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Al Qaeda takes aim at Israel

Zarqawi's group said a December rocket attack was just the beginning.

By Ilene R. Prusher, / January 13, 2006



JERUSALEM AND BEIRUT

Al Qaeda, which originally announced its presence on the global scene in 1998 as "The World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders," for the first time has claimed an attack on the Jewish state from neighboring Lebanon.

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Abu Musab Zarqawi, the commander of Al Qaeda's Middle East branch, issued a warning to Israel on the group's website, boasting that Katyusha rockets fired two weeks ago from southern Lebanon were just the "beginning of a welcome operation to strike deep in enemy territory, at the instructions of Osama bin Laden."

The statement was posted earlier this week on Internet sites associated with Jemaat al-Tawahid wal Jihad, Mr. Zarqawi's Sunni fundamentalist insurgents who are fighting the US in Iraq.

The claim of responsibility and its accompanying threat of more to come seem to realize concerns in Israel that over time Al Qaeda might step up attacks from neighboring Arab countries or from regions under control of the Palestinian Authority, analysts say.

After Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in August, ending a 38-year-long occupation, Israeli officials expressed concern that Al Qaeda operatives had slipped in from Egypt during the course of several days of uncontrolled border crossings.

Moreover, the development also follows what may be a shift in strategy for Al Qaeda: While not giving up attempts to inflict massive attacks on major targets in the US and in Europe, it will take advantage of opportunities to hit targets in the Middle East.

These include the ongoing suicide bombings in Iraq's deadly insurgency and attacks on pro-Western forces in the Arab world - from international targets in Saudi Arabia to the triple bombing attack on three major hotels in Amman, Jordan on Nov. 9, 2005.

The attempt to ratchet up tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border comes at a time when the Israeli security establishment is concerned about the perception abroad of the country being in a state of political crisis, given that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been in critical condition for the past week.

"Zarqawi has tried to attack Israeli targets for a long time. We know for a fact that Al Qaeda has been pondering attacking inside the Israeli border, so it's nothing new, but we should see it as part of a trend," says Yoram Schweitzer, an expert on Al Qaeda at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

"The reaction in Lebanon shows that even Hizbullah is a little bit frustrated," he adds, "not that they mind Israel being attacked, but they don't like anyone else trying to control their territory."

Indeed, the attempt of Al Qaeda operatives to gain ground in southern Lebanon, which has long been a magnet for militant groups, appears to have irked Hizbullah, or the Party of God, the primary military and political organization controlling the south of the country.

Hizbullah has moved toward a sort of hostile quiet with Israel during the more than five years since Israel withdrew from its occupied "security zone" in Lebanon.

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