Israel has not been a prime target on Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden's terrorist agenda, but Israeli officials worry that could soon change.
Israeli terror experts such as Maj. Gen. Amos Malka, the chief of army intelligence, said recently that bin Laden is gearing up for action against Israel by sending members of his terror organization to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or by recruiting followers in the Palestinian territories.
If Israel until now has not figured prominently on bin Laden's terror map, these experts say, it is not because he doesn't want to hurt Israel, but simply because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not his first priority.
But that situation could soon change, according to Israeli security officials cited by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. These officials say bin Laden may become increasingly motivated to strike Israel because of growing criticism from within his fundamentalist Muslim organization regarding his failure to support the Palestinians in their struggle against the Jewish State.
Bin Laden's launching pad for Holy War is Al Qaida -- Arabic for "the base" -- his own private, highly effective terror organization.
Al Qaida's primary goal is "to unite all Muslims and establish a government that follows the rule of the caliphs," according to the group's own words.
The group's fight, therefore, is not specifically against Israel but the entire non-Islamic world.
Like other Islamic fundamentalist leaders, bin Laden perceives the Western powers as successors to the Crusaders. He perceives himself as the successor to the great Muslim warrior Saladin, who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187 and kicked the "infidels" off holy Muslim soil.
Several months ago, the Israeli press came out with banner headlines disclosing that bin Laden followers were trying to establish a foothold in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In June 2000, according to recently released details, Israeli security agents arrested a Palestinian, Nabil Ukal, 27, a resident of the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza. Ukal, who left Gaza in October 1997 to study religion in Pakistan, returned to the region the next year as Al Qaida's first agent in the territories.
Under orders from a senior member in the organization, he was sent to the territories to set up a paramilitary infrastructure for operations that were to include Israeli Arabs.
Upon his return to Gaza, Ukal is known to have met with the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Yassin gave Ukal $10,000 for his activities.
When Israel brought charges against Ukal after his arrest, he was indicted for planning to carry out a large-scale attack in the center of the country.
This was not the first time that bin Laden operatives were arrested in the region.
At the end of 1999, Jordan arrested a number of fundamentalist activists, graduates of bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan, who allegedly plotted to attack Israeli and American tourists visiting Israel and Jordan for the millennium.
Only a few, carefully selected journalists have so far been given the opportunity to meet with bin Laden in his hideout somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Al Jazeera Television, the popular Arab television network that broadcasts from the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, recently was granted a lengthy exclusive interview with bin Laden that sheds light on the psychology of the most wanted terrorist in history.
In the best of Arab tradition, the interview was held in a tent, with both interviewer and interviewee sitting on carpets.
With his rifle nearby, bin Laden enunciated his belligerent worldview in a soft-spoken manner.
"There are two sides to this conflict," he said, with a half-smile. "America, Israel, and 'Crusader' countries like England that want to rule the world, on one hand -- and Islam on the other hand."
As his words made clear, bin Laden's world is conveniently divided into "us" and "them."
Because, according to his view, the West wants to control the rest of the world, it is legitimate to hate westerners and fight them.
By extension, according to his own statements, "Every American who tries to hurt Islam is a legitimate target."
According to Western intelligence officials, Al Qaida's base is located in Afghanistan, where bin Laden settled five years ago after he was expelled from Sudan.
From there, its tentacles stretch all over the world.
Al Qaida is thought to be involved in a number of international conflicts, having given support to Muslim fighters in Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Somalia, Yemen and Kosovo.
Bin Laden is happy that at least one Muslim nation has a nuclear capability.
In his interview with Al Jazeera Television, he spoke with pride that Pakistan has an "Islamic bomb."
"We don't need to apologize for having a nuclear potential," he said in the interview. "It is our right. With Israel in possession of hundreds of nuclear warheads, with American and Western nuclear hegemony in the world, it is definitely our right."
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