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The Al-Qaida-Hezbollah hit-teams landed on the Israeli coast in the dark of night.
They came from Lebanon in March to expand the Palestinian suicide offensive and boost it to a new level. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism experts report that their activation in a fresh wave of terror is probably only days away.
In addition to buffeting the Middle East, al-Qaida cells could be heading for the United States and parts of Europe. The network may also single out U.S. targets and bases abroad, while mounting attacks on the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan.
But the main fireworks will explode in Israel, with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, giving the final signal for the show to begin from his besieged three-room enclave in the West Bank town of Ramallah. He will be making a desperate bid to break himself and his forces out of Israel’s iron grip on all the Palestinian towns of the West Bank.
Signs of the coming terror offensive are as clear as footprints in the sand. Israeli military intelligence, the CIA and other Israeli and U.S. counter-terrorism agencies have discovered, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, that the six major terrorist attacks that in March rocked Israeli Mediterranean coastal cities – Tel Aviv, Haifa, Netanya and Ashdod – had a hidden purpose, besides killing a large number of Israelis. They diverted attention from the rubber dinghies dropping al-Qaida and Hezbollah terror squads, interspersed with Palestinians, along Israeli beaches.
The discovery was confirmed in the final reports from the investigation of two Netanya attacks: the assault at the Jeremy Hotel on March 9 and the Passover Seder massacre at the seaside resort’s Park Hotel, 18 days later.
According to military sources, after both attacks, black dinghies were found buried on the sandy beach, prompting wide-scale searches up and down the Israeli coast from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Ashkelon in the south.
Ten dinghies turned up in at least three locations: five in Netanya, the rest in nearby Michmoret and Caesarea. Each dinghy can carry eight to 10 commandos with their weapons and gear. Tracks in the sand showed that each toted a heavy pack weighing 40 to 70 kilos (90 to 155 lbs.), suggesting large explosives charges or heavy weapons, such as missiles. The pattern of footprints pointed to highly trained fighting men.
Intelligence sources report that al-Qaida and Hezbollah obtained the commando dinghies from the naval facility in Lebanon run by Palestinian hardliner Ahmed Jibril, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, in collaboration with Syrian military intelligence. Such black boats will have come from an anchorage on the Lebanese coast near Tripoli in the north, or from the small shipyard at Jibril’s home base at Naameh, 15 miles south of Beirut, where he keeps a fleet of small commando boats.
For most of Sunday, March 31, Israeli security forces closed the old Tel Aviv-Haifa highway along a 70-mile (110-km) stretch – from the Petah Tikva junction just north of Tel Aviv to the southern entrances of Haifa. This was analogous in U.S. terms to blocking the main road from Washington, D.C., to Annapolis, Md., and from there to Delaware.
The public notice to frustrated motorists and commuters explained the measure as due to the incursion of Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank. The al-Qaida-Hezbollah infiltration from the opposite direction, the Mediterranean, has never been published till now.
But it went into effect the morning after a suicide bomber blew up a coffee shop on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, about 600 meters (yards) from the seafront. Later, security forces found prints indicating more dinghy landings under cover of the commotion raised by the blast.
The assumption is that the incoming terrorists made tracks for pre-arranged hiding places in Israeli Arab towns or villages, or in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus. Israeli forces tried unsuccessfully to block the route, having concluded from the data gathered up to that point that between 120 and 150 terrorists made the landfall.
That number is presumed to have split up into 30 to 40 hit-teams of three to five men each. In their hideouts they are standing by for a signal or codeword to launch simultaneous strikes.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, neither Israel nor the United States knows who holds the signal or codeword, or under what circumstances it will be given. Some experts believe it is Arafat, who has the prerogative of ordering the imported terror teams into action when he believes his life is in real danger, or when Israel’s current military offensive against terrorist strongholds in Palestinian cities reaches its climax.
But the flag-raiser may also be a top-level al-Qaida operative outside Israel or Palestinian territory. Possible candidates: Osama bin Laden; his deputy Ayman Zawahri; Imad Mughniyeh, the chief operations officer for al-Qaida and Iran in the Middle East and Gulf; or Abu Zubaydah, reported captured last week in eastern Pakistan.
U.S., Israeli, Pakistani and Indian counter-terrorism experts tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly they cannot confirm U.S. claims that the captive was indeed Abu Zubaydah. One thing is clear: This coming wave of terror, if not prevented, has a damage potential in casualties and inroads to Israel’s strategic resources and economy on a scale well beyond the aftermath of the Sept. 11 hijack-suicides at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
Al-Qaida may have also mounted a similar threat to other countries besides Israel. Several intelligence reports speak of clandestine hit-teams infiltrating the United States and targeting countries participating in the U.S.-led war on terror, Italy, Britain, France, Norway and Germany. Some may also have landed in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt and Jordan.
Since Israel has failed to apprehend any of the infiltrators or their gear, no one knows whether they are carrying conventional weapons or the chemical, biological or nuclear variety.
A deepening sense of foreboding has consequently settled over U.S. and Israeli counter-terrorism agencies. They fear that the signal for a concerted terror attack in Israel will also activate terrorist cells elsewhere, including in the United States.
America is therefore deeply involved in the operation to lay hands on the infiltrators and find out more about their plans. It has begun by evacuating U.S. diplomatic families and staff from Israel over the weekend. But also, on the quiet, large contingents of U.S. Special Forces have been diverted to Israel from bases in Afghanistan, Oman and the Sinai to bolster the chase.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources say the U.S. and Israel are in a race against time to head off the ticking human bombs from Lebanon before they strike. Israel is engaged additionally in keeping the lid clamped down on Yasser Arafat and immersed in a full-blown military operation to flush terrorists out of their strongholds in Palestinian cities, while holding back the tide of daily suicide attempts. Progress must be made before the al-Qaida-Hezbollah hammer-blow falls.
The success of this fresh influx of terrorists to infiltrate by sea points to three disturbing military and intelligence problems:
1. The creation of a terrorist network as sophisticated as this – involving 1,000 to 2,000 field and backroom personnel for recruitment, training, arming and funding – is beyond the means of a single terrorist organization, even al-Qaida. It could only have been set up with the help of one or more national intelligence services. Yet there was no advance hint of what was to come.
2. Neither the U.S. nor Israeli intelligence appears to have received advance warning of a large-scale al-Qaeda-Hezbollah seaborne incursion in the works.
3. The commando boats were most likely dropped from a merchant or fishing vessel opposite Israeli shores, yet they were not spotted by Israel’s dense network of coastal radar stations, ships and surveillance planes. The U.S. Sixth Fleet, deployed at maximum strength in the eastern Mediterranean, was likewise hoodwinked.
This problem is pivotal, because it suggests again that al-Qaida has the ability – demonstrated in September 2001 – to punch holes in U.S. and Israeli electronic defensive systems.
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