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JERUSALEM – A website affiliated with al-Qaida yesterday announced the terror groups’ Iraq insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was responsible for last week’s rocket attack that nearly hit a U.S. naval ship in the Gulf of Aqaba and an airport in Israel’s Eilat port town, driving home fears here the terror chieftain has established a base in Jordan intent on carrying out attacks against both the Heshamite kingdom and the Jewish state.

Some are pointing to ideological connections between Zarqawi’s group and Hamas, and warning al-Qaida may try to gain a foothold in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s departure from the area.

On a website affiliated with al-Qaida’s Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Zarqawi this morning claimed his “Al-Qaida of the Two Rivers” carried out the “raid on Aqaba and missile firing on Eilat.” The statement also said terrorists involved in the attack returned safely to their “base” in Iraq, challenging Jordan’s arrests yesterday of militants it suspects were behind the rocket launchings.

Jordanian officials announced they detained Mohammed Hassan Abdullah al-Sihly, a Syrian national with ties to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades accused of plotting the attack and firing the missiles with two of his sons and an Iraqi militant. The officials said the alleged plotters were part of an Iraq-based terrorist group led by Iraqi Mohammed Hamid Hussein, know to be involved with the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.

Al-Sihly, who lives in Amman, had been surveying sites for the attack in Aqaba since Aug. 6, the Jordanians said.

On Friday, Katyusha rockets were fired toward two U.S. warships docked in Aqaba and an Israeli airport in Eilat. One missile struck a Jordanian military hospital. A Jordanian soldier was killed in the attacks.

Zarqawi was immediately suspected of involvement. Audiotapes purportedly from Zarqawi recently vowed to punish Jordan’s rulers for “aiding the treacherous enemy America.” The Iraqi terrorist was suspected last year of plotting a chemical attack against U.S. officials in Jordan, and has long talked of striking the “Zionist enemy” and U.S. interests near the Jewish state.

The strike in Eilat set off an internal debate here about whether the missile was an intentional hit against Israel, or strayed from targeting America’s naval ships in Aqaba.

Officially, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces would only say the attack is “still being investigated.” But military officials told WND the Katyusha strike near Israel’s coastal airport is being taken as an al-Qaida-linked attack directed against Israel.

“We believe Eilat was the target,” a military official said. “This leads to questions about a new cell established in Jordan to open a new front and attack U.S. and Israeli interests right here. Jordan is a major supply route for American efforts in Iraq.”

The official said Jordanian forces were combing the country for a new al-Qaida network with suspected bases on their soil.

Jordan denies providing logistical backing to President Bush’s military campaign in Iraq, though the U.S. Army has said in briefings it has used the country as a main supply route.

The Aqaba and Eilat attacks were immediately claimed by al-Qaida’s Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an umbrella group that is said to include Zarqawi’s network, and which claimed responsibility for attacks in Sharm el Sheikh in July and Taba last year, which together killed more than 100 people.

Dr. Reuven Erlich, director of the Terrorism and Intelligence Information Center at Israel’s Center for Special Studies, told WND ideological links between the Azzam Brigades and Hamas is of major concern, particularly as the Palestinian terror group gains a foothold in the Gaza Strip in the wake of Israel’s pullout from the area.

“The connections between Hamas and Abdullah Azzam are deep and need to be addressed,” said Erlich. “We found Azzam’s picture on Hamas posters from Gaza and a lot of Hamas’ material. He is one of the most important figures in both al-Qaida and Hamas Palestinian terrorism.”

Azzam, from the north Samarian village of Silat al-Harithiya, was an early member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He met Osama bin Laden in the early ’80s and, according to many reports, became his main spiritual mentor. He wrote a book, “The Defense of Muslim Lands, the Most Important Personal Duty,” stressing that land previously under Islamic control must be returned by way of jihad. The book, widely touted by Hamas, is among al-Qaida’s stated guidelines for its global jihad.

During Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, Israel captured a large amount of Hamas material containing the images and doctrine of Azzam.

According to an analysis of the Hamas material by the Center for Special Studies: “Azzam’s portrait in materials reveal that he is perceived by Hamas as one of the four ‘outstanding figures’ of the Islamic ‘struggle’ in Palestine and around the world. … Dr. Azzam is a prominent source of inspiration for global jihad. By glorifying him and turning him into a role model, Hamas exceeds its Palestinian-national aspect and positions itself ideologically in the global jihad camp, although in fact at this time its terrorist-operational activities are focused only on Israel and the PA-administered territories.”

With Israel yesterday completing its evacuation of Jewish homes in Gaza, there has been concern al-Qaida, including groups linked to Zarqawi, is looking to establish a cell in the area.

A group calling itself Jundallah or “Allah’s Brigade” claimed in May it set up shop in Gaza. The new terror group is said to consist mainly of former Hamas and Islamic Jihad members who believe Palestinian terror groups have become too moderate. Jundallah says it has close ties to al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

Also, several al-Qaida-connected militants have been arrested by Israel’s Shin Bet Security Services for attempting to set up cells in Gaza.

Yaacov Amidror, former chief of research for Israeli military intelligence, told WND, “It’s becoming clear Hamas will take over Gaza when Israel leaves. Today, one of the weaknesses of al-Qaida is its lack of a safe haven in the Middle East. The new realities in Gaza will make it one of the most convenient places for al-Qaida to base their global operations. The Gaza Strip will become a paradise because it will be area in which the population and the terror groups in power, especially Hamas, share the same ideology as al-Qaida.”

Amidror said al-Qaida is not seen by Hamas as a threat to its dominance in Gaza.

“Al-Qaida isn’t seeking control of Gaza. Hamas emphasizes the war against Israel before the struggle against the rest of the West, the Christians and the non-Islamist world. Al-Qaida would use its Gaza base to fight against infidels around the world.”

Related stories:

Al-Qaida’s next base Jewish homes?

In Israel’s vacuum, al-Qaida moves in to Gaza

Evidence: Al-Qaida rocket attack in Gaza false

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