Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah dropped a powerful intelligence bombshell on US secretary of state Colin Powell’s Middle East mission on Thursday, April 11. The Hizballah leader offered to trade Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenboim, kidnapped on October 20, 2000, for a halt in Israel’s blitz against the Jenin refugee camp, and a promise to spare the lives of the 100 to 200 diehards driven into a corner still fighting by superior Israeli force.
Jenin, home to some 50,000 Palestinians, is situated in the central West Bank, about 45 miles (70 km) north of Ramallah and some 15 miles (25 km) from Israel’s central coastal cities. About 20,000 populate the city’s teeming refugee camp, packed into one square kilometer. Jenin and its satellite villages are conservatively religious, influenced by the teachings of Abdullah Azzam in the 1960s and 1970s. From this charismatic sheikh, Osama bin Laden borrowed the ideological foundations of his al Qaeda movement.
In 1986, Azzam moved to Peshawar in Pakistan. To this day, some intelligence experts in Pakistan and the Middle East contend that his murder was the work of bin Laden’s men, because by then, the Saudi-born terrorist was thinking of establishing al Qaeda and he feared Azzam would challenge his leadership.
Knowing the town’s history, Israel was not surprised when Jenin and its refugee camp became a hothouse for fanatical Islamic Jihad and Hamas suicides after Arafat launched his uprising in September 2000. The southern section of the camp adjoins Jenin while its northern and western sections are close to Israeli communities and the nearby Palestinian cities of Tulkarm and Qalqilya.
As for Tannenboim, Israel has repeatedly portrayed a businessman whom the Hizballah abducted somewhere in Western Europe, apparently Switzerland, in order to capture an Israeli hostage. The Hizballah describes him as an Israeli army colonel, hinting he was tied to Israeli intelligence. One theory is that he was assigned to seek the whereabouts of the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped two weeks earlier on the Israeli- Lebanese frontier.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources assert that all four Israelis were abducted in a plot conceived by the master terrorist and ace hostage-taker Imad Mughniyeh, the chief operations officer of the Iranian intelligence and terror network and its liaison officer with al Qaeda and the Hizballah.
Clever and dangerous, Mughniyeh is one of the FBI’s 22 most wanted men in connection with the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He has long been sought for earlier exploits. It is widely believed that Mughniyeh was responsible for the abductions of Western hostages, mainly Americans, which plagued Beirut in the 1980s. He was also a planner of the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998.
One theory holds that Mughniyeh snatched Tannenboim – not in Switzerland but in the Gulf emirate of Qatar, where the Israeli was trying to pick up the trail of the three abducted soldiers. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources suggest that Tannenboim, when he himself was kidnapped, was moved to Abu Dhabi and from there to Iran. To keep him far from Israel’s long arm, he was sent for safekeeping to a radical Moslem group in Pakistan closely allied to bin Laden.
That group is believed to be have also participated in the kidnap and murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in January. The extremist Jaish-e-Muhammed is held responsible for that crime and some of its leaders, among them Ahmad Omar Said Sheikh, are on trial in Pakistan for its commission.
All this suggests that Nasrallah has no knowledge of Tannenboim’s whereabouts, just as the detained Jaish-e-Mohammed operatives do not know the identities of the group’s members who held Pearl and later murdered him. Nasrallah is following a Mughniyeh-scripted game plan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources can report that US and Israeli counter-terror officials suspect a link between the abductions of the American journalist and the Israeli businessman. After organizing the Israeli kidnappings, Mughniyeh turned his attention to Jews and Israelis with pivotal roles in the US and Israeli media and intelligence services. Back in the 1980s, Mughniyeh held 27 Western hostages and used them to shake the foundations of the Reagan administration. Now he is planning another large-scale hostage-taking campaign to destabilize the Bush administration and Israeli government. Pearl and Tannenboim were his first victims.
Since last year, Israeli intelligence has suspected, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, that Mughniyeh was the moving force behind the operational relationship between Nasrallah and Yasser Arafat. The Israelis also suspect that Mughniyeh’s people, not Nasrallah, arranged the import to Palestinian-ruled areas of instructors and experts in the manufacture of mortars and short-range rockets, such as the Palestinian Qassam that is identical to Iranian rockets in Hizballah’s arsenal.
US and Israeli intelligence received partial proof of Mughniyeh’s role when one of the crewmen on the Israeli-seized Karine-A Iranian arms ship told investigators the arch-terrorist had visited the vessel frequently when it took on its weapons cargo at the Iranian island of Kish.
This week, Israeli forces battling hard in the West Bank town of Jenin, thought at first they were up against particularly stubborn Islamic Jihad militants.
The fighting grew fiercer day by day and Israeli casualties mounted – twenty-one dead and dozens wounded in five days of combat. The IDF was forced to throw some of its best units into the house-to-house fighting. Gradually, the Israelis began to realize they were facing combatants of a type never before encountered on the Palestinian warfront.
None were surrendering, though beaten back with no way of escape. None of their dead comrades was left to be found. Their bodies were blown up or set alight to prevent their identification.
From the questioning of local Palestinians, the following picture emerged: Between 200 and 300 elite al Qaeda men, none of them Palestinians, had spearheaded the ferocious resistance in Jenin. They were most probably posted there by Mughniyeh to make sure of a spectacular victory over the Israeli army. Most were identified as Egyptians, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Kurds, Chechens and Saudis, whose presence explained Nasrallah’s offer, initiated by Mughniyeh, to swap the captive Tannenboim in return for extricating the al Qaeda survivors of the Jenin battle. They were desperate to whisk the men away, among them six or eight senior network commanders, before they fell into the hands of the US and Israeli secret services.
Their capture would provide the United States with the first hard intelligence information it has sought from the outset of its global war against terrorism.
The battle is not over yet. The mean alleys of Jenin may still yield the intelligence bonanza that proved elusive in Afghanistan.