Attacks in Kenya Signal Al Qaeda's Expanding War ; Bin Laden May Be Exploiting US-Israel Ties to Trigger Broader Muslim Backlash

Article excerpt

Osama bin Laden has long promised that he'll punish Americans in "blood and treasure" for US support of Israel, sanctions on Iraq, and deployment of military forces in Saudi Arabia. But though Mr. bin Laden has targeted Israel as enemy No. 1, he has never before targeted Israelis.

Now, intelligence officials and terror experts say it looks increasingly likely that Al Qaeda was responsible for Thursday's attacks on Israelis in Mombasa, Kenya, in which 16 people died. They also say that bin Laden probably at least influenced Palestinians in their attacks inside Israel that day, and that he may be getting assistance from the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah group in Lebanon.

If true, this could signal an expanded war against the West, an attempt to ignite a clash of civilizations by inciting and including more terror groups under the Al Qaeda umbrella in bin Laden's own version of an evil axis. The combination of Al Qaeda's operational abilities, matched with the fervor of radical Islamists from Pakistan to Chechnya to Somalia, already pose a formidable adversary. And it could get worse.

"Since the 1998 bombings of the US embassies [in Kenya and Tanzania], he's been striving to broaden the struggle to the largest constituency possible," says Bruce Hoffman, a terror expert at the RAND Corp. "He's always positioned himself as the defender of Muslims everywhere." Bin Laden's newer strategy of hitting soft targets - because they're more difficult for governments to protect and because of the unparalleled economic damage 9/11 achieved - probably led him back to Kenya and the Israeli target, experts say.

Making Israel the hot issue

Moreover, the recent spike in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and their plight returning to the fore on the international stage, may have presented the right moment. Bin Laden "doesn't want to lose ground," Mr. Hoffman says. "So Israel and Palestine becomes the hot issue for him to demonstrate his relevance to world affairs."

In fact, according to Hoffman and others, bin Laden hopes to exploit the US relationship with Israel, and trigger a broader Muslim backlash in what is already deemed the most sympathetic of issues to Muslims around the world - US support for Israelis against Palestinians. By spilling Israeli blood, the logic goes, bin Laden may push Israel and the US closer in the "war on terror" - and in the process, gain broader Muslim support, and more recruits for his war on the West.

On the most recent audiotape released by Al Jazeera television last month, bin Laden accuses Bush of "killing our sons in Iraq" and conspiring with Israel to bomb "houses that shelter old people, women, and children with US-made aircraft in Palestine. …


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