FBI police car (illustration)
FBI police car (illustration)iStock

In mid-2002, as the US was still shaking from the trauma of the Twin Towers' fall, the US intelligence community working with Israeli and European intelligence agencies, foiled an Al Qaeda terror attack against several youth clubs in Tel Aviv, Ynet reported.

The attack was in its final stages of planning and almost ready to be carried out, the site said, adding that Al Qaeda's leadership expected that if the attacks were carried out, at least 200 Israelis would die.

Until now, Al Qaeda had been known to have made only one significant plan to harm Israel.

The tipoff came from the FBI's Ali Soufan, who in 2005 was in charge of the Al Qaeda files. Soufan retired from the FBI in 2005.

In an interview published Friday with Yediot Aharonot, Soufan explained how a surprise admission from a wanted terrorist led to intelligence authorities' success in foiling previously-unknown plans for a largescale Tel Aviv attack.

In June 2001, Richard Reid, also known as "the Shoe Bomber," arrived in Israel to examine the possibility of blowing up an El Al plane using an explosive device placed in his shoes. Reid return to his Al Qaeda commanders and in light of Israel's aviation security procedures recommended that the terror group choose a different target, which he attempted to blow up in December.

US intelligence, which was hit hard by the failures which led to the attack, began to strike back. In March 2002, the US succeeded in catching Zayn al-Abidin Mohammad Hussein, also known as Abu Zubaydah, an Arab from the Palestinian Authority who entered and was released from an Israeli prison, and later joined the mujihadeen in Afghanistan, becoming a senior Al Qaeda official.

When Abu Zubaydah was caught, Soufan was one of the first to interrogate him. Soufan attempted to publish his notes from that interrogation, but the CIA did not allow it; the gag order was only lifted now, and the information was presented, for the first time, by Ynet.

Soufan recalled to Ynet: "When we caught Abu Zubaydah and I went for the first time for an interrogation at the 'black site' where he was held, the first thing I told him was, 'You're such a professional, and so careful. What mistake do you think you made that allowed us to succeed in capturing you?'"

"Abu Zubaydah thought for a moment and answered, 'The answer is completely clear. The Israelis got hold of our contacts ahead of our coming action.'

"That's how he revealed to us something that we had no idea about - that they are planning a multi-site terror attack in Israel, in several clubs, and they estimate that they will succeed in causing about 200 people to die at the same time."

Soufan also said that an Al Qaeda emissary had coordinated the attack from Europe, and was due to arrive in Israel in order to manage it. Abu Zubaydah's surprising admission led to urgent alerts being sent to several intelligence services, including, obviously, those in Israel. The commander was arrested and the attack was foiled.

"Luckily, we succeeded in arresting them at the last second," Soufan said.

The full article appears in Yediot Aharonot's weekend magazine.