On the terror trail: the threat of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network still looms large but where should we draw the line between fact and propaganda?

Author:Blanche, Ed

Ariel Sharon's claims that Al Qaeda activists are operating in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, fuelling the Intifada and helping Hizbullah prepare for an offensive against Israel once the US war on Iraq begins, are, on the face of it, self-serving. By portraying Israel as a prime Al Qaeda target, Sharon seeks to cement his strategy of convincing the Americans that Israel and the United States stand shoulder-to-shoulder against a common enemy, thus justifying his increasingly destructive campaign to crush the Palestinians. The irony is that Sharon and Osama bin Laden share a common goal when it comes to Israel--both want their constituencies to believe that they are in the same war.

At the same time, by linking Al Qaeda to the Palestinian cause, Sharon undermines the already precarious position of Yasser Arafat, who he and his closest associates want to expel and replace with more compliant Palestinian leaders. The last thing the Palestinians want is Al Qaeda in their midst, giving the Israelis a pretext for intensified military operations in Gaza, now the eye of the Intifada storm. Exactly what links might exist between Hamas and Al Qaeda, both Sunni Muslim organisations, remain obscure, but no concrete ideological or operational connections appear to have been established.

Yet, despite the scepticism with which Sharon's claim was greeted, even by some of his own security officials, the Israelis have been worried for years that Bin Laden would eventually target the Jewish state. Israel's concern has intensified amid the quickening pace of attacks, blamed on Al Qaeda and its affiliates across the globe, in recent months. A deep-seated fear exists that sooner or later Israel will be hit with an attack on the scale of 11 September.

Arafat's crumbling Palestinian Authority (PA), as fearful as the Israelis of penetration by Bin Laden's far-flung network, denied Sharon's claims and countered by accusing Israel's internal intelligence services of setting up a fake Al Qaeda cell in Gaza. The fake cell has been used to trick fundamentalist extremists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad into carrying out missions in the name of Bin Laden's organisation, the PA allege.

In December, the head of the PAs Preventive Security Service (PSS) in Gaza, Rashid Abu Shabak, presented journalists with a young man, his face hidden by a mask, who he identified only as Ibrahim. According to Abu Shabak, Ibrahim had been targeted by Israeli agents nine months previously when he...

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