Sunday and Monday, June 24-25, 2007, will go down as two of the most unfortunate days in the West’s war against extremist Islamic terror.
In a few short hours, al Qaeda flexed its intelligence muscle and applied tactical enterprise to pull off simultaneous feats in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, backed in each place by strategic alliances struck up with America’s foes and radical Muslim forces.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter terror experts infer that al Qaeda’s rapid-fire performance may signal the start of a fresh regional offensive.
The Spanish contingent of the expanded UN peacekeeping force in South Lebanon was the first victim. A suicide bomber driving a Renault packed with 50 kg of C4 plastic explosives rammed two armored vehicles carrying Spanish troops on a routine patrol near Khiyam in the eastern sector, 9 miles from the Israeli border. One UN vehicle was blown up, a second set on fire. Of the eight soldiers on the patrol, six were killed – three Spaniards and three Columbian members of the Spanish army. Two were gravely injured.
It was the first time UN personnel in Lebanon had become terrorist targets since the 2006 war. The attack was the most vicious since UN headquarters in Baghdad was blown up in August 2003.
The time and place were deliberately chosen, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Lebanon report. The patrol was caught on the road between Al Khiyam and the Ebel Es Saqi village headquarters of the Spanish unit, after the Spanish commander Brig. Gen. Ramon Martin Ambrosio Merino and his staff had hosted UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen Claudio Graziano and his staff at a church ceremony honoring the King and Queen of Spain.
The attack had a twofold purpose.
Al Qaeda’s first message was advice to the UN force to quit Lebanon or suffer the same day-to-day perils experienced by American and British forces in Iraq and NATO in Afghanistan.
Common goals to destabilize Siniora, expel UNIFIL
Osama bin Laden‘s tacticians used the Palestinian Ansar Allah, one of the four al Qaeda networks operating in the Palestinian Ain Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp in the South. The same group carried out a cross-border Katyusha rocket assault on the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona exactly one week earlier. Al Qaeda is increasingly using its connections with local radical groups as its ears and eyes as well as their willingness to strike down common enemies. The Palestinian extremist groups in Lebanon are well supplied with arms, funds and inside information by Syrian military intelligence and Hizballah.
They all share the common goals of shaking to the core the pro-Western Fouad Siniora government in Beirut, starting with South Lebanon, and driving UNIFIL out of the country. The Western peacekeepers are a nuisance, acting as they do as a barrier to attacks across the Israeli border.
A Lebanon in the grip of violence and disorder promises al Qaeda fertile soil for spreading its seed. No time has been wasted. For sixteen hours on Wednesday and Thursday, June 27 and 28, the Lebanese army, backed by tanks and helicopters, fought a new al Qaeda cell planted in Qalamoun, a Mediterranean coastal town south of Tripoli on the northern highway to Beirut.
Six al Qaeda adherents were killed in the clash, three Lebanese and three Saudis.
Never before have al Qaeda’s Saudi fighters from Iraq fought Lebanese forces. It was also the first time that bin Laden’s terrorists were caught creeping down the coast, with Syrian military assistance, towards Beirut.
Al Qaeda’s second message was addressed to the Spanish government.
In 2004, the rail bombings in Madrid, which left 191 people dead and 1,800 injured, overturned the pro-US government in favor of a European-oriented, left-wing party which pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq.
Three years later, the jihadists are again trying to intimidate Madrid into withdrawing its troops from Lebanon and Afghanistan or be placed squarely in their sights.
The night of the attack on the Spanish contingent, al Qaeda’s deadly scenario rolled on.
A video tape was aired showing Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent kidnapped in Gaza three months ago, wearing an explosive belt, the first victim ever shown this way. He warned that any attempt to free him by force would lead to his captors, the Army of Islam aka al Qaeda-Palestine, detonating the belt.
The next day saw a different kind of calamity.
Six sheiks struck through a battery of security safeguards
Monday, June 25, an al Qaeda bomber blew himself up in the lobby of Baghdad’s Mansour Hotel among a group of sheiks. The six victims killed belonged to the Anbar Salvation Council, an alliance of Sunni Muslim tribes that turned against the al Qaeda presence in their province in western Iraq, and became the backbone of the operation waged by the US and Iraqi army to drive the terrorists out.
Four were Sunni Arab leaders: Anbar’s former provincial governor Fassal al-Guood, sheik of the Albu Nimr tribe who resided at the Mansour Hotel; two notables of the same tribe, Sheik Tariq Saleh al-Assafi and Col. Fadil al-Nimrawi, and Sheik Abdul-Azizi al-Fahdawi of the Fahad tribe. Two Shiite tribal leaders also died in the bombing.
Three of al Guood’s guards were killed, as well as Gen. Aziz al-Yassiri, an Iraqi defense ministry adviser, who acted as liaison officer with the sheiks.
The bomber was described later as clad in the same Arab garb and headdress as the tribal chiefs he had targeted. He approached the corner where they were sitting and detonated a bomb belt packed with nails and metal pellets.
The hotel lobby was busy with media correspondents, who have made the Mansour Hotel their center of operations and VIP guests.
Against every security safeguard, the bomber penetrated the multi-layered defenses securing the Mansour Hotel. Visitors are stopped at the main gate and only admitted by invitation. He would have had to pass through three checkpoints and three searches – one outside and two inside the hotel, including a metal detector.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources conclude that the suicide bomber’s controllers must have been tipped off about the precise time and place of the sheiks’ meeting and the bomber pointed to the corner where they sat.
This coup seriously set back some of the most notable achievements of the US-Iraqi military operations against al Qaeda in Anbar and Baghdad. And the anti-al Qaeda operation in Baqouba, capital of the terrorist infested Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, is not going as well as expected either.
Less than a week after 10,000 US and Iraqi soldiers mounted the assault, most of al Qaeda’s fighting core had escaped or are still at large, according to US Col. Steve Townsend who is leading the attack. His soldiers managed to wrest control from al Qaeda over most of the area, depriving the terrorists of their capital and making headway in protecting the residents from their reprisals. But too few terrorists were killed or captured.
Two hostages, three tapes and one lame conference
Shortly after the slaying of the six sheiks, al Qaeda swung attention around to another Middle East center of strife, the Gaza Strip, by the release of three attention-grabbing tapes within the space of a few hours.
Sunday night and Monday, two hostages held in Gaza spoke their piece with chilling effect. The first to appear was Alan Johnston. A few hours later, on Monday, June 25, the Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit‘s voice was heard on an audio tape for the first time since he was kidnapped in a cross-border raid from Gaza exactly a year ago.
They stole the thunder of a conference called by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to deal with the Hamas takeover of the territory. No one listened to the speeches delivered at by Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the Red Sea resort. Everyone was transfixed by the Israeli soldier’s voice.
Shalit is held by Palestinians groups affiliated with al Qaeda, which are also Johnston’s captors. In Gaza as in Lebanon, Osama bin Laden’s jihadists thrive and multiply on terror-generated mayhem. While Hamas helped put the two hostages in the limelight, al Qaeda reciprocated by enabling its strategic partner to steal center stage from the Sharm conference and shout down four shared foes.
The deal was sealed by the third tape, aired also on Monday, the day of the soldier’s plea to his government to release Palestinian prisoners and the Sharm conference. It carried the voice of No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri, announcing a sharp reversal of his organization’s former animosity towards Hamas and blessing its victory over Fatah in Gaza.
This statement was more than a doctrinal gesture; it authorized Hamas to address Israel in bargaining for Gilead Shalit’s release against Palestinians in Israeli jails. A successful negotiation would boost the Palestinian group’s standing in the Gaza Strip.
The Bin Laden group has concluded that its supreme interests are served by bolstering Hamas rule. Its shaky grasp of the reins in the interim period affords al Qaeda a unique opportunity to dig its claws deeper into the Gaza Strip.
Their joint exercise against the Sharm al Sheikh conference worked well and demonstrated that the real decision-makers of the Middle East are not to be found in plush conference chambers but in the murky alleys of Gaza and other Middle East towns.
This feat might not have been accomplished without the logistical and intelligence support granted al Qaeda by Iraqi helpers in Baghdad, Hamas’ sponsors in Tehran and Damascus and Hizballah in Beirut. All the same, Bin Laden’s masterminds pulled a web of foreign ties and local networks together with the skill of a regional power.