Osama bin Laden has long promised that he'll punish Americans in "blood and treasure" for US support of Israel, sanctions on Iraq, and deployment of military forces in Saudi Arabia. But though Mr. bin Laden has targeted Israel as enemy No. 1, he has never before targeted Israelis.
Now, intelligence officials and terror experts say it looks increasingly likely that Al Qaeda was responsible for Thursday's attacks on Israelis in Mombasa, Kenya, in which 16 people died. They also say that bin Laden probably at least influenced Palestinians in their attacks inside Israel that day, and that he may be getting assistance from the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah group in Lebanon.
If true, this could signal an expanded war against the West, an attempt to ignite a clash of civilizations by inciting and including more terror groups under the Al Qaeda umbrella in bin Laden's own version of an evil axis. The combination of Al Qaeda's operational abilities, matched with the fervor of radical Islamists from Pakistan to Chechnya to Somalia, already pose a formidable adversary. And it could get worse.
"Since the 1998 bombings of the US embassies [in Kenya and Tanzania], he's been striving to broaden the struggle to the largest constituency possible," says Bruce Hoffman, a terror expert at the RAND Corp. "He's always positioned himself as the defender of Muslims everywhere." Bin Laden's newer strategy of hitting soft targets - because they're more difficult for governments to protect and because of the unparalleled economic damage 9/11 achieved - probably led him back to Kenya and the Israeli target, experts say.
Moreover, the recent spike in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and their plight returning to the fore on the international stage, may have presented the right moment. Bin Laden "doesn't want to lose ground," Mr. Hoffman says. "So Israel and Palestine becomes the hot issue for him to demonstrate his relevance to world affairs."
In fact, according to Hoffman and others, bin Laden hopes to exploit the US relationship with Israel, and trigger a broader Muslim backlash in what is already deemed the most sympathetic of issues to Muslims around the world - US support for Israelis against Palestinians. By spilling Israeli blood, the logic goes, bin Laden may push Israel and the US closer in the "war on terror" - and in the process, gain broader Muslim support, and more recruits for his war on the West.
On the most recent audiotape released by Al Jazeera television last month, bin Laden accuses Bush of "killing our sons in Iraq" and conspiring with Israel to bomb "houses that shelter old people, women, and children with US-made aircraft in Palestine." He goes on to say, "You will be killed just as you killed."
A senior intelligence official says it is crucial for bin Laden to follow through in order to increase his following.
In Kenya, bin Laden may be trying to tap into the same Muslim sympathy. He's long had support there and in neighboring Horn of Africa nations, and it is from that network that US intelligence officials believe the recent attacks in Kenya were launched. They say they believe the attacks were perpetrated either directly by Al Qaeda members or by an affiliated local Somali Islamist group, Al Ittihad Al Islamiya.
"Osama bin Laden has always maintained that his main goal is inciting others," says the senior intelligence official. "You can see that manifesting itself now."
One of the most worrisome aspects of this, intelligence officials and terror experts say, is that bin Laden may be pulling in the radical Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and the anti-Israeli group, Hizbullah. He "will cooperate with Hizbullah, Iraq, the Russian mafia," and basically any group that can help him achieve his aims, the senior intelligence official says.
He and others point out that intelligence sources, as well as court testimony from the 1998 embassy bombers, indicate Hizbullah-Al Qaeda ties. They suspect stronger links may be growing, and recent events seem to bolster that claim. Intelligence officials say they've received reports that Hizbullah is training Hamas members in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where Al Qaeda members have also trained.
It was Hizbullah that taught Al Qaeda the two-tiered, simultaneous-attack approach. Hizbullah pioneered the strategy in 1983, attacking the US Embassy in Beirut, killing 241 US Marines, and, seconds later, French paratrooper headquarters.
Last month, two Palestinians in a small fishing boat loaded with explosives tried to blow it up beside an Israeli patrol boat. Last May, Israelis intercepted a Lebanese fishing boat that they say was laden with Iranian arms, including SA-7 Strella anti-aircraft missiles, the same as those used in Thursday's attack in Kenya.
Of course, dozens of countries possess these weapons as leftovers from Soviet days. And the fishing boat attack may have just been a copy-cat move. But together, these events have intelligence officials and terror experts thinking these groups may work together in a "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" campaign.
"We have seen a steady increase in 'blood and treasure,' " the senior intelligence official says. Bin Laden's focus is America, not only [in] America, but attacks with increasing cost."