Facing Increased Threats From al-Qaeda, Israel Targets Online Battlefield

Cyber monitoring helped Israel apprehend the three suspects accused of allegedly plotting to blow up the US embassy in Tel Aviv

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Israeli agents caught on early to the alleged plot to detonate suicide bombs at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv and a Jerusalem convention center. The three Palestinians accused of planning the attacks are said to have been reeled in by the main organizer via the internet. Claiming to be an operative of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organizer allegedly approached the men on forums favored by advocates of international jihad – and watched closely by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service that on Wednesday revealed the arrests it had made beginning in December.

“This is the battlefield,” a senior security official tells TIME, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “The battlefield is the Internet.”

In fact, the official said, staffing across Shin Bet’s “cyber brigades” devoted to scouring all things electronic for evidence of terrorist planning has increased by 10 per cent in the last two years alone. The area is the focus of growing budgets.

But the alleged plot, which officials described as the most serious yet by a group associated with al-Qaeda, indicates that from the jihadi point of view, the battlefield is also Israel. Islamist extremists are active on two of its borders – Egypt’s lawless Sinai peninsula, and Syria, where one of the suspects told security officials he was going to be sent there for training, according to officials and published reports.

“The point is, the time between recruitment and execution of the terror attack is very short, and the method of the work is only by the Internet,” says Lior Akerman, a former senior official at Shin Bet. Akerman says the alleged plot was detected at an “early stage” and the investigation proceeded “very quickly, two months, maybe less, two and a half months from recruitment to the arrest.” But already time was apparently running short. The mastermind had sent instructions on assembling bombs to his recruits by e-mail, Ackerman notes, adding that experience showed that Palestinian militants can learn how to prepare explosives in as little as two weeks. “If we did not find them, they could probably have executed their mission.”

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates present a challenge to Israel’s security establishment. The country’s military is by far the region’s strongest, and construction is nearly finished on formidable, hi-tech fences along both the Egyptian and Syrian borders. But not  all threats can be contained physically.

“It’s a matter of contagion,” says Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Hariri, an analyst at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya. “The ideas are in the air. They pass through the mosques, through the internet, through TV stations that act as electronic mosques.”

The audience includes young Palestinians already angered by the century-old conflict with Israel over land both peoples claim. Other Palestinians may be influenced by relatives who travel to Syria to fight — an Israeli government think tank says some 50 have joined the fight — and either return on visits or otherwise communicate jihadist philosophy through emails or calls, according to the senior security official.  The official said the scenario has already resulted in arrests “when we knew it. But we don’t always know it.”

The danger is that the Palestinian identity is shared by many living inside Israel, including 1.4 million so–called “Arab Israelis” who did not flee during the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, plus around 300,000 residents of East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967. In the al-Qaeda case, two of the three suspects are said to have had East Jerusalem residency permits, which allowed them to move freely throughout Israel, as well as in and out of the West Bank. Officials say their handler, who identified himself online only by a nom de guerre, was at a keyboard in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian enclave walled off from Israel since 2005. What’s more, Israel’s decades of experience detecting terror plans came against Palestinian groups working in organized groups for a nationalist cause. Plots could be tracked both electronically and through informants, and deterred by overwhelming military power that includes assassinations of leaders.

A group like al-Qaeda is harder both to locate and to intimidate; it has no fixed address, and a philosophy bordering on nihilism. Israeli officials put it under the heading of  “global jihad,” for violent groups that favor establishing a global Islamic state. The definition takes in assorted groups operating in the Sinai and about a third of some 100,000 rebels fighting in Syria, according to Israeli military intelligence.

But if the battleground, for now, is the Internet, privately, Israeli security officials express the same concerns leaders of the U.S. National Security Agency once voiced in the 90s about keeping up with communications technology that changes as fast as the latest Android app — not to mention the challenge of detecting what to focus upon in the torrent of bits.

“They buy the best technology, we detect them, and try to use something smarter,” says Akerman. “Afterwards, they try something new. This is all about cyber.”