Why al-Qaeda is Targeting Israel

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Israeli army investigators leave the scene of the Mombasa Paradise Hotel bomb blast

Israel has always been a target of fierce rhetorical attack by Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, but until now words had not been matched by deeds. If suspicions that al-Qaeda is behind Thursday's deadly bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya turn out to be true, it would mark the first time the network had directed one of its terror attacks against the Jewish state. That would pose problems not only for Israel and the United States, but also for Yasser Arafat and even Palestinian Islamist terror groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The circumstantial evidence pointing to an al-Qaeda hand in the Mombasa attack is strong: Kenya is an established theater of operations for bin Laden's network; the two-pronged nature of the attack (a suicide bombing of a hotel at almost the same time as two Russian SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles were fired at an Israeli civilian airliner taking off from the city's airport) is a familiar al-Qaeda signature; and even the insouciance with which the perpetrators were willing to take Kenyan lives in order to get at their intended targets was reminiscent of al-Qaeda's 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi — Kenyans were the vast majority of the casualties in both attacks. None of the current crop of Palestinian terror groups has demonstrated a capability or inclination to strike beyond their Middle Eastern theater of operations.

Of course that leaves Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia which has previously struck at Israeli targets abroad, and some of the older leftist Palestinian terror groups from the 1970s that had done the same. But both U.S. and Israeli officials appear to believe that Mombasa was an operation either of al-Qaeda itself, or of the Somali Islamist group al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, which is believed to have strong links with bin Laden's network.

The reason al-Qaeda hadn't targeted Israel before may have been less a political decision than a division of labor based on what economists might call comparative advantage. Bin Laden's propagandists have long recognized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most important grievance generating anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, and have made it a central focus of al-Qaeda infomercials. But attacking Israel had been left to the Palestinian groups based in the West Bank and Gaza, which have direct access to Israel by virtue of the Israeli occupation of those territories since 1967. Al-Qaeda has plainly sought access to the most ideologically compatible of the Palestinian groups, but has for the most part been rebuffed — Hamas and Islamic Jihad are wary of being swallowed up in bin Laden's global jihad against America and seeing their national jihad against the Israelis eclipsed (a fate the Palestinian Islamists see as having befallen Egyptian Islamic Jihad once it made common cause with al-Qaeda). For the same reason, the Palestinian groups have avoided directly targeting U.S. interests even though they have killed individual Americans in the course of their attacks inside Israel. Similar concerns have recently been voiced by some Chechen rebel commanders among whom al-Qaeda has sought to expand its influence.

But having made Israel the central focus of its rhetoric, al-Qaeda may have felt pressure to strike out directly against the Israelis in the same way as its members and followers have targeted the U.S. and some of its key anti-terror allies such as Britain, France, Germany, Pakistan, Indonesia and Australia. By striking directly at the Israelis, al-Qaeda may be hoping to reinforce its efforts to raise money and recruits from across the Arab and Muslim world, and even to stake its own claim to a role in a conflict that until now it has offered only rhetorical support.

For Israel this kind of terror is nothing new, although if al-Qaeda is now devoting its considerable terror resources to attacking Israelis, the dangers multiply — both of what the Israeli government fears is the inevitability of "spectacular" September 11 style attacks inside Israel, and of attacks on Israeli interests around the globe. On the other hand, the Kenya assault does help Prime Minister Ariel Sharon make his case that the terror attacks that emanate from the Palestinian territories and those that originate with bin Laden are part and parcel of the same global terror threat, and should therefore be answered with the same iron resolve as displayed by the Bush Administration. That would postpone, in Sharon's mind, the need to make any sort of accommodation with Palestinian national aspirations.

The U.S. would prefer to keep Israel out of its war on al-Qaeda, for the simple reason that Israeli involvement muddies the issue for Washington's Arab allies. Arab governments have struggled even to condemn suicide terrorism by the Palestinians, which is viewed on Arab streets, and even in the corridors of power, as a response to the Israeli occupation. Syria, for example, has cooperated actively with U.S. intelligence services in rounding up al-Qaeda suspects, but has steadfastly refused U.S. demands to close down the operations of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Damascus. Now, al-Qaeda may be trying to cash in on the same phenomenon: By identifying itself with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bin Laden's group may also be hoping to undermine Arab support for the U.S. war on terror.