- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2011

U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating reports that al Qaeda-aligned groups played a key role in the deadly commando-style attack near the Israeli resort town of Eilat last week.

A U.S. government assessment of the incident Thursday concludes that either the Palestinian group Popular Resistance Committees or the Gaza-based Army of Islam (or Jaish al Islam), a Palestinian group sympathetic to al Qaeda, carried out the commando assault and bombing raid that emanated from the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula.

One intelligence official who focuses on al Qaeda said an initial assessment identified a new group, al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, as a key perpetrator of the attack.

“There has been a history of close operational coordination between Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and Jaish al Islam, which is the most important of the al Qaeda affiliates in the Gaza Strip,” said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who now is the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

“There have been al Qaeda affiliates that have gotten into an exchange of fire with Hamas that were not Jaish al Islam, though.”

Mr. Gold added, “These organizations all work together, and Sinai is a place where they all meet.”

U.S. officials told The Washington Times there is no confirmation identifying the attacker conclusively.

One intelligence official who focuses on al Qaeda said the majority of all source intelligence points to al Qaeda.

The Popular Resistance Committees group, formed in 2000 and operated out of Gaza, has at times aligned with Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist group that is the sovereign of Gaza.

Over the weekend, however, as more information was gathered about the attack near Eilat, some Israeli official sources also began to acknowledge that a group known as Jaish al Islam, an extremist Muslim organization, also played a role in the attack.

If confirmed, the involvement of a new Sinai-based al Qaeda group would be yet another extremist group aligned with the goals of the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that spawned more formal affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and North Africa.

One of the intelligence officials said the recent attack also highlighted how Egypt’s military government is losing control of the Sinai Peninsula, the strategically important territory that Israel captured from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War and then returned to Egyptian control after the two states signed the Camp David Accords in 1979.

Gunmen launched the midday raid after moving in from the Sinai near Eilat and ambushed a civilian Israeli bus. The attackers also detonated a roadside bomb that blew up military vehicles responding to the carnage.

In all, eight civilians were killed by up to 24 attackers armed with automatic weapons, suicide bomb belts and grenades. Five of the attackers were killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli soldiers.

The method used in an assault-style raid evoked al Qaeda-backed attack on Mumbai in November 2008 that killed 168 people. It also set off a new round of fighting between Israel and Palestinians over the weekend.

Story Continues →