Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Israel: Has ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda Shifted Focus?

Israel: Has ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda Shifted Focus?

Yesterday, the Jerusalem Post followed later by the New York Times reported that three Palestinians seeking to attack targets in Jerusalem were interdicted. The story alleges the three men were recruited, online, by an al Qaeda operative in Gaza. The Jerusalem Post says the targets of the three men “…included the Jerusalem Convention Center, a bus traveling between the capital and Ma’aleh Adumim, the US embassy in Tel Aviv, and emergency responders who would have arrived at the scene of attacks.”

While al Qaeda connections to Gaza and Palestinians are not unheard of, they appear less frequently.   Terrorist group competition for Palestinian manpower continues to be quite intense. Al Qaeda came after, not before, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and many others.  But with Hamas pursuing a more political path and young boys willing to fight, al Qaeda might be finding a ripe audience for their message.  The article continues by explaining how the Internet facilitated recruitment of parallel operatives:

“The Shin Bet said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv Al-Sham, recruited the men separately from one another, and had planned to activate three independent terrorist cells via his recruits. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Al-Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida’s central structure, Ayman Al-Zawahri….In the planned attack, terrorists would have fired shots at the bus’s wheels, causing it to overturn, before gunning down passengers at close range, and firing on emergency responders….Abu-Sara also volunteered to help orchestrate a double suicide bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bomber to the Jerusalem Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, simultaneously. Subsequently, Abu-Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the Convention Center….Abu-Sara was also supposed to travel to Syria for training in combat and explosives manufacturing, and had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.”

If these initial reports are true, this plot would represent a notable shift in ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s targeting – one that I had been expecting for some time (see the closing paragraph here.)  For Zawahiri and his ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda compadres, they will always seek the end of the U.S. However, the al Qaeda organization, if it is to survive in an era of terrorism competition, must recalibrate its objectives.  In its inception, al Qaeda sought to:

  • Expel Americans from Muslim holy lands
  • Establish a caliphate implementing Sharia law
  • Attack the “far enemy” (the U.S. and the West) to prevent them from propping up “near enemy” apostate regimes
  • Destroy Israel and eliminate Western support for Israel

A cursory examination of these broad ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda objectives suggests that most don’t hold much water more than a decade after 9/11/2001.  The U.S. no longer occupies holy lands in Saudi Arabia. As evidenced by the Taliban before 9/11 and AQIM and AQAP temporary caliphates in recent years, the U.S. either doesn’t, or is slow to, respond directly to a caliphate if it does not pursue terrorism against the U.S.  As for attacking the “far enemy” to relieve support for the “near enemy”, the U.S. either helped topple apostate rulers (Libya) or stood by and watched as dictators fell during the Arab Spring. If this were truly an Al Qaeda objective, they should be seen as failures as their actions had nothing to do with the recent fall of apostate rulers. The remaining objective is Israel.  With Syria boiling and Egypt ripe, in my opinion, shifting focus to Israel makes a lot of sense from al Qaeda’s perspective:

  • The U.S. has been killing us! (al Qaeda that is) – While al Qaeda and its affiliates have had their moments over the last decade, for the most part; they’ve been outmatched by the U.S. and its Western partners. For every al Qaeda affiliate that rises up, an eventual descent has occurred.  Syrian linked al Qaeda groups represent the only counter to this trend, and there, Zawahiri struggles to maintain any control.  So for Zawahiri, a pragmatic terrorist, why not shift focus from the U.S. in the short term and return later to the lofty objective.
  • Regenerate resources – Resources for al Qaeda flowed during the early years of Iraq and Afghanistan, but Gulf donors are fickle.  Bin Laden’s death, the failure to achieve lasting gains against the West, opportunities to back upstarts post-Arab Spring and the unending escalation of and sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict have given donors a host of more viable salafi-jihadi causes to invest in.  By shifting focus to Israel, ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda might be able to tap into what has always been an enduring anti-Israel resource stream.
  • Rally both Syrian and Egyptian support – With the fall of Mubarak and later Morsi, Zawahiri, an Egyptian, has never been better positioned to push ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda forward in Egypt.  Affiliates and partners in the Sinai have made gains.  Likewise, as Zawahiri battles for control in Syria against one of his own affiliates, ISIS (formerly al Qaeda in Iraq), what better way to shift attention back to ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda by executing a spectacular attack in Israel refocusing attention on a common adversary of all groups.  Successfully executing an attack in Jerusalem would rally support for ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda on both borders of Israel and might quell some of the sectarian fighting going on in Syria and Lebanon.  The doomsday scenario is if all jihadists groups, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, all call a temporary truce and turn their guns toward Israel.  Zawahiri has already called for such unity, a high profile attack might be what is needed to demonstrate the possibilities.
  • When al Qaeda attacks Israel, they will be engaging the U.S. too – If ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda were to attack Israel, the U.S. will get involved.  Thus, if Zawahiri can’t attack the U.S. or go toe-to-toe with their capabilities in other regions, attack Israel and opportunities to attack or pinch the U.S. will present themselves.  It’s not a coincidence that one of these suspected bombers sought to hit the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.