Retired intelligence officer talks about Al Qaeda threats to United States and Israel

Posted Sept. 19, 2012, at 11 a.m.

A “graduate of the [1973] Yom Kippur War” presented a detailed analysis of terrorist threats facing the United States and Israel during a Sept. 9 lecture at Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor.

Retired Israeli army colonel Jonathan Fighel spoke about “The Arab Spring: Al Qaeda’s Threats to the U.S. and Israel.” Nineteen when he fought during the Yom Kippur War, Fighel served in the Israeli army until 1996, when he retired and became an internationally recognized terrorism expert.

Drawing upon his background as an intelligence officer and a senior research scholar at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism, Fighel covered several topics related to current developments in the Middle East.

For the past three years, Israel has faced “a very unique situation it has never faced before,” Fighel told an audience numbering approximately 100 people. Israel “is facing a series of crises … that may lead into an escalation,” he said.

He initially discussed Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and that government’s persistent threats to destroy Israel. “There is a need to explore more harsh sanctions” against Iran, and such an effort “has to be led by the United States,” Fighel said in Hebrew-accented English.

International attention has recently focused on a possible Israeli military strike against Iranian facilities possibly related to producing nuclear weapons. Because such facilities are scattered across Iran, this attack would be “an endeavor that may take months” and would require repeated air and missile strikes, Fighel said.

He believes that Israel lacks the capability to sustain such a long-term assault. “Israel is not a superpower” with carriers in the Persian Gulf or sufficient numbers of bunker-busting bombs, Fighel said. To ensure success against Iran, the United States military would need to be involved.

There “has to be an international effort similar to the First Gulf War,” Fighel said.

The Iranian threat hangs heavy with Israelis; according to Fighel, Israel “is the only country in the world” facing “an existential threat” that places the nation “on the verge of potential annihilation.”

Turning to Al Qaeda, Fighel said that the United States and Israel confront “a unique combination of terrorism” that is “much more radical” and “religious” than such historical terrorist organizations as Fatah. He noted that “Al Qaeda fighters” are finding refuge in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt, especially in the last country’s Sinai Peninsula.

In the Sinai, Al Qaeda fighters “are embedded with the Bedouin tribes” long neglected by the Egyptian government, Fighel said. Bedouins are natural smugglers, he indicated, and Iran has created arms-smuggling networks that extend into the Sinai Peninsula.

Al Qaeda cells “are mushrooming” in the Gaza Strip, which is currently controlled by Hamas, Fighel said. He referred to recent terrorist attacks from the Sinai and Gaza that likely involved Al Qaeda fighters; one attack resulted in the deaths of eight Israelis, but the second attack caused no Israeli casualties.

“We have nothing with Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda has something with us,” he said.

For Western countries, while Al Qaeda may attempt attacks similar to 9/11, a greater threat lies in Al Qaeda recruiting “home-grown terrorists” who blend well with other citizens, according to Fighel. Such efforts are underway in France, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere.

“The main threat here in the United States, [is] the home-grown terrorist,” he said.

Defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq by American and allied military forces, Al Qaeda has regrouped else-where, particularly in Yemen. There the terrorist organization “became very powerful” and exported to other terrorist groups “new technologies” and “the capabilities to conduct” attacks against the United States, Fighel said.

“Yemen is much more dangerous today for Americans [living] here in the United States,” he warned.

Then Fighel turned to the “Arab Spring,” which began in 2011. He believes that such a beautiful name” presages “the beginning of an Islamist winter” as Al Qaeda “exploits ungoverned zones” in Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria, where Al Qaeda fighters are battling the Bashar al-Assad government.

Al Qaeda flourishes where national governments are weak or non-existent, as in the Sinai and Yemen. “The Al Qaeda elements will govern their local communities” when there is no alternative government that can military deal with the terrorist group, Fighel said.

Based on evidence to date, the Western definition of democracy has generally not caught hold in nations affected by the Arab Spring, except for Tunisia, Fighel commented. “In the democratic process” undertaken in several Arab countries since spring 2011, “radicalism generally prevails,” he said.

“Democracy doesn’t exist in the Muslim Brotherhood vocabulary,” he said, referring to the political party that now governs Egypt.

The “Palestinian issue … is unresolved,” an issue that “may lead to a new burst of violence,” Fighel said. No Israeli politicians should expect West Bank Palestinians to remain quiet forever, he said in an indirect reference to past intifadas that engulfed the West Bank and Gaza.

Before ending his lecture, he stressed that “I don’t want to sound like Armageddon is coming.” In Israel, the next 12 months “is being regarded as [a] junction year, a very important year,” Fighel said. Israel relies on American friendship and support; the relationship between Israel and the United States “is very, very important,” he said.

“Israel needs the support of all Jews and all Israel-lovers,” including “in the Christian community,” Fighel stated.

During a follow-up Q and A session, a few people asked Fighel how and when the Israeli government would respond to various threats, particularly Iran’s. He stressed that he is “a private citizen” who “does not represent the government of Israel”; his assessments were based solely on his background and experience.

Fighel’s appearance was co-sponsored by Congregation Beth Israel and The Shilouv Project, which “is a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening the ties between the Christian community and Israel,” said Dr. Amy Lippman, a Shilouv Project co-founder and part-time Maine resident. “Shilouv, a Hebrew word meaning ‘integration’ or ‘combination,’ represents the joining of these two partner communities in the support and defense of Israel.”

For more information about The Shilouv Project, log onto www.shilouv.org.

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