al-Zarqawi, which has created a new center for radical Islamic militancy in the Middle East. "Among the greatest positive elements of this arena [Iraq] is that it is jihad in the Arab heartland," al-Zarqawi wrote in 2004. For al-Zarqawi, the main battle of Islamic militancy was to be fought here and not in the Hindu Kush mountains bordering Pakistan, India, China and Afghanistan. "The true, decisive battle between infidelity and Islam is in this land, i.e., in [Greater] Syria and its surroundings," he wrote. In fact, al-Zarqawi has established cells in Syria organized in a group called Jund al-Sham, and he also has ties to a local al-Qaida affiliate in Lebanon called Asbat al-Ansar, which has been based at the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp. Like other radical Islamist groups, he is part of the movement to destabilize and replace present Arab regimes with a new caliphate. Al-Zarqawi's goals merged with those of al-Qaida when he pledged his allegiance to bin Laden in October 2004 and formally made his earlier Jama'at al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad organization in Iraq part of the global al-Qaida network. Al-Zarqawi's shift of focus to Iraq has received the full blessing of the main al-Qaida leadership. On October 11 the US Director of National Intelligence, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, released an intercepted letter dated July 9 from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Praising the relocation of the global jihad to the Arab heartland, al-Zawahiri lays out for al-Zarqawi the next desirable stages of the jihad in Iraq from the standpoint of al-Qaida. After defeating the US, al-Zawahiri wrote, al-Qaida wants to see al-Zarqawi "extend the jihad to the secular countries neighboring Iraq (i.e., Jordan and Syria)." Indeed, Jordanian authorities were told in October that documents found on a dead al-Zarqawi operative in Iraq indicated that orders had been given to begin to move into neighboring countries. But al-Zawahiri's recommended strategy did not stop there. In the next stage, al-Zawahiri wrote, al-Qaida envisioned "the clash with Israel."