Israel says it has foiled an "advanced" al Qaeda plan to carry out a suicide bombing on the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and bomb other targets, in what analysts said was the first time the global terror network's leadership has been directly involved in plotting an attack inside Israel.
The Shin Bet intelligence agency said it had arrested three Palestinians who allegedly plotted bombings, shootings, kidnappings and other attacks. It said the Palestinian men, two from Jerusalem and one from the West Bank, were recruited by an operative based in the Gaza Strip who worked for al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
The State Department said the US was not yet able to corroborate the Israeli claims.
While a number of groups inspired by al Qaeda have carried out attacks against Israel before, this appeared to mark the first time an attack was directly planned by al Qaeda leaders.
The Shin Bet said the Palestinians planned on attacking a Jerusalem conference center with firearms and then kill rescue workers with a truck bomb. Al Qaeda also planned to send foreign militants to attack the US Embassy in Tel Aviv on the same day using explosives supplied by the Palestinians, it said.
It said five men whose identity and nationality were not disclosed were to fly into Israel with fake Russian passports to attack the American embassy. It was not clear where the men are located.
The Palestinian operatives had planned on several other attacks, it said. One included shooting out the tires of a bus and then gunning down passengers and ambulance workers.
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. It said the Palestinians from Jerusalem had used their Israeli resident cards to scope out and gather intelligence on targets. They were arrested in the past few weeks, it said.
A number of al Qaeda-inspired groups have carried out rocket attacks from Gaza and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, as well as shootings in the West Bank. Israeli intelligence calls these groups part of a "global jihad" movement.
Aviv Oreg, a former head of the Israeli military intelligence unit that tracks al Qaeda, said the plot marked the first time it has been directly linked to an attempted attack in Israel.
"This is the first time that Ayman al-Zawahri was directly involved," he said. "For them, it would have been a great achievement."
The Shin Bet said the three suspects made contact with al Qaeda over the internet. It said they planned on travelling to Syria - where various jihadist groups are battling the forces of President Bashar Assad - for training.
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.
Al-Zawahri's location is unknown, but he was last believed to be in Pakistan. He is the subject of an intense manhunt and is not believed to personally go online or pick up the phone to discuss terror plots, experts say.
Last year, a threat that began with a message from the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to al-Zawahri led to the closures of embassies across the Middle East and Africa, a US official said at the time. The message essentially sought out al-Zawahri's blessing to launch attacks.
Al-Qaida-inspired groups are on the rise in the Gaza Strip, which is run by the Islamic militant Hamas.
These groups accuse Hamas of being too lenient because it has observed cease-fires with Israel and has stopped short of imposing Islamic religious law, or Shariah, in Gaza.
In the West Bank, Israel and the Palestinian Authority of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have cracked down on Islamic militants. Three Salafis, members of a movement that advocates a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law, were killed in a shootout with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank last November.
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 on Wednesday (local time). "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.
ISRAELI STRIKES KILL TWO MILITANTS
Two alleged operatives from two different militant organisations based in Gaza were killed on Wednesday in a targeted missile strike carried out by the Israeli air force, according to Israeli military spokesmen.
Israeli forces killed Ahmed Zaanin, an alleged member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, alongside his cousin, Mohammed Zaanin, who was a member of Islamic Jihad, Israeli radio reported.
The Israeli military said Ahmed Zaanin was responsible for firing multiple rockets into Israel, including a barrage last week during former prime minister Ariel Sharon's funeral, which took place at Sharon's ranch four miles from Gaza. The funeral was attended by Vice President Joe Biden and other high-level dignitaries.
This is the second targeted attack on a Gaza-based militant in four days. On Sunday, Israeli forces fired a missile at Ahmad Saad, who was wounded while he rode his motorbike through the coastal enclave. The Israeli army described Saad as "a key Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative in the Gaza Strip specialising in rocket launching".
Twice this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued warnings to Hamas, the Islamic group that governs Gaza, to control rocket attacks against Israel or face the consequences.
During a news conference Tuesday with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Netanyahu said, "We thwart terror attacks if we identify them while they are still being planned and we respond decisively against those who harm us."
He added, "If Hamas and the terror organisations have forgotten this message, they will learn it harshly very soon."
Reports from Gaza indicate that Hamas is attempting to clamp down on smaller militant groups by deploying its own forces along the border.
Hamas spokeswoman Isra Almodallal confirmed that Hamas troops are now stationed along the border to prevent further rocket fire and said the organization was not interested in an escalation with Israel.
Small groups challenging Hamas' authority in the Gaza Strip is nothing new, said Menachem Klein, an expert in Israel-Palestinian relations at Bar-Ilan University. "Hamas has an interest to keep its power and crack down on the jihadist organisations. These organisations favor anarchy rather than regime, while Hamas is more interested in keeping itself in power."
- AP, Washington Post