Disturbing reports of suspected Al-Qaeda activity have begun popping up throughout the Middle East and North Africa, with suspected terrorists in Lebanon and Libya being linked to the terrorist network and suspicions of its involvement in bombings in Egypt.
In Lebanon, authorities announced on 22 September the arrests of 10 men accused of belonging to an Al-Qaeda cell for plotting to blow up the Italian Embassy were arrested in mid-September (see "RFE/RL Organized Crime and Terrorism Watch," 6 October 2004). The leader of the group, 31-year-old Ismail Muhammad al-Khatib, died of massive heart failure on 27 September while in captivity, Reuters reported on 1 October. The Lebanese police subsequently announced charges against 35 people in the plot.
Immediately after three car-bombing attacks on resort hotels in Taba, Egypt, that killed 33 Israeli tourists on 8 October, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 9 October that the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, announced that it suspected Al-Qaeda of being behind the attack.
Speaking on Israeli television, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalon said, "The type, the planning, the scope, the simultaneous attacks in a number of places, all this points to Al-Qaeda" "The Jerusalem Post" reported.
A senior Israeli security official told the British "Sunday Times": "Al-Qaeda network hit this time in our backyard. If we don't focus our efforts against Al-Qaeda, next time they will hit Tel Aviv."
Soon after the blasts, three unknown groups took credit for the Taba attacks. Calling themselves the Islamic Unity Brigades, the World Islamist Group, and the Brigades of the Martyr Abdullah Azzam, all posted Internet claims of responsibility for the attacks.
On 10 October, "The Jerusalem Post" reported that Libyan police had arrested 17 non-Libyans suspected of being Al-Qaeda members. They allegedly entered the country illegally from India and Central Asia, Libyan Interior Minister Nasr al-Mabrouk said. "Preliminary investigations proved that the group...has a connection with Osama bin Laden, but the nature of this relation has not been established yet," al-Mabrouk told AP.
In the Taba bombings, Western, as well as Egyptian intelligence officials are leaning toward the Mossad's theory that Al-Qaeda might have been responsible. If these suspicions turn out to be true, the emergence of Al-Qaeda in Lebanon, Egypt, and Libya could have far-reaching implications. Oil-rich Libya -- emerging from its isolation as a state sponsor of terrorism that has now been rehabilitated in Western eyes -- has so far not been targeted by Al-Qaeda, as have Egypt (since 1997) and Lebanon. Libyan security forces have little experience in combating terrorism, and the country's oil infrastructure is a natural target for sabotage operations. If Al-Qaeda should target Libya, the West might have to do more than praise Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi for recanting his past -- it might be forced to help protect him and the citizens of Libya.
In Egypt, the Suez Canal presents a clear target for terrorist attack along with tourist attractions and resorts. The Egyptian security and intelligence services are regarded as highly competent and have had many years of counterterrorist experience fighting the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), once led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, now the second-in-command of Al-Qaeda. According to a study of Al-Qaeda, "Through Our Enemies' Eyes" by Anonymous, EIJ along with all the other Egyptian organizations that operated in Afghanistan were funded by Osama bin Laden. The last major terrorist attack in Egypt prior to the bombings in Taba took place on 17 November 1997 when fighters from the Gama'at Al-Islamiyah killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians near Luxor.
With much of the West's attention focused on the fighting in Iraq, Al-Qaeda could be sending a message that it is still capable of operating and that it has not been as severely damaged as some Western officials claim. And while the attacks in Taba were directed at Israeli tourists, there are no guarantees that the attackers have placed Egyptian targets off-limits.
The latest edition (#23) of the Al-Qaeda-related journal "Sawt Al-Jihad" obliquely touches on the subject of Egypt in an article by Abd al-Rahman Ibn Salem al-Shamari, where he praises the beheading of an Egyptian hostage in Iraq: "Indeed, if the slaying of an Egyptian spy is the destruction of the idol of [pan-]Arab nationalism, then the beheading of Saudi spies and Saudi soldiers will be the destruction of the idols of patriotism, [pan-]Arab nationalism, and territorial nationalism. [It will be the destruction] of the faith of that land's residents in the concept of citizenship and the destruction of their devotion to a domestic front that includes both Muslims and infidels, [as if] there is no difference between them."
In its introduction to its translation of the article, the Middle East Media Research Institute (http://www.memri.org) explains that "the author emphasized that a Muslim is obligated to be loyal to his religion only, and not to his national identity or to his country, and therefore all non-believers are the same, regardless of whether they are Arabs."
The Lebanese situation is complicated by the presence of Syrian troops in the country despite a United Nations resolution requiring them to leave. At the same time, Lebanese towns and refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley have long been suspected of sending fighters to join the insurgency in Iraq via Syria. A recent car-bomb attack in Beirut and fighting between Iranian-backed Hizballah and the pro-Syrian Amal militia in the south of the country are worrying signs that peace in Lebanon is once again being threatened. If Al-Qaeda begins targeting its enemies in Lebanon, the situation is sure to deteriorate.
Apparently, France takes the threat of a new Al-Qaeda expansion into North Africa seriously. "The Jerusalem Post," in a report on the visit of French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin to Algeria, wrote on 11 October that an African center dedicated to fighting terrorism and terror financing will be announced during de Villepin's visit.