Thursday, Dec. 29, Abu Musab al Zarqawi‘s Iraq branch of al Qaeda took responsibility for the Katyusha rocket attack from Lebanon two days earlier on two northern Israeli towns, Kiryat Shmona and Shlomi. Ten rockets were fired. Casualties were minor, five Israelis slightly hurt, but the damage to homes was extensive.
This was al Qaeda’s second rocket attack on Israel; the first was staged on August 19, 2005, and targeted the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, together with American warships docked in Eilat’s twin port of Aqaba in Jordan.
Israelis fidgeted uneasily Monday Jan. 2, when defense minister Shaul Mofaz reported Israeli military intelligence corroboration of the Zarqawi claim as authentic. The last thing they wanted to hear about was al Qaeda ensconced within striking range of the country’s two extremities, as well as in the evacuated Gaza Strip.
That was bad enough, but Mofaz withheld another piece of disturbing information. In its claim of responsibility for the attack from Lebanon, al Qaeda also revealed it had smuggled into Lebanon and the Gaza Strip short-range Grad 12-mm surface missiles with a range of 30 km, the latter through Egyptian Sinai.
This was the first intimation that al Qaeda has acquired a standard artillery weapon in common use in the world’s armies.
It permits the jihadists to position projectiles two borders away in northern Sinai and hit Israel’s important southern ports of Ashdod and Ashkelon. Deployed in the Gaza Strip, the Grads can strike the Israeli towns of Kiryat Gat and Gedera.
The new short-range missile imperils others besides Israel.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report additionally that, launched from al Qaeda’s mountain strongholds in central Sinai, the Grad missiles can easily reach the multinational truce force’s Sharm al-Sheikh base, which is manned largely by US 82nd Airport Division troops. Brought forward to the Gulf of Aqaba shoreline, they pose a hazard to the US warships and supply vessels sailing those waters and can hit targets in Jordan’s Aqaba port and Israeli Eilat.
Citadels in Palestinian refugee camps
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has unearthed exclusive information on the ways in which al Qaeda has dug itself into Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, from which it was able to mount the Katyusha attack on Israel’s Galilee.
The largest network settled in early 2005 in the Jebel Halib (Milk Mountain) district of the Ain Hilwa camp east of Sidon in the south. Three smaller cells are planted in the Saiqa, Safouri and Safsaf quarters of the camp. These districts abut on eastern Sidon, so bringing al Qaeda’s tentacles inside the precincts of southern Lebanon’s most important Mediterranean port.
The host of these networks is a Palestinian militia calling itself Osbat al-Ansar or Jund al-Shem (Army of the Levant), which is headed by a Palestinian called Abu Yusuf Sharqiya, aged 56, who came to Ain Hilwa in 1995 from the Nahar al-Bard refugee camp near Tripoli in the north.
He has devoted his 10 years at Ain Hilwa to tirelessly training a militia of between 400 and 500 Palestinian gunmen and turning the Jebel Halib district and the safe houses provided al Qaeda’s men in other parts of the camp into fortresses.
Sharqiya’s fortified buildings are a byword in Lebanon and Syria as impregnable fortresses second to none in either country. No Syrian, let alone Lebanese, military force has ever been able to break into his citadels.
Not all the troops of his Army of the Levant are Palestinian. Among them is a group of extremist Muslim Lebanese Kurds, whose chief is Abu Remez al Sohmorani. This man is sought by Lebanese security for his involvement in a battle with Lebanese police and army which took place in 2000.
DEBKA-net-Weekly‘s sources name the commander of the Army of the Levant as Imad Yasin, who took over when his predecessor, Abu Mohjiyan, went to fight with Zarqawi’s terrorists in Iraq. Mohijyan, whose real name is Abdel Karim Saadi, set up the connection between the Army of the Levant and Zarqawi.
The incumbent commander’s two deputies are Osama Shehabi and Balal Akrub. The Palestinian Levant Army is so tightly intermeshed with al Qaeda by now that it maintains a special officer to liaise with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, like the global organization’s European, North African and Indian-Pakistani branches. This officer goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Aisha.
Our sources also disclose that the this Palestinian militia gets most of its weapons – an assortment of rockets, 82mm mortars and latterly the Grad missiles – supplied through Syria. Operational funds reach the group from the Persian Gulf via Lebanese banks and Western Union.