Bin Laden Deputy Denies Targeting US, Israeli Interests

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Osama bin Laden aide Abu Hafs denied on Monday that the Saudi terror chief was planning fresh attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests within the next two weeks. But Israel and the U.S. are taking no chances.

Abu Hafs' statement came after the Middle East Broadcasting Center, an Arabic satellite station, broadcast a report over the weekend allegedly based on an interview with bin Laden's aides, who said -- in bin Laden's presence -- that "the coming weeks will hold important surprises that will target American and Israeli interests in the world."

The comments attributed to bin Laden's ally and Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahirit were "totally baseless and far from the truth," Abu Hafs, told the Afghan news agency Bakhtar.

Abu Hafs confirmed that a reporter from the MBC had visited a bin Laden base in Afghanistan and had video taped the Saudi militant. But he denied that either bin Laden or any of his supporters had given an interview.

The report on the Saudi-owned MBC - known for its credible reporting - showed pictures of bin Laden's followers clad in black, with their faces covered, executing military training maneuvers.

"For the entire interview, bin Laden was silent, probably because he received instructions from the Taliban not to speak to the press," said the MBC reporter. "He was smiling and was satisfied by the comments of his supporters," he added.

The Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist militia which controls most of Afghanistan, moved to allay international fears in a statement on Sunday by saying that bin Laden would not be permitted to carry out attacks from their soil.

"All activities by Osama are under control. There is no possibility of using Afghan territory against any other country," Taliban foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Usman Sheryar said.

Bin Laden is wanted the U.S. in connection with the twin bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania three years ago. He is also believed to be behind the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in the port of Aden last year.

U.S. highest alert

Nevertheless, the U.S. was already taking precautionary measures late last week against what it believed were viable intelligence warnings of threats. The U.S. military went on its highest state of alert - Condition Delta - in the Persian Gulf and raised its security level up a notch in the Middle East based on a credible but not specific threat linked to Bin Laden.

The State Department also issued a warning on Friday instructing Americans traveling abroad to be particularly vigilant. It said the government had learned that U.S. citizens and interests abroad might be under "increased risk of a terrorist action from extremist groups."

The communique drew attention to an earlier alert, which had warned American citizens that they might be targeted by terrorists from extremists groups linked to Bin Laden's Al-Qaida organization. It noted that in the past such extremists did not differentiate between official and civilian targets.

The information was being taken seriously and government facilities worldwide would remain at "a heightened state of alert," it said.

In the Persian Gulf, Navy minesweepers were put out of the Gulf port in Bahrain, where the U.S. 5th fleet is headquartered. The aircraft carrier USS Constellation and other vessels had already gone to sea.

A Marine Corps training exercise in Jordan was cut short over the weekend and the contingent of Marines were returned to their ships. According to a Jordanian official the exercise, which involved about 800 Americans, had been postponed indefinitely.

The State Department warning was issued one day after the U.S. indicted 14 individuals for murder and conspiracy in connection with the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers military barracks in Saudi Arabia.

Monday is the fifth anniversary of that attack, in which 19 American servicemen were killed and 372 wounded. But the government said it was not aware of a specific threat in reaction to the indictment.

Israel taking threat seriously

Israel is also "taking seriously" the threat of attack by Al-Qaida, said counter-terrorism expert Yoram Schweitzer, researcher at the Israel-based International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. "The potential [for attacks from that source] is there all the time."

Nevertheless, Schweitzer maintains the greatest danger is not from one terror attack - even though hundreds of people could be killed - but from the fact that Bin Laden is spreading his ideology worldwide through the use of local dissidents.

"Bin Laden is less dangerous [than he is presenting himself to be]," Schweitzer said in a telephone interview on Monday. "But the phenomenon that he's representing is dangerous [and he is] trying to spread it all over the world."

Al-Qaida "attracts, absorbs, trains and supports" local terror cells, he said. The militants are then sent to Afghanistan for military training and indoctrination and then they go out on their own to carry his message.

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said on Monday that a coalition of Palestinian, Shi'ite Muslim and Bin Laden-affiliated terrorist organizations had been created recently to take action against Israel.

Addressing several hundred world Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Ben-Eliezer added that Bin Laden was trying to infiltrate Israel by using local residents and emissaries.

Israel's chief of military intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Malka revealed earlier in a television interview that intelligence had recently prevented an attack planned by Al-Qaida.

Bin Laden has tried in the past and will try again in the future to infiltrate into Israel and he may even succeed, Malka said.

"He will try to do it via an attempt to infiltrate into Israel or to enlist people in the [disputed] territories. He will try to make use of various countries around us from which to infiltrate, and he will try various creative means," he added.