ATbar Does Bin Laden Pose a Threat to Israel?

Does Bin Laden Pose a Threat to Israel?

22/08/2000 | by Schweitzer, Yoram  
The Sunni Islamist terror organizations led by “the Afghan Alumni” have since the early 1990’s been a dominant factor in the international arena. Yet their impact on Israel has so far been minimal. In spite of their radical approach to what they see as the active part played by Israel and the Jews in the West’s assault on the Muslim world, these Sunni terror organizations have seldom attacked Israeli and Jewish targets. This is all the more conspicuous against the background of terrorist activity perpetrated by the Palestinian and Shi’ite terror organizations that were so prominent in the international terrorist arena during the 1970s and 1980s.

In recent years, the Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden has headed the “Afghan Alumni” camp, after he founded an “Islamic Front” in order to counter-balance what he saw as a Jewish-Christian coalition, which he perceived to be a threat to Islam.

This article will outline the characteristics of the “Afghan Alumni” phenomenon, their ideology and the scope of their activities against Israeli and Jewish targets, and will examine whether there is a tendency to expand their activities into the State of Israel.

Who are the “Afghan Alumni”?
The term “Afghan Alumni” relates to thousands of Muslims, particularly from the Arab world, who hastened to Afghanistan from all over the world, to fight at the side of the local Mujahideen against the former Soviet Union (1979–1989). It refers also to “the second generation,” which included hundreds of volunteers—mostly members of Arab Islamist terror organizations—who were sent to Afghanistan, after the war, to train in guerilla and terror warfare. It should be pointed out that although the Afghan Alumni have been called “the Arab Afghans” and the “Afghans”(1), particularly those of the “Second Generation,” there are many who were not Arabs at all. These include the terrorists from Kenya, Tanzania, and the Comoro islands, who were involved in the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998.

The “Afghan Veterans”—those who fought in the war against the Soviet Union—comprise the backbone of the leadership of many radical terror organizations active in the Middle East. Their status in their organizations was built on the myth of their heroism and their success in defeating the “Christian” Soviet Union in Afghanistan. They saw their victory as the main factor in the downfall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Their battle experience and readiness for personal sacrifice gave them the professional and moral authority to lead their followers in an assault against the “heretic” regimes in their own countries and against their allies, particularly the U.S.A. and Israel.

The end of the war in Afghanistan left a large reservoir of violent, well-trained fighters experienced in guerilla and terror warfare, and motivated by their radical religious ideology. These fighters searched for a way to vent their Islamist and revolutionary energy, particularly in the period after the war. The Afghan Alumni channeled this Islamic passion and battle experience into various central channels:

1. Returning to their home countries, they reinforced existing Islamic Jihad organizations in their countries of origin and considerably intensified their activities there, thus threatening the stability of their regimes.
2. They established new organizational frameworks such as the Al-Qa’idah organization led by Osama bin Laden.
3. They established independent terror cells, with no defined organizational affinity but with mutual connections with established radical organizations.
4. They joined the fighting in areas involving Islamic communities, such as Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Kosovo and Kashmir.(2)

The influence of the Afghan Alumni can be seen in the activities of many terror organizations in the Muslim world, particularly in the Egyptian organizations Al- Gama’ah al-Islamiyyah and the Egyptian Jihad. They have also had an impact on the Algerian GIA., the Kashmiri Harakat-ul-Ansar, the Philippine “Abu Sayyaf,” and autonomous radical terrorist cells, not to mention Al-Qa`idah.

The ideology of the Afghan Alumni
The worldview of the Afghan Alumni has been shaped by living and fighting in Afghanistan alongside the local Mujahideen. The process of absorbing the volunteers in Pakistan and Afghanistan was accompanied by intensive religious courses and indoctrination. Their long stay in a extremely homogenous religious society—a society fighting a war of Jihad against a “Christian” enemy—greatly influenced their thought and activity.

A central element in their worldview was that their Jihad was a war of self-defense against the cultural assault of the West, led by the Americans and the Jews, who were seen as “running it and dictating its policy.” Bin Laden, one of the central adherents of this worldview, cited in his militant statements “the religious-cultural-historical struggle of Islam with the “Judeo-Crusader” conspiratorial alliance, which aims at defeating Islam and conquering its sacred lands.”(3) His views are amply illustrated in interviews given to the press, as well as in his publications, such as the “Declaration of war” in June 1996 (4) and his religious ruling (Fatwah) of February 1998 (5). In his eyes, Islam is besieged on all sides by foreign secular forces and by Western modernization.(6) In his mind, the whole world in general, and the Middle East in particular, is an arena of a determinist battle for survival between the three monotheistic religions. The enemy in this battle is seen as the Christian-Jewish coalition of the US, Israel and World Jewry. This enemy has occupied the most sacred lands of Islam, in Mecca, Medinah, and Jerusalem, and seeks to defeat Islam and the Muslims. According to bin Laden this unholy alliance is carrying out a systematic and deliberate massacre of Muslims. His example is the massacre of the Muslim Iraqi population by American forces in the Gulf War in 1991 and their bombings in Iraq in December 1998, as well as the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by Christian Phalangists allied with Israel and the killing of Palestinians by Israel.(7)

In order to recruit and motivate Muslim believers, bin Laden has need of historical terms with Islamic connotations, such as Crusaders and Jihad. He explains the need for violent activity in terms of the defense of Islamic sacred elements, and presents the Muslims as victims. His use of terrorism and violence is meant to prove to his adherents that the so-called undefeatable enemies of Islam, such as the US, the Soviet Union, and Israel, were vulnerable due to the weakness of their faith. Terrorism is part of a struggle whose goals are twofold: the “purification” of the sacred places in Mecca and Medinah currently “under American occupation,” and the moral and psychological victory of the Muslim warriors. Bin Laden has foreseen a similar fate to the occupation of al-Aqsa and Jerusalem by Israel.(8)

At the beginning of 1998, Bin Laden gathered around him an Islamist coalition to assist him in consolidating a front against the Judeo-Crusader alliance. On February 23rd 1998, he brought together the leaders of several Islamist organizations in Afghanistan and declared the establishment of “The Islamic International Front for the Struggle against the Crusades and the Jews (“The Front”). An Islamic Fatwah was published signed by five leaders of Islamist groups: Osama Bin Laden as head of Al-Qa`idah, Ayman al-Zawahiri head of one of the factions of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ahmad Rifa`I Taha the leader of the Egyptian Al-Gama’ah al-Islamiyyah, Sheikh Mir Hamzah the Amir of Jamiat-ul-Ulama-e-Pakistan, and the leader of the Jihad movement of Bangladesh. This Fatwah declared the killing of Americans and their allies—civilians and military personnel alike—as a religious duty. Such a duty is incumbent on Muslims all over the world in order to liberate the “occupied” holy mosque in Mecca, meaning Saudi Arabia, and Al-Aqsa Mosque, meaning Palestine in general and Jerusalem in .(9)

Operations carried out against Jewish and Israeli targets abroad
Despite the poisonous rhetoric of the Afghan Alumni, particularly bin Laden, which is reminiscent of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” these declarations have so far not given rise to a wave of terrorist operations against Israeli or Jewish targets in the international arena.

However, in the second half of the 1990s there were several attacks or attempted attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad by these organizations. The first such operation was carried out by an Islamist who assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane in November 1990 in New York. In June 1993, a plot to carry out several operations in New York was thwarted. The attacks were to have been carried out by an Islamist terror network acting under the religious guidance and authorization of the blind Egyptian Sheikh Omar `Abd al-Rahman. The group had planned to kill an American Jewish senator, in addition to the bombing of the UN building and the FBI Headquarters. Sa`id Nusair, the killer of Rabbi Kahane, was linked to Sheikh `Abd al-Rahman and to the network involved in the planning of the operations thwarted in June 1993.

On April 19th 1996, the Egyptian Al-Gama'ah al-Islamiyyah carried out a terrorist attack on tourists in the “Europe” hotel in Cairo, in which 17 Greek tourists were killed. This was during the Israeli “Grapes of Wrath” Operation. In its statement following the attack, the organization claimed the attack was meant to target Israeli tourist that residing at the hotel.

The Egyptian Jihad group, led by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, which is part of bin Laden's terrorist network, planned to carry out terrorist operations against Israeli targets all over the world. This is according to a senior member of the group, who was tried in Egypt on April 1999 in the case of “The returnees from Albania.”(10)

The Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) has carried out three attacks against Jewish targets in France in the framework of its terrorist activity in that country in the mid- 1990s. These attacks included two car bombs. One of these was near a synagogue in Lyon in 1994; the bomb was safely defused. The second occurred near a Jewish school in Villerbane in 1995. In this case the car was blown up and only a delay in the bell that ended the school’s study period prevented the death of many pupils. The third attack involved the sending of a letter bomb in 1996, to the editor of a Jewish paper in France.

In 1995 a group called “Bai`at al-Imam,” led by Sheikh Issam Muhammad Tahir, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, was arrested in Jordan. Among the members of the group were several of the Afghan Alumni. They planned to attack Israeli targets in Jordan. More members of this group were arrested in July 1997, after they planned to cross the border to Israel to carry out attacks.(11)

The relatively small number of attacks and attempted attacks by Afghan Alumni against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad thus far, is the consequence of several factors. Among them the following:

1. The Afghan Alumni’s struggle is directed above all against the secular regimes in their homelands. Their first priority is the replacement of these governments with Islamic regimes founded on the Islamic Shari`ah.
2. The attacks on Jewish targets were merely part of the group’s terrorist activity against their non-Muslim enemies.
3. These groups see the US as their primary enemy, and attacks on American targets as defense of Islam.

The increase of the activity against Israel
In the past year, there has arisen the possibility that the Afghan Alumni led by bin Laden have decided to focus part of their terrorism on Israeli targets, both inside and outside of Israel. This new trend was reflected in the arrest of an Islamist terrorist group in Jordan in December 1999. This case illustrates a change in the activity against Israel on the part of central activists of Al-Qa`idah.

The Jordanian terror network was composed mostly of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, as well as an Iraqi, an Algerian and Palestinians with American passports. The detainees admitted in their interrogations that they had been trained in Afghanistan in a training camp financed by Bin Ladin, and were assisted by contact members of Al-Qa`idah in Afghanistan and Pakistan.(12) Some of the them were trained in Lebanon with the help of Hizballah and anti-Arafat Palestinians.

The group planned to carry out mass attacks against Jewish and American tourists and Christian pilgrims at the Radison hotel in Amman, at Mount Nevo, at the check-points on the Israeli-Jordanian borders, and at the place where Jesus was baptized.(13)

One of the prominent characteristics in this case was the central part of Palestinian Afghan Alumni among the members of the group and its collaborators abroad. The central activists responsible for the logistics and religious authorization for the attacks were three Palestinians who operated from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the UK. These were Zein al-`Abedin alias “Abu Zubaidah” originally from Gaza; Omar Abu Omar alias “Abu Qutadah” who lives in London under political asylum; and Khalil Deek, a Palestinian with an American passport who was arrested in Pakistan and extradited to Jordan.

During the past year there have been several arrests that should warn of the possibility of a change in bin Laden’s activities. In February 2000, Said Hindawi, a Palestinian Afghan Alumnus who lived for many years in Lebanon was arrested in Israel. Hindawi’s family is originally from Halhul. Following the establishment of the Palestinian Authority his family returned to the Palestinian Autonomy, where his father is the commander of Hebron police. In his interrogation, Hindawi admitted that in 1998 he was trained in guerrilla warfare and terrorism in Durante camp, one of bin Laden’s main training camps in Afghanistan. In his possession were found illustrations of explosives. Although he denied it, he was suspected of planning terrorist attacks in Israel, possibly with the assistance of local Palestinians.(14)

On August 21st 2000, Israel confirmed the arrest of an Islamist terrorist network in June of this year. The commander of this network, Nabeel `Uqal, a Palestinian from Jibalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, admitted to having undergone training in1997 one of bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. There he learned the use of firearms and explosives. After he returned to the occupied territories he recruited several activists from Gaza, Judea and Samaria, as well as Israeli Arab citizens, members of the Islamic movement in Israel. These he planned to send for training in Afghanistan.

`Uqal admitted to contacts with Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. `Uqal told Yassin about his training in Afghanistan, and received from him money to finance his group. The network planned to carry out large-scale operations in Israel, including suicide operations, kidnapping IDF soldiers, and bombing of Jewish settlements using anti-tank missiles.(15)

It is unclear yet what brought bin Laden and the Afghan Alumni supported by him to shift their policy towards an increase in terrorist attacks against Israeli targets, not to mention to operate within the state of Israel. Bin Laden has been criticized by other Islamist for concentrating on American targets and neglecting the struggle for the liberation of the holy places in Palestine. This could be the primary reason for this change, along with the increasing involvement of Palestinians in the Islamist Front.

Whatever the reason is, Israel must prepare for the possible need to counter another radical Islamist terrorist adversary in the future. The Afghan Alumni enjoy the support of Muslim states supporting terrorism such as Afghanistan, Sudan, the Yemen, and even Iran. From these states, they receive shelter, the sanction to train on their soil and occasionally even active assistance in their training. They also benefit from the fortune of Osamah Bin Laden, which is dedicated to the promotion of world Jihad against the enemies of Islam.

In the past few years, against the background of a complicated and sensitive political processbetween Israel and the Palestinians, terrorism against Israel has changed, in the eyes of the Israeli decision-makers, from a tactical issue to a strategic one. The addition of the radical Afghan Alumni to this delicate equation could increase the attempts by the rejectionist factions to harm the peace process and to destabilize the region.


1. E. Ya`ari, “The Afghans are coming,” Ma`ariv, 5 July 1996, p. 12 (Hebrew)
2. Schweitzer, Y., “Middle East Terrorism: The Afghan Alumni,” The Middle East Military Balance 1999-2000, Shlomo Brom & Yiftah Shapir (eds.), p. 122.
3. Magnus Ranstorp, “Interpreting the broader context and meaning of Bin Laden's Fatwa,” Studies in Conflict Terrorism, Vol. 21, Oct.-Dec. 1998, p.328. (Ranstorp)
4. Public Indictment against Bin Laden & Mohammad Atef, US Attorney, November 1998, New York, p. 12.
5. Ranstorp, p. 328.
6. Ranstorp, p. 322.
7. “American soldiers are paper tigers,” Interview, Middle East Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 4, December 1998, pp. 78.
8. Ranstorp, p. 322.
9. Ranstorp, pp. 328-330.
10. French News Agency, 29 February 1999.
11. Nahman Tal, Confrontation at home: The confrontation of Egypt and Jordan with extremist Islam, Papirus, Tel-Aviv University, 1999, p. 208. (Hebrew)
12. NY Times, Internet edition, 29/2/þ2000
13. French News Agency, quoting ABC, 21/1/2000
14. Kol Ha`ir, 26/3/2000.
15. Ha'aretz, 22/8/2000.