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Israel: Authorities dismantle 'terror cell' planning U.S. Embassy attack

By Ben Wedeman. Michael Schwartz and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
updated 7:07 PM EST, Wed January 22, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "I don't think it is credible. It may have been aspirational," an analyst says
  • Israel's intelligence agency says a three-man operation was planning a coordinated attack
  • Among the targets were the U.S. Embassy, Jerusalem Convention Center, the agency said
  • Iyad Halil Mohammad Abu Sara was one of the alleged operatives, authorities said

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israel has broken up an al Qaeda terror cell that planned a coordinated attack that included bombing the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israeli authorities said Wednesday.

Three men -- two from Jerusalem and one from the West Bank -- have been arrested in connection with the plot that called for a double suicide bombing targeting the embassy and the Jerusalem Convention Center, according to Israel's Shin Bet intelligence agency.

It is the second time in recent months that authorities claim to have halted an al Qaeda attack planned by Palestinian militants, according to Israeli media. In November, authorities claimed three Palestinians with ties to al Qaeda were killed by Israeli troops during a gunfight in the West Bank, according to the reports.

The Israeli intelligence agency alleged Wednesday Iyad Halil Mohammad Abu Sara of East Jerusalem is "the relevant member" of the three-man operation, a statement released by Shin Bet's media office said.

Abu Sara was allegedly recruited by al Qaeda to go to Syria for training and return to Israel, where he was to connect with others who were to have entered the country using forged Russian documents, the statement said.

The arrests came as peace talks were under way in Geneva, Switzerland, to end the Syrian civil war, a conflict where violence has been spilled into neighboring countries and raised fears it could destabilize the region.

Chief among those fears is that the chaos generated by the conflict has allowed an al Qaeda-linked group to take hold in Syria, attracting foreign fighters who can strike neighboring countries.

Israel fears outcome of Syrian fighting

While authorities did not say how far along Abu Sara and the others allegedly were in carrying out the plot, the intelligence agency claims it seized computer files sent from Gaza that instructed Abu Sara in the manufacturing of explosives.

Abu Sara allegedly mapped routes to the convention center and had checked out the U.S. Embassy.

He also was accused of planning an shooting rampage on a bus going from Jerusalem to Ma'ale Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. As part of the plan, according to Shin Bet, the attack would include shooting out the wheels of the bus in an attempt to overturn it.

Former CIA operative and national security analyst Robert Baer questioned the credibility of the threat posed by Abu Sara.

"I don't think it is credible. It may have been aspirational," he said on CNN's The Lead. "They may have had the plans on the books and sent people here and there, but al Qaeda can't operate in the West Bank or Jerusalem or Gaza. It is too difficult for them ... The Israelis have the place too well wired for them to get away with this."

The United States is working to corroborate the details, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

"We've been in contact with the Israeli government regarding these threats. We're closely monitoring the situation," she said.

"...I don't have independent corroboration of some of those specifics. Our folks are working on that right now. But because this was Israeli information, I'd point you to them for the corroboration. But obviously we're looking into it as well. I don't have reason to believe it's not true. I just don't have independent verification."

Ben Wedeman and Michael Schwartz reported from Jerusalem, and Chelsea J. Carter reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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