Al-Ahram Weekly – 5 December 2002
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s response to the twin attacks on Israeli citizens last week in Kenya was as melodramatic as it was swift. He activated “sleeper” spies in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to wreak revenge for the hotel explosion that killed three Israeli tourists and 10 Kenyans and a near-miss missile fired at an Israeli- owned Arkia charter plane carrying some 260 passengers.
A group calling itself the Army of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attacks in Mombasa, but Israel’s external intelligence agency Mossad is working on the assumption, as are most other nations, that Osama Bin Laden’s Al- Qa’eda network is the real culprit.
Apparent corroboration arrived late on Monday when a statement claiming responsibility was posted on the Internet from a site operated out of Qatar. It said that the Mombasa attacks were designed to “destroy the dreams of the Judeo-Crusader alliance, which wants to preserve their strategic interests in the region”.
In the immediate aftermath of the Kenya strikes, Sharon called the head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, to a meeting and, according to a British newspaper report, told him: “War has been declared on the state of Israel by the global Islamic terror syndicate. Change your priorities and get them, one by one.”
The operation, reportedly codenamed Warriors, echoes a similar order given by former Prime Minister Golda Meir to hunt down and assassinate members of the Palestinian Black September group responsible for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes taken hostage at the Munich Olympics in 1972. All but one of the suspects were killed by agents in an operation that lasted six years.
Sharon was said to have expressed his determination at the meeting with Dagan to push Israel to the forefront of the “war on terror”. The prime minister is keen to further bind his country’s fate to that of the US, and to reinforce the sense among Americans and Europeans that they face a common enemy with Israel.
One agent was quoted as saying: “If Bin Laden was involved in the Kenya attack, this man is a walking corpse. The price tag on Jewish blood is very high.”
Similar bluster was evidenced by the new Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, who said: “Our hand will reach them. If anyone doubted that the citizens of the state of Israel cannot stand up to the killers of children, this doubt will be removed.”
Mossad’s reach, however, may not be as extensive as Sharon, Mofaz and Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hope. Since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, the agency, which has some 2,500 agents, has largely lost its way.
With the return of the Yasser Arafat and his Tunis exiles to the West Bank and Gaza in the mid-1990s, and the reduction in international Palestinian terrorism, resources have been directed away from Mossad towards operations by the domestic secret service, the Shin Bet, and special military units in the occupied territories.
In stark contrast to the success against Black September, the perpetrators of a blast at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and at a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina two years later, which claimed some 115 lives, are still on the run.
And the last known major Mossad operation was an embarrassing failure: the botched assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashel in Jordan in 1997. Since then Mossad has concentrated its efforts on tracking the weapon programmes of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt.
The Internet statement supposedly from Al- Qa’eda also taunted Mossad, saying one of the goals of the Kenya strikes was to destroy the myth of an omniscient Israeli intelligence agency.
Part of Mossad’s problem is its modus operandi: it has worked as a lone wolf, reluctant to share information with other intelligence agencies, and has developed a network of spies mainly in the Middle East. Despite the comparative proximity of east Africa and south-east Asia, it has little knowledge of, or influence in, these regions.
In an era characterised by Al-Qa’eda’s global network of like-minded cells of activists — what Yossef Bodansky, the director of the US congressional task, force on terrorism, has called Bin Laden’s “wide tent without walls” — such an approach is dangerously complacent.
This was highlighted to ordinary Israelis by Mossad’s signal failure to warn of the Kenya attacks. Australians and Germans had reportedly been alerted in mid-November to threatened strikes in the area.
The CIA and Britain’s MI6 have developed far superior intelligence about Al-Qa’eda’s activities, but even they are struggling to cope with a new phenomenon — terrorism that swears loyalty to a core idea rather than a political banner.
It is likely that Bin Laden was more than aware of Israel’s intelligence weaknesses and is now hoping to capitalise on them. Israelis have huge appetite for travel which makes them vulnerable to these kinds of attacks. It is a rite of passage for Israeli youngsters to go on extended trips to far-flung regions after they complete their military service. Usually they stick together in Israeli-run hostels, hotels and bars.
“If there is a decision to attack Israeli tourists, Al-Qa’eda can strike in India, Thailand, Latin America and Turkey,” warned a Maariv editorial at the weekend. “We are being targeted here, there, everywhere, at all times, in all climates.”
Al-Qa’eda could have hit these “soft targets” some time ago but chose not to. Doubtless the change of policy partly reflects the tougher security climate in the West since the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.
But it also reflects a conscious decision by Bin Laden to draw Israel to the heart of President George W Bush’s “war on terror”. Sharon’s membership of the Western coalition will ensure wider support for Al-Qa’eda strikes among Arabs and Muslims. It will also complicate Bush’s attempts to win Arab support for the war he is planning in Iraq.
The first indication of Al-Qa’eda’s new policy was a blast near a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba that killed 21 people, mainly German tourists, in the summer.
Then Bin Laden unexpectedly resurfaced a few weeks ago with a recorded phone message. It was followed shortly before the Kenya attacks by a statement entitled “Letter to the American people”, purportedly written by Bin Laden. The author rails against Israel and its illegal occupation of Palestinian land rather than the traditional bugbear of America’s military presence on the sacred turf of Saudi Arabia.
“The creation and continuation of Israel is one of the greatest crimes, and you [the Americans] are the leaders of its criminals,” it says, adding that American “tax dollars are given to Israel for it to continue to attack us and penetrate our lands.”
Sharon will use the opportunity handed him by Bin Laden to trumpet his claims of a direct connection between Al-Qa’eda and Palestinian “terror”. Israel’s security services are already talking loudly of the supposed infiltration of Al- Qa’eda into Lebanon and the ranks of Hizbullah.
On Monday the chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, also let slip at a training day for military recruits that Israel had foiled Al-Qa’eda attacks inside Israel and that Bin Laden had recruited among the Palestinians. He presented no evidence for these large claims.
Although Israel’s leaders are building their case for greater participation in the “war on terror”, Bush himself was in much less of a hurry to fling open the doors to the Jewish state. With uncharacteristic uncertainty, he said it was “premature to rule Al-Qa’eda in or out in relation to the attack”.
Sharon’s presence in the coalition will also have a destablising influence on its Western supporters. Whereas Bush and Britain’s Tony Blair wish to play up the shared threat to the “free world” and democracy posed by Al- Qa’eda, Sharon and Mofaz have found it hard not to slip into a different kind of rhetoric, one with which they are more comfortable from their confrontations with the Arab world.
After the Kenyan attacks, both accused the perpetrators of “spilling Jewish blood”. It is language Bin Laden will be more than happy to hear.