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Israel Probes for Al Qaeda Links

Bombing by Britons of Pakistani descent raises suspicions of Hamas tie to Bin Laden. But little proof is offered, and groups' views diverge.

June 17, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The result of the odyssey that brought the two suicide bombers to the beachfront bar in Tel Aviv was not unusual: They died. And so did three of their 58 victims.

But otherwise, the story of the attack six weeks ago breaks with the familiar narrative of suicide bombings in Israel. The bombers were not Palestinians from the dusty towns or seething refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The duo were Britons of Pakistani descent, radicalized in the Islamic extremist milieu in Britain that has been a breeding ground for Al Qaeda. They became the first foreigners to commit a suicide attack here since the start of the intifada, or uprising, in 2000.

It's not clear, however, precisely who gave the orders to blow up Mike's Place, a hangout for English speakers, on April 30. The identity of the masterminds has become the subject of a politically charged dispute. Israeli officials said Monday that their security forces are "examining suspicions" that the attack teamed the militant group Hamas with Al Qaeda recruiters who groomed the bombers. Because Al Qaeda's activity in Israel has been limited, such an alliance would be a worrisome development.

"It shows a very ominous trend," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "This is the first time that we have found evidence that Hamas was working to recruit suicide bombers through Al Qaeda."

Israeli officials offered little proof. Hamas usually takes credit for its attacks, but has not made any claim on the Tel Aviv bombing. Hamas leaders Monday denied any link to Al Qaeda and accused Israel of trying to discredit them at a key moment in a military and diplomatic struggle with the Sharon government that is impeding Mideast peace talks.

"Of course the world today is fighting Al Qaeda," said Ismail abu Shanab, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip. "And Al Qaeda has a different struggle from the Palestinian struggle. We are Palestinian people under occupation and we are resisting the occupation. And Israel wins if she makes links between the two issues."

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Potential Collaboration

The region's ferocious politics makes it a challenge to determine the truth. And it can be difficult to confirm involvement by Al Qaeda, a coalition of multiethnic networks.

For Israel, linking Hamas with Al Qaeda would weaken the Palestinian group politically. Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Israel has depicted its fight in the context of the U.S.-led campaign against terror. In the Tel Aviv case, officials claim, Hamas' military command in the Gaza Strip joined forces with members of Osama bin Laden's network.

"The dispatching of foreign Muslims by Hamas to perpetrate attacks against Israel constitutes a dramatic and strategic turning point," the prime minister's office said in a statement. It accused Hamas "of ideologically toeing the line with global jihad organizations, led by Al Qaeda, which have declared total war on whomever is not a Muslim and even against those Muslims who cooperate with the West."

Hamas, on the other hand, wants to preserve the image of a purely territorial struggle. Palestinian leaders, and some outside observers, say ideological differences with Palestinian groups have prevented Al Qaeda from establishing a firm presence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel's security apparatus also helps shield it from infiltration by international terrorists.

Although Al Qaeda has attacked Jewish targets in countries such as Tunisia and Morocco, its only confirmed direct strike on Israelis occurred last November, when terrorists attacked Israeli tourists in Kenya.

Otherwise, Al Qaeda activity has been episodic in this region. A Hamas militant from the Gaza Strip convicted of terrorism here confessed to training at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. Richard Reid of Britain, the Al Qaeda "shoe bomber" convicted in U.S. federal court, conducted an apparent reconnaissance mission in Israel.

Israeli officials insist that Al Qaeda's offensive converged with Hamas' intelligence-gathering infrastructure and its need for operatives with European passports who can move more easily through Israeli army checkpoints. A loose and opportunistic partnership would be consistent with Al Qaeda's style, according to Boaz Ganor, director of the Policy Institute for Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyah.

"Al Qaeda relies on several layers of Islamic radical terror groups," Ganor said, placing Hamas among those groups "that don't get commands from Al Qaeda, but support it and would be ready to cooperate on an ad-hoc basis."

Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, an extremist Syrian cleric based in London, disagreed. He said profound "sectarian differences" make cooperation between Hamas and Al Qaeda unlikely.

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