An unnamed US official downplayed Thursday the discovery by the Shin Bet of an al-Qaeda cell it said was plotting to bomb the American Embassy in Tel Aviv and the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, describing the terror group’s plans as “aspirational.”
Israeli authorities said Wednesday three members of a terror cell run by al-Qaeda had been arrested for plotting a wave of attacks across the country.
A US official, however, said that while the allegations were being taken seriously, they had not been able to confirm any of the details.
“We can’t corroborate that; we probably don’t,” the official said, according to AFP.
“The detainee probably said it but I don’t think we give a lot of credence to that. We don’t have anything to prove it.
“We see it as what we would call an aspirational plot. It does not mean that it is not dangerous, it does not mean that it is not something we and Israel take seriously.”
Palestinian security officials on Thursday similarly dismissed Israel’s claim that security forces had thwarted a major plot.
Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security services in the West Bank, said there was “no indication” that al-Qaeda has a presence in the territory.
He accused Israel of arresting some “boys” and exaggerating the nature of the threat to bolster its position in peace talks, where Israel has consistently said that it must retain a presence in parts of the West Bank after any peace deal because of security concerns.
Israel is holding three suspects in the plot, it was revealed on Wednesday, but the key plotter is still at large.
The trio were arrested three weeks ago, shortly before one or more of them were to travel to Syria for final planning of the operations, which were reportedly initiated on the direct orders of al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The allegedly planned attacks included twin suicide bombings, against the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and the main Israeli convention center in Jerusalem, where US President Barack Obama gave the centerpiece speech of his Israel visit last March.
Other planned attacks, according to suspicions, included targeting an Israeli bus and Jewish homes in East Jerusalem.
One of the suspects was identified as Ala Ghannam, 21, from Aqaba, a village near the northern West Bank town of Jenin. His cousin, Arafat Ghannam, told The Associated Press that the 21-year-old was arrested by the IDF two and half weeks ago in a night raid.
He said Palestinian intelligence forces had arrested him just a week before and had let him go. The Palestinians arrested him because of “Islamic views” he expressed on Facebook, the cousin said without elaborating. He said the family was not aware about his alleged interest in al-Qaeda but said they were not shocked to hear about it.
Israeli security officials long have warned of the threat of what they call “global jihad,” a word they use for various terror groups in the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics. But Wednesday marked the first time that Israel explicitly accused the group of being behind an attempted attack. Officials believe there are several hundred of these activists, known as Salafists, in Gaza.
The Salafi presence in the West Bank is far more limited. Palestinian security forces recently arrested about 20 young men who allegedly tried to set up a Salafist organization. Officials have described the men as disaffected youths who had no training in weapons or attacks.
Last November, Israeli forces killed three members of that group in a shootout in the city of Hebron. Israeli security officials say there is some cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank to keep the Salafis under watch.
In Gaza, the Salafis have emerged as rivals to the ruling Islamist Hamas group. A Hamas security official said al-Qaeda does not exist in the crowded seaside strip. “Al-Qaeda has never fired a single shot to liberate the land,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Adnan Abu Amer, a Gaza expert on Islamic movements, said there are groups in the area inspired by al-Qaeda “but we haven’t found any direct links.”
Aviv Oreg, a former head of the Israeli military unit that tracks al-Qaeda, said that if the group was indeed behind the plot, it would create a “whole new ballgame” since it would show new capabilities inside Israel’s borders.