The Shabak announced today (the Independent’s story here and Christian Science Monitor’s here) with great fanfare, and wide international press coverage, that it had broken a major Al Qaeda terror conspiracy that was in “advanced stages.” The plan was quite complex, even convoluted, and involved plans variously to cause a bus to overturn and spray fleeing victims and rescue workers with gunfire and, when that plan didn’t pan out, execute simultaneous terror attacks on the International Convention Center (Binyaney Ha’Umah) and the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.
The latter target made my ears perk up. It’s bad enough to plot to kill Israelis, but if you can add Americans as victims you’ve hit the terror jackpot. It serves the same function as the 9/11 attacks in orchestrating an almost permanent national sympathy among Americans for Israel’s draconian counter-terror policies. What better way to elicit U.S. sympathy for Israeli interests than to thwart a terror attack on Americans in Israel?
To be clear, I’m not denying the possibility that there were three Palestinians who got it into their heads that they could organize a major international terror attack inside the most highly guarded garrison state in the world (with the exception of possibly North Korea and a few others). But what I am questioning is just about everything else. First, the Shabak claims the plot was in advanced stages of preparation:
The agency said it the plot was in “advanced planning stages” but gave no further information on how close the men got to carrying it out.
I’ve queried my own Israeli source with high-level political, military and intelligence contacts, who confirms the plot was not what it’s made out to be in the above passage. In other words, not in an advanced state of preparation.
The alleged conspirators carried out their plot via Skype and Facebook. They’d never met in person. They’d never met the international masterminds allegedly from Chechnya who were to help them facilitate the plot. They’d never received any terror training nor left the country. Hell, they didn’t even have criminal or security records. So how far along could they have been?
To clarify further, I’m not saying the Shabak isn’t to be commended if they did foil such a plot. That’s their job. But what I am questioning is the timing of public announcement about the foiling of the plot. This news is timely in two ways: first, there is currently a highly dysfunctional international meeting in Geneva attempting to resolve the Syrian civil war. The brickbats flying back and forth there between the major powers who can’t agree who should be attending; and the Syrian opposition which wasn’t coming, but then was, then almost wasn’t again, and finally was; remind the world of what an incredibly dangerous place the region is currently: especially Israel’s border with Syria.
An even more important aspect of the timeliness of this story is the equally contentious Israeli-Palestinian peace talks led by U.S. secretary of State John Kerry. As these negotiations enter into a more intensive phase in which real territorial compromises are being urged by the Americans upon the reluctant Israelis, reminding the Americans of just how tenuous Israel’s security is on its eastern flank, certainly strengthens Israel’s hand. Or at least, that’s how the Israeli security hawks would see it.
Let’s remember defense minister Bogie Yaalon going apoplectic in calling Kerry “messianic” and “obsessed” because, poor delusional leftist that he is, he believes Israel should give up the Jordan Valley. In my post of a few days ago, I quoted the absolute scorn and derision with which Yaalon greeted American assurances that its eastern border with Jordan and Syria would be the most secure of any in the world thanks to the latest electronic sensors, satellites and the like. Recall as well, Bibi Netanyahu’s saying again last week Israel couldn’t possibly leave the Jordan Valley because of the danger of infiltration and terror attacks “from the east.” Isn’t it convenient that precisely such a planned attack rears its ugly head at this propitious moment?
It always pays for Israel to remind the world that it is the last bulwark against Islamist fundamentalism. In this case, Israeli intelligence officials have even managed to plant the idea that Al Qaeda’s top leader is implicated in this specific plot:
“This is the first time that Ayman al-Zawahri was directly involved,” he [Avi Oreg, Aman (IDF intelligence) veteran] said. “For them, it would have been a great achievement.”
Here’s the actual “evidence” to support the claim:
According to Shin Bet officials, the recruiter’s claim that he worked for al-Zawahiri, which is unconfirmed, is based on statements made by the suspects during questioning.
So we have, not the conspirators’ direct word and certainly not any evidence from the original source of the claim, but a Shabak officer claiming the suspects claimed (which in itself is labelled as “unconfirmed”) that the alleged mastermind claimed to have a direct conduit to al Zawahiri. Wow. That’s a ton of claims. If I had as detailed a map pointing me to the location of gold in an Alaskan mountain stream, I’d be a rich man sometime before the sun incinerated the earth in a few billion years.
Oreg also invokes the specter of Caucusus terrorism by claiming, again without any proof, that the masterminds of the entire affair would be coming from Chechnya:
Oreg said that many foreign fighters fighting the Assad regime are from Chechnya and predominantly Muslim parts of Russia and speculated that the militants with the phony documents would be from there.
The real proof of the pudding regarding the seriousness of this story is in the U.S. response. If our embassy was in any danger whatsoever, or this plan had truly been as advanced as Shabak is claiming, you would not hear the following almost nonchalant response from State Department representatives:
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said US investigators and intelligence officials were not yet able to corroborate the Israeli information and declined comment on specifics of the case.
“Obviously we’re looking into it as well,” Harf told reporters Wednesday. “I don’t have reason to believe it’s not true. I just don’t have independent verification.”
She said there were no plans to evacuate the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and was not immediately aware of stepped-up security measures there in light of the arrests.
Do you think if there was any danger to U.S. personnel the Shabak would not have informed the U.S. before it collared these alleged terror masterminds so that we could take necessary and appropriate precautions?
There’s also an element of deja vu to this. Last September 11th (get the reference?), when Bibi felt threatened by Iran’s “charm offensive” at the UN, the Shabak “broke” another major terror plot (irony alert) that involved a poor shlep of an Iranian taking pictures of the U.S. embassy which were supposedly meant to be used in a plot to blow the building sky-high. Those damn Iranians!
So while there are those in the western media who will report this story with blaring trumpets as an example of Israel as the bastion of civilization among a sea of Islamist firebrands bent on its destruction; a lot of caution is in order. Israel’s security apparatus is exquisitely aware of the role that a well-placed terror plot can play in impacting the political and security environment. In other words, all is not what it appears when it comes to the Israeli national security state. While it faces very real dangers from which it needs protection, it is not above exploiting those alleged dangers for political benefit. All this must be kept in mind when considering the real meaning and weight of this story. Caution and skepticism is always warranted.
My very strong hunch is that this entire episode is meant much more for show than for actual substance. Which is unfortunate, because if the Shabak stuck to doing its job and nothing more, it would be taken much more seriously as a security agency. As it is, it’s practiced in the art of grandstanding and theatrics, as much as the genuine deterrence of terror.