Al-Qaeda planned to carry out massive terrorist attacks on Israeli nightclubs in 2002 and was in the final stages of the plan, but was thwarted with the help of United States intelligence operatives, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation researcher has said.
Ali Soufan, who with other agents had monitored al-Qaeda for the FBI both before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and afterward, told Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Friday that the details of the nightclub attacks plot had previously been blocked for publication by the Central Intelligence Agency and has only now been cleared for publication.
The counterterrorism expert said that the information on the plot was obtained during interrogations of a Palestinian al-Qaeda operative apprehended in Afghanistan.
Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, also known as Abu Zubaydah, was a Palestinian al-Qaeda operative who was captured by the US in Pakistan in March 2002.
The US government says that he was an associate and longtime ally of Osama bin Laden.
Held at a secret CIA black site, Abu Zubaydah was interrogated by Soufan and revealed the Israel plot. Al-Qaeda estimated that the attacks — planned to happen simultaneously at several clubs — would have killed about 200 people.
In comments published in Hebrew by Yedioth, Soufan recounted: “The first thing I said to him was ‘You’re so careful, such a professional, what mistake do you think you made that allowed us to capture you?’ Abu Zubaydah thought for a moment and said: ‘The answer is obvious. The Israelis are on to our contacts for the coming action.'”
Soufan said that this tipped off the Americans to “something we had no idea about — that they were planning a multi-site terror attack in Israel.”
The confession led the Americans to quickly notify several relevant intelligence organizations including those in Israel. A top commander leading the plan from Europe was arrested and the attacks were thwarted.
“Luckily we managed to stop them at the last moment,” he said.
Abu Zubaydah has been jailed in the American detention camp in Guantanamo Bay since 2006. His lawyers have alleged that he was repeatedly tortured by his interrogators after his capture, including numerous instances of waterboarding.
The dance club attack was not the only al-Qaeda plot targeting Israel. In the summer of 2001, Briton Richard Reid, later known as the “shoe bomber,” flew to Israel to try to find weaknesses in El Al’s security in preparation for a potential bombing of a flight.
However, he raised suspicions of Israeli security personnel and encountered rigorous checks, which led him to cancel the plan.
Reid eventually tried to detonate explosives in his shoe in December of that year on a trans-Atlantic flight from Paris to Miami, but was overpowered by passengers and flight attendants.