Lori Hickey

On January 22, the Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, announced the arrests of three Palestinians recruited by an alleged al Qaeda operative to conduct a series of attacks on multiple targets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. According to reports, Ariv Al-Sham, a militant in Gaza who claims to work for al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, recruited operatives online to create a small terrorist cell in Palestine. Two Palestinians, Iyad Khalil Abu-Sara and Roubeen Abu Najma, were arrested in Jerusalem after they were recruited separately by Al-Sham via Facebook and Skype. They are both East Jerusalem residents with Israeli identification cards who allegedly received bomb-making materials from Al-Sham through online communications. Abu-Sara and Najma were arrested on December 25 along with a third suspect, Ala Anam, who is a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Jenin. Although they were arrested the same day, the three suspects apparently did not know each other. Among the targets of the alleged, foiled plot include the Jerusalem Convention Center, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, and a bus traveling between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim.

According to Shin Bet, Abu-Sara seems to have been the most involved as he had the greatest amount of communication with Al-Sham and volunteered for several attacks. In one scenario, Abu-Sara was tasked to orchestrate simultaneous attacks at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, along with five additional terrorists. He allegedly mapped routes to the convention center and had checked out the U.S. Embassy to conduct pre-operational surveillance. Abu-Sara was supposed to provide the five operatives with false Russian passports to allow them entry into Israel. The plan called for three terrorists to detonate suicide bombs during a conference or performance inside the center. Abu-Sara, a former truck driver, would then detonate an explosives-laden truck outside the facility in a suicide operation. At some point, first responders were going to be targeted. At the same time, the two remaining operatives would be strategically located outside the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, where they would also self-detonate their explosives.

Abu-Sara also discussed a potential “sacrifice attack” with Al-Sham, described as a terrorist attack with gunfire in which militants then engage with security forces. The plan included a group of operatives that would open fire at a bus traveling between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. The terrorists would fire shots at the bus’ wheels, causing it to overturn. They would then target bus passengers at close range, in addition to firing on emergency responders at the scene.

Al-Sham also planned to send Abu-Sara to a terrorist training camp in Syria prior to executing the attacks. Abu-Sara was in the process of searching flights to Turkey, where he would meet with other operatives that would help him travel to Syria. Members of jihadist groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been actively assisting militants in their travels to the country. Israeli security forces likely made Abu-Sara’s arrest as the plans were falling into place.

Separately, Najma reportedly confessed to Israeli officials he had been plotting to kidnap a soldier from the Jerusalem Central bus station, and planning to bomb a residential building where Israeli Jews live. Anam, the third suspect, allegedly communicated with Al-Sham about establishing a jihadist cell in the West Bank town of Samaria to carry out attacks.

The MSA Research and Intelligence Analysis (RIA) Group has been monitoring this situation, and has identified the following implications:

      • Although the U.S. State Department has acknowledged reports of the thwarted plot, stating it is “closely following the situation” and in talks with Israeli officials, there is still speculation over its legitimacy. Additionally, Palestinian security officials are dismissing the claims, saying there is “no indication” of an al Qaeda presence in the area.
      • Al-Sham’s claim that he works for al-Zawahiri remains unconfirmed. However, if validated, this would be the first time the al Qaeda leadership has directly helped plan a potential terror plot inside Israel.
      • Although Hamas has not opposed or stopped other terror activity emanating from the West Bank, they deny any direct alignment with al Qaeda.
      • With the ongoing conflicts nearby in Syria and Egypt, there has been greater opportunity for the global jihadist movement to facilitate potential acts against Israel.
      • There has also been a larger push from al-Zawahiri to inspire jihad against Israeli interests.
Regardless, the alleged plot can be characterized as elaborate, and one that would have been extremely difficult to execute. There are many layers to the plot that provide insight into terrorist tradecraft and tactics.

  • The Role of Social Media: The case highlights the significant role of social media and the internet in terrorist recruitment operations and communications. The individuals were sought out and recruited online through Facebook and Skype, which is a relatively common practice for global terrorist organizations to find candidates and issue orders. Most of these attempts fail, given the increased ability of security agencies to track online communications; however, the acts have also brought some success to terror groups. The suspects also received bomb-making instruction manuals from Al-Sham, which are easily accessible online and provide extremists with the opportunity to train at home, keeping a low profile.
  • Strategic Recruiting & Pre-Operational Surveillance: Over the past several years, militants aligned with al Qaeda ideology have been seeking out operatives who live in the targeted location. In this case, Abu-Sara and Najma were most likely chosen due to their residency in East Jerusalem and possession of Israeli identification cards. This is consistent with the homegrown threat as recruiters attempt to find operatives who will not raise suspicion, as well as have the ability to easily conduct surveillance on potential targets.
  • False Identification: Five additional operatives were set to pose as Russians using forged passports to gain access to Israel. It remains unclear whether these militants were identified or if the passports were in their possession. These plans may indicate the attacks were being timed to coincide with the Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia. Chechen Islamists, not necessarily aligned with al Qaeda, have already committed several major attacks in southern Russia in advance of the Games and have openly threatened the Olympics.
  •  Simultaneous & Second Wave Attacks: The thwarted plot called for simultaneous attacks, which is common al Qaeda tradecraft. These types of attacks are typically planned to achieve maximum casualties and economic impact in addition to garnering media attention. The alleged plans also included second wave attacks to target first responders at the attack site. This is also a common tactic, typically seen abroad.

MSA Security's Research and Intelligence Analysis Group provides real-time intelligence on events and worldwide threats as they evolve.
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