The kidnapping in the Gaza Strip of Israeli-Druze CNN producer Riad Ali, and his release 18 hours later, may have been a fleeting episode in the endless saga of world terrorism and the Palestinian terrorist campaign against Israel. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts see in it a sneak preview of al Qaeda’s hidden agenda in the coming years. Slowly but surely, Palestinian terrorist strongholds, starting with the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, are being infested by Osama bin Laden‘s cells. The Gaza Strip is gradually mutating into a new regional Middle East terrorist hotbed, bigger and more dangerous than Fallujah in Iraq or the S. Waziristan badlands on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Gaza may be home to a bigger fighting force – some 10,000 gunmen – but in other respects many parallels can be drawn between the narrow Palestinian terrorist enclave on Israel’s border and the al Qaeda-Taliban hideouts in the Waziristan mountains.
Both depend on the symbiotic relations they develop with hosts.
Just as al Qaeda depended logistically on the Afghan Taliban regime before it was smashed by the October 2001 US-led invasion, so too are Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad nourished logistically and sponsored by the Palestinian Authority’s various branches.
Even more troubling, whereas al Qaeda and the Taliban were and remain separate entities, our intelligence experts believe that between 7,000 and 9,000 Palestinian security service officers, whose salaries are subsidized by the European taxpayer and Gulf oil revenues – moonlight for terrorist organizations. They draw two paychecks – one, along with their weapons and training, from the Palestinian Authority, ostensibly to combat terrorism, the other to fight should to shoulder with the terrorists wielding those same weapons.
In Waziristan, terrorist bases are planted in supportive tribal, mainly Pashtun-controlled, regions, useful jumping off points for strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan and wayside stations for the flocks of transiting members of al Qaeda’s spreading global network on the move between the Middle East, Persian Gulf, Horn of Africa, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia and Russia, including Chechnya and the Caucasus.
In the Gaza Strip, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Palestinian experts note, terrorist units are structured more around a family or clan nucleus. The various groups are federated under the umbrella Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), one of Yasser Arafat‘s creations. Mahmoud Shabatat is supreme commander of the PRC, working out of headquarters in the southern town of Khan Younis. Shabatat, who takes orders from no one but Arafat, controls dozens, if not hundreds, of terrorist cells from a rainbow coalition of groups that include Arafat’s Fatah and its al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades as well as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hizballah and also al Qaeda cells in the Gaza Strip.
Each cell is embedded in a local family or clan. In some cases, two or three Hamas or Popular Front cells share two or three extended families. Their first loyalty is to the kinship group, and only then to the terrorist group to which they belong.
A symbiotic parallelogram
The warren of Sinai-Rafah smuggling tunnels which are ultimately controlled by Arafat and his nephew, Gaza Strip commander and Palestinian military intelligence chief Mussa Arafat, function on strictly clan lines. Officially, they are the conduits for “importing” weapons, ammunition and explosives for the use of terror groups and for the stockpiles Palestinian security forces are setting up for a comprehensive war against Israel. However, the clans of southern Rafah, Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah, as well as those further north, each controls a bunch of tunnels. And if Mussa Arafat, for example, wants anti-tank or Qassam missiles smuggled through a certain tunnel rather than AK-47 bullets, a switch requiring structural modifications, he must place his order with the clan head in charge of the right tunnel. The family head will then ask for Shabatat’s okay before taking the order.
For Yasser Arafat, this disjointed organizational structure makes sense, because it is integral to his overall method of promoting interdependency within his movement and, more importantly, to cloak the distribution of tasks among its various arms.
It is generally assumed that the smuggled war materials are for the Palestinian Authority’s use in its war against Israel, a gross violation of the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords Arafat signed with the late Yitzhak Rabin. But what really goes on behind this screen has been discovered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s to be much broader: the additional use of the tunnels to funnel arms, explosives and fighters to Hizballah, al Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations and Washington’s enemies in its global war against terrorism.
Just as al Qaeda in Waziristan wages a two-front war – in Afghanistan and in Pakistan – the Palestinians fight their terrorist war inside and outside the territories they control. As well as their operations in Egypt, Israel and Jordan, the northern Sinai towns of Egyptian Rafah and el Arish are their key rear training and operations bases for action in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom.
Al Qaeda closes in on N. Sinai and Gaza
Conveniently for al Qaeda, the PRC’s smuggling operations have branched out to embrace the entire region, now covering Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states, under the management of the Abu Semada Dana clan, which guards its local interests in the Gaza Strip by keeping a canny foot also in the PRC. Last year, only a trickle of Hizballah and al Qaeda fighters entered the Gaza Strip through northern Sinai. But since early 2004, the flow has swelled as al Qaeda operatives cross the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia in speedboats, land in northern Sinai and fan out into Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Their routes have come under the aegis of the PRC which now also provides transportation, food, weapons, and if needed, shelter for several days, for al Qaeda cells landing in northern Sinai.
This logistical cooperation has generated joint terrorist operations.
In Jerusalem, Sinai is now marked red for danger. The prime minister’s counter-terrorism authority warned Israeli vacationers against traveling to Sinai’s azure beaches but was ignored by tens of thousands of Israelis who chose to spend the Succoth festival beginning Wednesday, September 29, laid back in the picturesque, craggy peninsula Israel held from 1967 until the 1982 peace with Egypt. Israeli intelligence and counter-terrorism officials eye anxiously the desert resorts favored by Israelis which are dangerously close to the routes traveled by al Qaeda cells crossing in from Saudi Arabia and Hamas fighters moving in from the western Sinai. The two could easily combine for synchronized multiple attacks coordinated by the PRC in Rafah.
Otherwise, US and Israeli officials are turning a blind eye to al Qaeda’s encroachment on the Gaza Strip from northern Sinai. Washington wants nothing to upset its relations with the Egyptian government and the factions of the Palestinian leadership they still recognize, despite an official policy of snubbing Arafat. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and other top officials fear his Gaza pullout plan would be jeopardized if word got out about the expanding scope of the terrorist threat.
Every American officer and soldier serving in the Sinai peacekeeping force on the Red Sea and every Israeli serviceman patrolling the Gaza-Egypt border knows what is going on.
This week, two events, also reviewed in this issue, offered a glimpse of the subterranean terrorist incursions into new territory: the short-lived kidnapping of the CNN producer in Gaza and the exposure of an al Qaeda network in Beirut in time to thwart a plot to blow up the British, Australian and Japanese embassies in the Lebanese capital.
Counter-terror experts with an inside track on the goings-on in the Gaza Strip, northern Sinai and the Palestinian refugee camps of southern Lebanon, will not be astonished to learn that the captured al Qaeda network turned out to be comprised entirely of Palestinians.